As teenagers armed with paintbrushes swarmed her house on a hot and humid Tuesday morning in Albany, Louisiana, June Roth recalled how she once enjoyed keeping up her yard and home on her own. But that was before cancer invaded her body — first thyroid cancer in 2009, then ovarian cancer in 2011, a disease she is still fighting.
“It feels great,” Roth said of seeing service-minded youth from World Changers working with The Ginger Ford Northshore Fuller Center for Housing to improve her home. “I am so grateful. This house has been needing to be painted for over 15 years. It’s been a long time since it was painted.”
Her voice stolen by the thyroid cancer that invaded her throat and lymph nodes, Roth sits her tired body in a soft chair and speaks through an electronic voice box about how she wishes she had the energy to take care of her home or even just to walk the yard and toss overgrown Spanish moss higher into her trees as she used to.
Ten miles to the east, Audrey Ricks of nearby Hammond smiled as she watched teens paint and work on her home of more than 50 years — a property she nearly was forced to abandon after a termite infestation. She wishes her legs would allow her to paint alongside them — or better yet just to someday know the joy of going fishing again.
In neighboring Ponchatoula, Ollie May Saltzman came to the rescue when the youth team working on her home realized they were short on crucial materials Wednesday morning — they didn’t have enough Bibles for their morning devotion and for the World Changers, the Bible is the most important building material of all.
“They’re good Christian boys and girls,” said Saltzman, who retrieved five Bibles from her home for the teens to use. “They’re just really great kids, and I have enjoyed them thoroughly. They’re having fun but still working hard.”
At 30 houses in varying states of decay in Hammond, Albany, Springfield, Tickfaw, Independence and Ponchatoula, homeowners are having their properties repaired and their spirits lifted by more than 250 World Changers youths who are partnering with the Ginger Ford Northshore Fuller Center for the second straight year. They also have worked this week at The Fuller Store and a local church — bringing the total projects for the week to 32, a record for Ginger Ford Northshore.
“When they get here, they basically have two goals,” Ginger Ford Northshore Fuller Center Director Tamara Danel said. “One of their goals is to serve the community by building wheelchair ramps or painting and improving the houses for low-income and elderly and disabled. But they also want to get to know the homeowners and the neighbors in the community and share their faith and talk about God. It’s really awesome to have them here because their mission fits in perfectly with The Fuller Center’s mission.
“They come with the right frame of mind, the right spirit — they have a spirit of service,” Danel added. “It just works. They like to start their day with prayer just like The Fuller Center does. They rely on their faith to get the job done. They have a positive attitude, and they’re just willing to work hard and see these projects come to fruition. I know that there are a lot of young people out there who want to serve. World Changers and The Fuller Center for Housing give these young people an opportunity to serve and do something valuable and productive with their time.”
The youths pick up a few construction skills during these service weeks, but the main thing they are building is faith and spirit. That is why they are willing to spend $250 for the opportunity to serve others in the heat and humidity of southern Louisiana. And they do so with joy.
“It’s not necessarily tons of fun to be out in the humidity and in the heat, but our kids have had such a positive attitude all week — no grumbling, no complaining,” said Kate Ford, an associate youth minister from Ridgecrest Baptist Church in Springfild, Missouri. “They’ve been awesome. They’ve really made it about Jesus Christ and serving people to make him known.”
All about partnerships
Hosting more than 250 youth and adult leaders in a location the size of the Hammond-Ponchatoula area requires a tremendous amount of support from the community — including material, financial and spiritual support, especially from churches like First Baptist Church of Ponchatoula, which has opened its doors to house and feed the World Changers, and Macedonia Baptist Church of Hammond, which hosted a worship service and huge block party Wednesday evening at which World Changers were able to mingle and have fun with residents near the church, an area that includes a few work sites.
“In this city, they enjoy seeing the World Changers come in,” said Eric Houseworth, youth minister at Southern Crescent Baptist Church of McDonough, Georgia, which brought 24 youths to work this week. “The community we’re in right here, doing this block party that we have going on, to see people come out and see the pastors getting involved is just a great encouragement to say we’re from all over the place, but we worship the same God and we come together for one purpose — to worship Jesus, the savior.”
