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(Seniors Affirming Youth and Youth Empowering Seniors)

Wilmarie Gilbert notes that in the small town of Lee, the fire department refers to the pastor of Lee United Methodist Church as the community’s pastor.

"We don't just serve our members, we serve the town," explained Gilbert, who is secretary of this Northwest District church located about an hour's drive from Tallahassee. Sporting some 320 members, Lee UMC has more people on its roster than the town's official population count.

"The effort is put forth to touch the community regardless of denomination or faith," the church states on its web site. "While an invitation is always extended, it is to Christ we hope to draw people, not to Lee UMC."

Inspiring the congregation’s youth to this same spirit of service is behind one of the church's newest programs: SAY YES (Seniors Affirming Youth and Youth Empowering Seniors). Once per week, a team of youngsters led by program director Spence Holben spends two to three hours tackling any number of chores for older residents. These include clearing tree limbs from roofs, moving furniture, cleaning houses, washing windows, weeding, pressure washing, making household repairs, taking trash to the dump, and gathering and stacking firewood. Dangerous tasks are handled alone by Holben.

Brandon Granberg helps remove a limb from the roof of Ruby Register's home. Photo by Cherryl Register.
"We try to accommodate everything, and if it gets too big I try to do it by myself," said Holben, 36. “It's just really to get the younger kids doing something for somebody else and giving the elderly and people that don't have, and need help, some little help." 

He added, "It's kind of a small program that's growing. There just seemed to be a need for it here.  That's kind of how it got started. There was a need and I wanted to do something."

Celebration Ministries is the church’s parent ministry of the SAY YES program. It began with Celebration House, an adult day care for the aged and individuals who have Alzheimer's disease.

"It wasn't long before we realized that the ministry itself could not be contained within the walls of a building," said Cherryl Register, the ministry’s director. Register explained that the ministry extended to delivering some 150 dinners a month to community members in their homes, driving them to doctor's visits, assisting with shopping, helping with personal and animal care, making hospital and nursing home visits, arranging for free cell phones for the elderly, and organizing a regular men's breakfast, women's coffee time, and evening banquets. "SAY YES was a way of bringing the youth in and giving them a purpose as they reached out to help our aging, based on a local mission type theme they learn to give to their community."

Register's activities in the community allow her to get a sense of who could benefit from SAY YES.

Russ White, 63, is a self-described loner who recently went through a bout of legal blindness from cataracts.

"They just asked me if I could use a little bit of help," said White, who moved to Lee last Easter and joined Lee UMC in July. "They scrubbed and washed my home. They reset my front steps. They cleaned up around my home with some weed killing and helped out quite a bit. The help was not only appreciated, but sorely needed.  They were certainly a blessing."

Celebration Ministries also drove White to and from Tallahassee seven times, where he eventually was able to get free surgery to remove his cataracts.

"We saw him from the time he was down and depressed because he couldn't see ... now he can see and the other day somebody said he had a car and was out driving around," Holben recalled.

"It's a pretty amazing thing.  I took him to the eye doctor and they took the patch off his eye and his face just lit up. He said, 'I can see!’" That' was a pretty neat moment."

The fact that Anita Winstead didn't have to look for help for her father, who recently was diagnosed with Stage Four cancer, is something that stands out in her mind as another blessing from SAY YES.

"We didn't have to go look for the help, it found us," she said. "I think part of that is being in a small town. Everybody wants to help. It's been wonderful." As a caregiver, Winstead and her father receive meals twice a week from Celebration Ministries. SAY YES participants also power washed the homes she and her father live in on the family's seven-acre property.

"Just before he got sick with his colon cancer, he told us, “I need to get out there and power wash the house. It looks like it really needs it,'" Winstead recalled. "The next thing I know he's in the hospital, he's having surgery, it's colon cancer. And in just a few weeks they're out there. They even power washed my steps."

Celebrations Ministries youth volunteers hard at work clearing yard trash. Photo by Cherryl Register.
Tyler Gilbert, 11, has been "saying yes" for about five weeks, clearing trash from yards and pressure washing.

"He enjoys it and I think it's terrific, I really do," said his grandmother, Wilmarie Gilbert. "They've helped a lot of people in the community and they get excited about going out and doing it."

Tyler hasn't spoken with any of the people he has helped so far, which for him is a challenge.

"The hardest part is not knowing the person you're helping, because then you don't know if you can help them even more and tell them more about God," he said. On the other hand, the young man observed, "The best part is helping everybody and learning more about God in this way.”  

Only a handful of boys aged 8 to 11 participate so far, and Tyler hopes his friends will join the cause.  Increasing those numbers and getting an adult to lead a group of girls are on the program's "to do" list.

Organizing a way for older adults to share their knowledge and skills with the youngsters also is part of the next phase of the program, said Register, who knows of one 86-year-old who would like to teach youngsters how to make instruments like banjos and harps.
For now, the heartfelt appreciation of those the program is helping is the gift the children are getting, as well as the confidence that comes from knowing they are of benefit to others.

"The idea of the program is to give the sense of doing for others, and I believe that goes a long way," White said. "It's just a good thing."

News media contact: Gretchen Hastings, 800-282-8011,, