Teens strengthen their faith building homes for needy

News Niagara Bureau

Twelve teenagers huddled in Loretta Litwinski's North Tonawanda kitchen, their heads bowed in prayer.

The moment of quiet contemplation Tuesday afternoon clashed with the overall atmosphere at the house. Teenagers laughed noisily at shared jokes and hammered new shingles on Litwinski's roof.

About 367 high school students traveled from around the country to attend the Reach Workcamps program based at Niagara Falls Middle School. Split into work crews, the participants repaired 47 area homes for elderly, disabled or poor residents while meeting other Christian teenagers interested in service. The weeklong program fixing houses in Niagara Falls, Wheatfield and North Tonawanda ends today.

For Litwinski, 83, the program was a miracle. She said she could not afford to repair the roof and porch of her 61-year-old house on her pension and Social Security benefits.

"I won't have to worry so much now," she said.

The work camp fills a need in the community, said the Rev. Frank Newsome, associate pastor at Trinity United Methodist Church on Grand Island, which raised $5,000 and served as the local sponsor for the camp. This camp marks the first time the Colorado-based Reach Workcamps held a program in Niagara Falls. The camp shows people living in economically depressed communities that such efforts can succeed, he said.

"You don't have to drive through Niagara Falls many times to know some people need help and hope," Newsome said.

Although many of the teenagers working on Litwinski's home had attended work camps before, few of them had met before being assigned to the same work crew. The crew members hailed from communities across Ohio, Michigan, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

The ease with which the campers fell into a routine at the work site surprised Ethan Smith, 18, a first-time participant from Lititz, Pa. "We (didn't) know each other," he said. "We just started working."

The work camp participants all are practicing Christians, but they represent many denominations. Although they sleep in classrooms with their own youth groups, the teenagers interact with participants from other denominations in their work groups, said Reach Workcamps staff member Teresa Sheffield.

"They have to go into it with an open heart and an accepting opinion," she said.

The participants form bonds not only with one another but also with the residents of the homes they repair. Litwinski, for example, ensured that the work crew at her home had treats like soft drinks and cookies each day and participated in their midday religious discussions. In turn, the work crew brought her a chocolate cake as a surprise for her birthday Wednesday.

"Thank God there are people like them," Litwinski said of the volunteers' willingness to repair her house. "I couldn't believe it."

The participants stuck to a full schedule during the camp. Waking at 6 a.m., they spent their days working on houses, taking breaks for meals and prayers. The youth groups gathered in the school gym in the evenings to watch Bible story skits and share stories about their camp experiences.

"The best part is being able to sit here Thursday nights and hear how God is working in people's lives," said Ben Morse, a Reach Workcamps staff member from Fort Collins, Colo.

The campers slept on air mattresses placed on classroom floors and ate cafeteria food. Each participant paid $340 to take part.

"I don't think any of us have worked so hard in our lives, but it's amazingly rewarding," said Meredith Myers, a Reach Workcamps staff member from Lebanon, Pa.

Newsome said his congregation enjoyed volunteering with the camp. The Trinity United Methodist Church youth group had gone away to similar work camps before, but he said the participants felt a stronger attachment working in their own area.

"They're building up a community, not tearing down a community," he said.