Hammond Mayor Mayson Foster, the city’s chief executive since 2003, saw the difference the World Changers made in the area during their visit last year and has for many years witnessed the life-changing difference The Fuller Center has made for families in the area who needed a helping hand up from miserable living conditions.
“It feels really great to have them, and I have had a chance to visit with the kids as they’ve been doing the job,” he said. “What’s really great is they’re focused on their work. They’re not here for any other reason other than to serve the Lord and serve the Lord’s purposes and helping the poor. So I appreciate them being here, every one of them.”
“It takes a lot of logistics,” Danel said. “The community has been very supportive. And I think that as this partnership continues to grow that it will get bigger and better every year. This is only our second year to host World Changers and we’re one of the few Fuller Centers in the country that’s had this opportunity. One thing I’m really excited about is connecting World Changers to more Fuller Centers throughout this country because it’s such a great fit and such a great partnership.
“The World Changers are trying to accomplish the same mission that The Fuller Center does,” she added. “They’re trying to serve and meet the needs of low-income, elderly and disabled folks.”
Houseworth has been taking to the pulpit each night to help the teens understand the deeper meaning of the work they have been doing all week. Meanwhile, his wife Amy served as the project manager, getting the youth fired up each morning with her bullhorn. They agree that partnering with The Fuller Center has made each of their jobs more efficient this week.
“Anytime that a group of teenagers can work on a house with a homeowner and they can have that contact and they can have that ministry opportunity and they can see the difference in that person’s life, it makes all the difference in the world,” Houseworth said. “With The Fuller Center, not only do they take care of details and not only are they very organized at getting things set up for us, but they have that interaction with the homeowners. To have them involved is so key.”
Faith-driven and Christ-centered
World Changers, an initiative of Lifeway Christian Resources, is in its 23rd summer of working to improve substandard housing. This year, more than 15,000 students are working in more than 60 communities from Puerto Rico to Canada. Since 1990, the initiative has involved more than 300,000 students.
“We hope that they learn to be humble and that they learn that there are people who are less fortunate than them, and we hope that they learn to serve — just as Jesus served for us,” Mission and Communications Specialist Megan Tillman said. “Jesus was a carpenter, and that’s what we’re doing. We’re here to share God’s love, so we hope that they would learn to share God’s love and love people the way God does.”
Taylor Ussery, who attends Southern Crescent Baptist Church with the Houseworths in McDonough, Georgia, made this same trip last year and was eager to return.
“I really want to help spread the hands and feet of Jesus and just help this community out because they desperately need it here in Ponchatoula,” he said. “I want to learn how to do some construction stuff, but really I want to get closer with Jesus Christ and really just take this mission back to Henry County and really just do the Lord’s work there and just be a light to those who are in darkness.”
Taylor Whyte will not be going home with any blisters this afternoon. She is an encourager — literally, as that’s her job at the home of Donald Neal, where World Changers are building a new ramp for the 61-year-old who was badly injured when he fell from the second story of a construction project in 1985.
“It’s encouraging to me as an encourager to have young kids that are willing to do it just because they love Jesus and they want to serve,” said Whyte, of Mulberry Springs Baptist Church in Hallsville, Texas. “They don’t know these people or anything about these people. It’s not just the working but also talking with people and letting them know why we’re here.”
Whyte took a break from the work site to walk around Neal’s neighborhood to chat with local residents and share the Gospel. Because The Fuller Center is a Christian organization, the young volunteers who have paid an average of $250 each to work with World Changers are happy to know they can mix their service work with their passion of sharing the Gospel.
“We wanted to create an opportunity for our students and really serve as the hands and feet of Jesus Christ,” said Kate Ford, Associate Youth Minister at Ridgecrest Baptist Church in Springfield, Missouri, one of eight states represented on this trip. “Ultimately, that’s what we feel called to do. It’s not necessarily tons of fun to be out in the humidity and in the heat, but our kids have had such a positive attitude all week — no grumbling, no complaining. They’ve been awesome. They’ve really made it about Jesus Christ and serving people to make him known.”
Ford said the lessons learned this week — and in the six weeks of training leading up to it — should be put to work in the students’ own communities long after this week is over.
“I just hope that we as a youth group go back to Springfield refreshed and renewed by the Holy Spirit,” she said. “It’s an awesome time for us to serve and continue that once we leave and are no longer doing construction in the heat and humidity, to remember to do it every day — share the Gospel and love people.”