For most of us, summer means relaxing and having fun. For the young people of St. Charles Presbyterian Church on the outskirts of St. Louis, Missouri, it means working hard at a national park over a thousand miles from home—and having fun.
"It's the highlight of my summer," said Randi Andres. "We have so much fun with my friends." Along with eight other youths and four adults, she labored for one week at the Sandy Hook Unit of Gateway National Recreation Area in Middletown, New Jersey. The church regularly sponsors summer youth mission trips, where young people volunteer their time to help others and to learn.
At the Fort Hancock and Sandy Hook Proving Ground National Landmark District, the group's accomplishments include: repairing walking paths through the main post area, repainting radar site structures from the days of nuclear missiles and painting the rails of a floating dock used by thousands of visitors each year.
Pastor Ronnie Osborn asked Darin "Booch" Diana, father of one of the students, to arrange this year's mission trip in the Northeast, an area of the country that most students had not seen before. Diana knew the area, both as a New Jersey native and as a volunteer in the days after Hurricane Sandy, when he brought fuel and milk back and forth to the area. Diana had volunteered with Missouri Stream Team for years but, he revealed, "Hurricane Sandy changed my life." Friends had been displaced; some lost their homes. After the experience he formed his own non-profit, Giving the A.S.S.I.S.T., to help during future disasters. Diana made contact with Gateway's volunteer coordinator though a call to the NPS national office. While Pastor Osborn made most of the arrangements—like having the group stay at Long Branch Covenant Church—Diana drove to Sandy Hook, where he spent a month as a volunteer. Volunteers also came from the International House of Prayer in Clark, NJ to help out during the week.
The mission trip allowed young people to learn about the park and the region. While Sandy Hook is best known for its oceanside beaches, the Missourians were intrigued by the park's history. Fort Hancock's buildings span the Spanish-American War to the nuclear age. The Sandy Hook Lighthouse celebrated its 250th birthday just this month. "Buildings where we live just aren't that old," observed one student, "before we were even a county."
The youths, ranging from middle school to college age, take pains to attend. When an important scouting event prevented one youth from leaving with the rest of the group, the Eagle Scout flew in to join them later. "They all make sacrifices to come here," said Pastor Osborn.
Why spend a precious summer week doing physical labor? "It doesn't feel like work," said Scott Lyon. "I'm still doing work but I get to spend time with my church family." Sarah York agreed. "It builds bonds with each other," she said. "We're such a close-knit group."
While working with your friends is fun, satisfaction comes from the finished product and from interactions with visitors. After evening out a brick walkway that had become uneven over the years, a visitor using a wheelchair thanked them, saying, "Now I can use this path for the first time." Strangers have stumbled upon the group and ended up working with them.
When Randi Andres tells her friends at school about her mission trips, they tell her that they would like to make a difference themselves through volunteer work. "I tell them, you can do it," she said. "We are very blessed, but we can give back. I would so recommend it."
Last updated: February 26, 2015