Last week was Mission Service Project week in Hidalgo County and a total of 192 people composing 11 different teams came from Methodist Churches across the state, joined by one team from Oklahoma City, to spend the week repairing the homes of needy families in the area.
“I am proud to be serving at the church that founded this great service project 35 years ago,” stated Pastor Bill Duke of the First United Methodist Church in Mission. “It has made a difference in the lives of many Valley families during that time.”
Mission Service Project had its beginnings so many years ago when Ardie Vance, who was youth director of the church, took a group of her students to Kentucky to work on the Appalachian Project. The group enjoyed the adventure but at the same time, they realized they lived an area with many of the same problems the people there had. Why not do something at home instead of traveling to Kentucky?
Vance spent the next year planning a Mission Service Project with the help of her friends Betty Bundy and Sharon Gray. The ladies held interviews for needy families to determine which families would receive the help. It was a difficult procedure because there were so many families who needed help.
The project started small with just a few local teams participating. All events took place at the FUMC in Mission. Out of town teams were sheltered at the church and the ladies of the church planned meals for each day. It began to expand with teams from the Presbyterian and Catholic churches joining in. The local Catholic Church was inspired to start a similar program of their own after a couple of years. Churches from cities further away came and took their place. The project outgrew the church space and eventually outgrew the ability of the Mission FUMC to handle. Although the name Mission Service Project was kept in honor of the church that started it, the project was taken over by the FUMC of McAllen, with larger facilities. Today it is a project of El Valle United Methodist Church District, which is part of the Rio Texas Project. For the past 11 years, Susan Hellums has been project director.
According to Hellums, there are 11 churches represented working on 15 sites in the Pharr/San Juan/Alamo area this year. One group is from FUMC of Mission. There are 12 adults and team members who have been joined by two youth and sponsors from FUMC of Donna.
There are three teams from the Dallas Ridgewood UMC, and from Prosper, north of Dallas. Tarrytown UMC in Austin has three teams and McAllen UMC has one team. Two teams are from Colonial UMC in San Antonio. Another two teams are from San Marcos UMC. There is also a team from Quail Springs UMC in Oklahoma City.
There have been many changes along the way. Instead of seeking applications and conducting long interviews to see which families qualify, Hellums and the board of directors work with local community directors in organizations such as ARISE (A Resource Serving Equality) in the Rio Grande Valley and Proyecto Azteca, that already know the needs within their communities.
According to Ramona Casas, a director with ARISE, families must be stable, long-term residents of the area. They must own their home, and they may not owe any back taxes on the property.
Another way the MSP has changed is that youth under 18 are not allowed to work on roofs due to OSHA regulations. They may not do electrical work or plumbing. If there is a need, MSP will hire a professional, but it is very costly. Consequently, MSP tries to select projects that do not need these types of repairs.
On June 14, the two San Marcos teams were working side-by-side on two different homes in Las Milpas. The team from Mission was working on a home nearby.
Several young girls were painting the side of a home where several damaged boards had been replaced. They had already installed new windows in the wall they where they were working. Emma Laffere, group sponsor has been bringing teams to Mission Service Project for 17 years.
Laffere introduced her oldest crewmember, 80-year-old “Mr. Bill” Nicholas who has been to 15 of the 17 service projects the youth of his church have attended. A former teacher of 33 years experience, he is also skilled in construction and has taught the youth from San Marcos many of the skills they need.
When asked why he kept coming to Mission Service Project,” Mr. Bill stopped and said, ”It is absolutely the most rewarding thing I have ever done.” He said he will continue to come as long as he can.
The group stopped and talked about what Mission Service Project meant to them.
“It is a chance to serve God and help a community that needs help,” said Brianna Pratt, a second year camper.
“It is very hard work, but it is also very rewarding,” said first time camper Madison Gish. “If you want to know just how rewarding it is, come and take part yourself and you will find out.”
“It is really a lot of fun,” added Scott Allen, another first timer.
Since the teams were winding up the day to go to a community dinner provided by ARISE, the Progress Times ventured over to see what was happening. Eva Soto, with ARISE, said there are other groups such as the UM Army, an offshoot of MSP, who now come into the area as well as other religious denominations who had started their own work projects.
“The help our residents get from MSP and other similar camps is very valuable to our community members who have low incomes and cannot afford the materials they need to do the repairs their homes need. Often they do not meet the government guidelines for getting help through government projects. We always have a list of people who need help because when residents of an area see their neighbors getting help, they often come in to see if they would qualify for a similar project,” Soto said.
The most ambitious MSP project this year required replacing sheetrock damaged by rains, along with bathroom and siding repairs. FUMC of Mission tackled this project.
Ceewin Louder, youth director from Quail Springs UMC in Oklahoma City, said this was her team’s first year. Rather than working on houses, they had been assigned to ARISE to help with the children’s summer programs by telling Bible stories using puppets and playing games with the children in the morning. In the afternoon they worked at the lending library or joined another group and helped with painting.
A group of five from Prosper UMC near Dallas were working on a house that needed roofing. The adult sponsors were doing the roof while the youth installed new windows and flooring in two of the rooms. It was their first time to do MSP. The McAllen UMC youth leader, Patrick Littlefield, who asked them “to come down and join the fun,” had inspired their leader.
Sara Orr, youth sponsor from Ridgewood Park in Dallas that brought three teams, grew up in McAllen and participated with the MSP as a youth. This is her 11th year to come to MSP.
“We have gone to other work camps,” said Sara, “but our youth always want to return to MSP.”
The group from FUMC Mission arrived to share their views.
“It’s a great experience, a chance to help others and share God’s word,” said Bethany Duke, a three-year veteran of MSP. The group had been tearing the exterior off a home and replacing a bathroom that had water damage during a flood.
“It’s a great way to make positive changes in someone’s life,” said Thomas Henning, a two-year camper.
Stephanie Crespo, now in her fifth and final year, loves MSP so much that she returns each summer to work even though her family moved to Houston two years ago.
Michael Hembree of Donna, has worked with the Mission team two years. His father, Kelly, is one of the sponsors. A construction worker, he has taught the youth valuable skills in home repairs that they can use throughout their lives.
His wife, Carmen, said not only do you help a family, you learn from them as well, as you develop a relationship during the work week.
Another sponsor, Pete Lopez said the youth had been learning construction skills they can use in the future.
After talking with many of the work campers, dinner was announced and youth lined up to get delicious-smelling hamburgers being cooked on an outdoor grill. All For Him, a Christian Band from El Buen Pastor in Edinburg, was playing music while the youth waited in line for their meal. Afterwards, they would return to their dormitories to get a good nights’ sleep to be ready to go out and work again on their respective projects.
First Presbyterian Church of Mission and St. Peter and St. Paul Episcopal Church provided some of the meals for this year’s volunteers.