Lutherans provide army of volunteers

July 28 2010 | Latest News
Over 100 projects and 23,000 volunteers help New Orleans continue its comeback.

July 19, 2010

By Matt Davis

Thousands of young people wearing lime green T-shirts and backpacks embarked on more than 100 community service projects across New Orleans on Sunday.

Young people from all over the country -- 23,000 of them -- are attending the triennial Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod's National Youth Gathering convention, which began with a mass event at the Superdome on Saturday evening and continues through Tuesday.

New Orleans Police Department officers held up traffic as 12,000 of the teenagers, between 14 and 20 years old, headed out to the service projects in waves of school buses from the Convention Center on Sunday morning.

More than 300 young adult volunteers dressed in orange uniforms helped get the kids onto the bright-yellow buses in short order. Kendall Phelps, 15, and Krysta Matthews, 16, from Virginia, were wide-eyed with expectation as they waited on their bus to head out to an environmental cleanup project. Both wore bandanas and led periodic whoops and cheers among their new friends.

"It's a lot different from small-town Virginia, that's for sure," said Matthews, clearly enjoying her first trip to the Crescent City.

The service projects benefited local churches, schools, parks, cemeteries, summer camp programs and other service organizations in New Orleans. Following news of the BP disaster, the Rev. Terry Dittmer, the conference director, tried to arrange for some of the young people to get involved in the cleanup of Gulf of Mexico beaches, but was thwarted in his efforts.

"We wanted them picking up tar balls and laying boom, but we were told that your average 16-year-old teenager wouldn't necessarily have the sophistication needed to deal with some of the toxicity issues involved," he said.

Nevertheless, the conference was planned before the BP disaster, and New Orleans still had plenty of work for the young volunteers.

As they waited for a thunderstorm to clear in the 9th Ward, the Rev. Robert Burnside led an impromptu Bible study class for 100 volunteers at his Journey Church at Alvar and Urquhart streets. Then Burnside divided the volunteers into five teams and sent them out into the neighborhood with painting equipment, gardening supplies and a renewed sense of missionary purpose.

"Some kids think they don't have a cell phone or their car's not good enough to drive, but they come down here and they see the conditions people are living in and it teaches them to be grateful for what they've got," said youth leader Mike Carpenter, 26, as a group of his charges from Newton, Kan., mowed and raked the grass outside a boarded-up apartment complex behind him.

Retired construction worker Richard Jackson sat on a chair near a stop sign in the middle of Urquhart Street at Pauline Street, watching 35 of the volunteers scrape crumbling paint off the side of his house.

"They want to do it," said Jackson, in a black hat adorned with colored feathers, the image of the workers reflected in his mirrored sunglasses. "That's beautiful. That's success. And they're people of faith, like I am. I like that."

Jackson, who turned 78 on Father's Day this year, finds walking difficult because of diabetes and was assisted by his 20-year-old grandson, Bernard Gilliam. Gilliam was on his way to church in the morning when he got a call from his grandfather who wanted him to come and help supervise the volunteer work instead.

"It ain't nothing but a blessing," said Gilliam, smiling broadly. "Even though I didn't go to church today, I'm surrounded by a bunch of people who have answered our prayers."

Kathryn Singkornrat, 14, from Boca Raton, Fla., perched 10 feet up a stepladder, getting her tanned arms covered in sweat and white paint chippings as she scraped the side of Jackson's house clean.

"I'm really excited that we can actually make a difference to somebody's life," she said. "Boca Raton is a very different environment from New Orleans; it's very clean and nobody walks on the street like they do here. But right now, this place really needs our help. And Boca Raton is perfectly fine without us."