At one home, teens are busy on the front porch sanding a door frame getting ready for a fresh coat of paint while in the backyard, two other volunteers are teaming up to paint the roof of some old playground equipment.
A couple of miles away, several adult volunteers oversee a group of young people as they assemble landscape timbers into rectangular boxes to make community gardens for Housing Authority residents.
At another home not far away, the sound of hedge clippers shaping up overgrown bushes can be heard outside while inside, other teens are moving furniture out of the way to make repairs to a hole in the floor.
Those were just three of the 11 projects tackled July 16-22 during the second annual Dalton Area Project, spearheaded by Dalton First United Methodist Church with the support of the Dalton-Whitfield Community Development Corporation, Dalton Housing Authority, and Family Promise of Whitfield County.
About 100 young people and another 150-200 adults took part in the project, according to Nate Juvinall, director of youth ministries at Dalton First United Methodist Church.
While the obvious goal was to help low-income elderly residents in Whitfield County with badly needed repairs to their homes, the bigger goal was to build long-lasting relationships with them, Mr. Juvinall says.
“We were a part of all kinds of projects this year – much more variety of work than ever before,” he said, “but the key wasn’t the work – it was the relationships we made as we worked with these folks.”
Gaile Jennings, director of the Dalton-Whitfield CDC, provided Juvinall with a list of potential projects, and an interview process helped narrow the final list to 11 sites that were then divided into three areas known as continents.
In the northern part of the county, known as “Australia,” the three projects were “all very lonely people who were desperate for attention and for people just to love on and be with them in a relationship,” Mr. Juvinall said. “The work there was tedious and precision work with custom windows and doors and handicap steps.”
Closer to the church, in areas labeled as “Asia” and “Africa,” the work ranged from clearing out a hoarding situation to rebuilding kitchens and doing a deep cleaning to get rid of bugs and roaches, to rebuilding floors damaged by years of leaky plumbing.
Helping the helpless
“Another project was a mobile home no one else would touch because it was a mobile home,” Juvinall said. “We were able to help this person and go in there and totally give them a new bedroom, a new kitchen, new support underneath the mobile home, and a new deck as well that could have fallen over at any moment, that we helped to rebuild.”
The underlying reason for all the projects was the relationships formed between the students, their adult supervisors, and the homeowners, he said.
“We had one student in particular who took the time to go through every fork in a man’s house and throw out copious amounts of silverware to give away to other ministries,” Mr. Juvinall said. “He had a lot of things that he needed for his late wife that now as a man by himself, he doesn’t need any more, whether it be clothing or utensils or kitchen supplies that this young lady helped go through and pick out what needed to be saved.”
Participants also pressure-washed and painted the exterior of the Dalton Housing Authority’s 24-unit apartment complex on Clark Street.
“Again the key there was forming relationships with each of the tenants there,” Mr. Juvinall said. “We did a luncheon for them on Saturday, brought food to them, learned all their names, even learned all their dogs’ names – it was a powerful experience.”
Another group also built a community garden at the housing complex off Roan Street, where landscape timbers were used to make 18 above-ground gardens for residents who can pay a small fee and literally enjoy the fruits (and vegetables) of their labor. Since some of the gardens are raised, disabled residents can more easily take part, too.
“That will be a long-reaching and wide-scoped kind of project,” Mr. Juvinall said, “where it’s not just one family but potentially 18 families could feed off that.”
Yet another project was completed for Family Promise, a local homeless shelter that needed a new playground.
“Their playground before was falling apart, unsafe for their children to play on,” Mr. Juvinall said, “so we partnered with them to provide a new space for them – a new playground, a new patio, just a new outdoor space that is safer and that now has the potential for growth that they want to do in the future as well.”
Growth is the word
Speaking of growth, that was definitely the overall theme for DAP this year.
In the first year, about 50 students and another 100 adults worked on five projects. This time, that number grew to nearly 100 students and 150 to 200 adults, who tackled 11 projects.
Five interns also helped this year, including three Dalton High graduates and rising college sophomores, Courtney Morton (University of Georgia), Sarah Stinnett (Samford University), and Robert Hardaway (Georgetown University), and two more from Nicaragua, Harry Pena and Yesman Blandon.
