“Nana, papa, what happened to your house?” asked Kelli Williams’ grandson, when he saw the devastation Hurricane Florence had unleashed on her North Carolina home.
Williams recounted this story to me as we stood in her kitchen amidst the sound of impact drivers, the smell of spackle, and the chatter of 20 people working to restore her home. I thought to myself, “This is why people go on mission trips!”
Service isn’t new to me, but I’ve never experienced the “summer mission trip.” Loosely defined, a mission trip involves a group of people leaving home with a common goal of positively impacting those on the receiving end.
I served with LutheranHANDS, a Harrisburg-based organization co-founded and run by Jesse Woodrow and his five-member board of directors.
A small organization, LutheranHANDS takes about two mission trips a year and was birthed out of devastating Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when Woodrow, his now-wife and a bunch of their 20-something friends headed to New Orleans. Woodrow said that LutheranHands wasn’t created in one moment, but the idea began with a group of people saying, “Let’s do this.”
Now, it was my turn to do this.
The parking lot was full of luggage, adult leaders, young people and their parents, in various degrees of good-byes, anxious to get going.
I asked Luke Foery, a recent high school graduate from York, why he was going on the trip.
“Why not?” he said. “Work hard, get sweaty, help people out.”
In North Carolina, we arrived at a facility run by Baptists on Mission. The organization had recently renovated an old middle school and transformed it into the mission control of relief work.
The well-appointed dorm sleeping area harkened back to summer camp, with cubbies to hold our belongings. We had on-site showers (a luxury!), common areas for socializing and a large cafeteria.
I would act as an adult leader on team six, keeping track of youth, assigning tasks to the team, and, perhaps most importantly, making sure the crew drank enough water. The weather for this trip would be square—90 degrees, 90 percent humidity.
After a 7 a.m. proper Southern breakfast, including biscuits and grits (I could get used to that), we headed to our worksite. A double-wide trailer with a cinder block foundation, the house had been gutted to the studs and floor joists. Like many houses in Duplin County, a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) trailer, where the owner now resided, sat in the backyard. Nine months out from Florence, most people were not yet back in their homes.
Supplies for our site had been ordered, but had not yet arrived. Our work crew leader, Kevin Kincaid, announced our working motto, “Semper Gumby” (“Always Flexible”), as we were moved to another worksite until our supplies arrived—two days later.
Mission trips always involve flexibility. Coordinating worksites and large groups takes time. Supplies and tools frequently aren’t available when needed.
Look at That
Arianna Heidingsfelder was especially adaptable, spending her 16th birthday in North Carolina. Fingers and elbows dappled with paint and decorated with her a birthday sash, she was all smiles enjoying a birthday cake.
I asked her about missing her birthday at home.
“At first, I was kind of disappointed because, two years ago in New Orleans [another LutheranHANDS trip], I had my 14th birthday there,” she said. “But I come to help people and make new relationships and make some stronger.”
Her birthday gift? On this trip, she was painting rather than mudding drywall.
Not only young people joined LutheranHANDS. Kathy Panther, 67, looking for more to do during her retirement, was on her first mission trip.
“It reminds me of camp as a kid and the feeling of getting together and working on a team,” she said.
Crews worked on houses in various stages of repair.
Penn State sophomore Matt Little served as a work leader at a demolition site. He led his group with the battle cry, “We have two hammers. Let’s get to work!” The team tore out drywall and insulation and loaded a monstrous pile of debris into a dumpster under the shade-free, blazing North Carolina sun.
The Williams’ home was further along than many. Veronica Angus, using previous mission trip experience and some extra guidance, taped and spackled a 12-foot drywall seam. We celebrated as she announced, “Look at that sexy seam!”
The crew spent much time talking with Williams and her husband. Woodrow stressed that the purpose of this trip was not only to “get stuff done,” but also to create relationships with our homeowners and one another. We were encouraged to listen to their stories.
Williams said that, when the Cape Fear River began rising, they “grabbed totes of pictures and cards, four or five outfits,” and left. They returned later by kayak to see three feet of water in their home.
Now, Williams was buoyant as she saw all the work being done, assisting in every way possible.
“If I would have done all this myself, it wouldn’t have been as special,” she said. “This is the good you don’t get to hear about.”
The group’s goals also involved pushing themselves, teaching and learning new skills.
Team six’s new skill was insulation installation. Everyone learned the proper technique for cutting, folding over the paper tabs, and using a staple hammer to attach the insulation to the studs. At first, we worked clumsily. But as time went on, we mastered the stapler and cut insulation like butter. I nicknamed one team member “the hammer” because of her staple hammer wielding skills.
Most impressive was the participants’ willingness to do really hard, really hot, really dirty, and sometimes scary work, like entering the 18-inch crawl space under the house. Peering under the floor into the confined space, I nearly panicked. But like many of our team, I awkwardly slithered underneath, laid on my back and pushed eight-foot sections of insulation into the joists, affixing it with pieces of wire called tiger teeth.
One team witnessed a snake enter the space ahead of them. Daunted but determined, they scrambled in anyway, finished the work, and emerged with a sense of accomplishment, like slaying a dragon.
Exhilarated, yet tired, we boarded buses to head home, knowing we wouldn’t see the end of the work we’d begun. We left with the relationships we built and the satisfaction that Williams’ grandson is now making decorating plans for his new bedroom at nana and papa’s house.
For more information about the LutheranHANDS Foundation, visit www.lutheranhands.org.