“They were the first-ever interns for DAP, and one of the things I told them when they first got here was – and I’m surprised they didn’t leave that day – that they would need to help get every single meal donated to us by local restaurants,” Mr. Juvinall said.
“Now let that sink in for a minute. What I asked them to do was a huge, huge task because that’s 200 people’s food for seven days, especially with dinner because it’s not cheap. So I asked them to basically get $2,500 to $3,000 donated per meal, six times over – and they got every single dinner donated to us! That’s outstanding community support from restaurants like Outback, Oakwood, Renz Nest, Lisa’s Café, Chick-fil-A, Los Pablos, and The Depot – all of them fully donated to us. Longhorn stepped in and donated all the baked potatoes for one meal, 200 baked potatoes for free.”
In the planning stages, nay-sayers warned Juvinall that the community wouldn’t be able to help so much.
“I was told countless, countless times, ‘Nate, that’ll never work’ because the community in Dalton can’t do it anymore because of economic restraints. They might give you a discount, they might give you some money off, but they can never give you a full meal for free for 200 people.”
Fortunately, Mr. Juvinall says he doesn’t believe in “can’t.”
“I don’t believe in ‘that can’t happen.’ I believe in my interns and I believe in a big God, and so we prayed about it and we thought about it and these interns worked their fingers to the bone dialing and dialing and dialing these different restaurants and making it happen,” he said.
“We had free yogurt from Jandy’s one night, and we had free breakfast come in from different restaurants. We had lunches donated to us – we had so much food, in fact, that we had to give away some at the end of the week to other ministries in our community. That was a huge, huge answer to prayer.”
The overall community support was overwhelming, he said.
“We had huge community support from people volunteering,” Mr. Juvinall said. “We had a group of Realtors not associated with our church in any way sign up to come help and roll up their sleeves on Saturday and Sunday. We had a group from BB&T Bank donate us water, and we had groups from many other stores and businesses volunteer their employees to come help us out. These are things largely unseen but things we could not have done DAP without the community support we got. Not to mention the multitude of agencies that helped us, like Dalton-Whitfield CDC, Family Promise, and Dalton Housing Authority. Plus United Way came through for us with a huge monetary donation this year that helped us with our building supplies for these projects.”
Corporate sponsorships also grew tremendously, “from six or eight last year to 26 businesses this year that donated at least $1,000 either in-kind donations or monetary donations,” Juvinall said.
It’s a blessing
In the end, helping others is what Jesus wants us to do, and it provides a blessing for all involved.
“At one house, they finished the man’s bedroom on the last day,” intern Stinnett recalled. “The whole floor was caving in when we got there, so they redid the entire thing. He walked into the room and started crying because he had never seen anything like it before. It was just so powerful. It’s good to come in and take apart what is broken and fix it and put it back together and make it better than before. Then as they were leaving, they presented the man with a Bible, and when he received that, he was crying again … and our workers were crying, the kids were crying, the adults were crying because it was just such a powerful and emotional moment for him. No one else had come to help him because he was in a mobile home, but we did and we fixed it.”
Mr. Juvinall said that all the people who were helped were very appreciative of the kindness.
“The reason these folks were chosen is because – I don’t know of a better way to say it – they are the poorest of the poor in Dalton and Whitfield County,” he said. “We worked with Gaile (Jennings) and her team at the CDC to identify those with the greatest need. You know, these are folks that cannot afford to do this on their own. These are folks who are disabled, folks who have no other means to help themselves, so we are there for them and we stand in that gap.
“So it’s not uncommon for these people who have waited years and years for help, that there’s an overwhelming sense of emotion that comes pouring out, not only from them but also from us, when the work is finally done,” Juvinall said. “I often tell our teams - students and adults alike – that we receive way more than what we give, and it’s unreal to see that happening.”
At the Housing Authority apartment complex, for example, “a lot of them live by themselves, and their interaction with other people might be the person calling them on the phone to solicit them to buy something or the mailman who comes to drop off mail,” Mr. Juvinall said.
“They don’t always have a whole lot of interaction with people in general, so now we come in for this week in July and we’re there to be with them. Yes, to do the work, to do the project assigned, but more than that really is to be with them in dialogue and conversation and in communion and to talk to them, to hear their stories. We all have stories to tell and to get to the point where you don’t have anybody to tell those stories to, is kind of sad. So now when you have a fresh group of 10 or 12 people that you can now share your stories with and hear their stories as well, I think it’s a huge blessing.”
He recalled one project in particular that was “frankly, easy, you know, trim some bushes, mow the yard, this kind of stuff,” but the woman was chosen purely to create a relationship with her.
“She lives by herself, very petite lady, older in age, deals with all kinds of physical issues, and the day that we first went to visit her back in June, she comes up to me in the yard and starts apologizing to me,” Mr. Juvinall recalled. “I thought I was early or late for our appointment, but the real story was that some folks in her community, in her own neighborhood, had just thrown raw eggs at her, so she was very sad about me as the authority, as her guest, potentially stepping in that. And how sad that is!
“She was so lonely, so depressed that I knew we needed to help her. Now again, her work wouldn’t blow you away, but being there with her was what was of greatest value, what was of greatest importance. So that team, like they all were, was hand picked and prayed over so that they then could go and spend time with her for a couple of days, hearing her stories and being with her to show her that not all young people are up to no good, that there are great teenagers and great college students and great young adults who love other people.”
The Dalton Area Project is always held July 16-22 (go ahead and mark your calendars for 2015, Juvinall says), but he is excited that DAP doesn’t end on the 22nd of July.
“We have started what we call DAP Followup,” he said. “Between August and next July, we will have teams to follow up with the people that we helped this year. So in essence we don’t just help them for one week and say see you later. But instead we continue to develop those relationships with them in the months after DAP. I’m realistic that not everyone will want our help or ask for it, but I believe we can continue to be in a relationship with them as needed, as desired.”
That’s one advantage of helping local residents.
“These are people who go to the same grocery stores as us, these are people that are in our same school systems sometimes as us, they visit the same churches as us, so it’d be almost wrong not to be in a relationship with them,” Mr. Juvinall said. “We don’t want it to be just a one-time thing.”
Likewise, he’s pleased with the progress already made and is excited about searching for ways to make the next Dalton Area Project in 2015 even better.
“What’s amazing in just two short years is watching this community, this church, these students, these families get excited about it,” Mr. Juvinall said. “This year, we had working adults, both the dad and the mom, take time off from their work calendar to be with us, which means we’re starting to get that momentum here. We had kids who asked their coach to take time off from training for football to come do this. I mean, that’s unheard of. We had kids who came in and out of dance come and do this. Again, unheard of.”
Picking up steam
He noted that the project seems to be gaining momentum with each year.
“Year one was that process of saying we’re not crazy, we can do this,” Mr. Juvinall said. “Year two was bigger with other churches involved, with a wider scope of projects, more people involved, more businesses involved. It is amazing how God shines in this.
“Next year, I already have other churches who have told me in the short time since this one ended that they want to be a part of DAP next year – they weren’t a part of it this year. And other communities as far away as Marietta want to come and be a part of this. That means we’re doing something right. That means that people are encouraged and this love for others is contagious. But we already knew that. That’s not new. Christ wrote about that in the scriptures.
“But the way we are using this vessel of DAP to help others, I think, is new, it’s unique, it’s empowering teenagers to show that they can do something beyond their wildest dreams, beyond their imaginations – now literally be the hands and feet of Christ, that this is student-led, adult-supported, that their opinion counts, and then all these various parts of our community coming together for the greater good. I mean, it’s powerful … it’s powerful.”
Mr. Juvinall says he gets excited about the process and working through the challenges for DAP, seeing the young people catch a part of the vision “that you don’t have to travel around the world – now that’s great to help others in other countries – but there are so many people right here in our community that need help in a significant way. We are able to do mission work and we don’t have to travel around the world and get a passport; we can help people right down the street. I mean, some of our sites were literally two minutes from this church, and that to me is so amazing, that we can do that.”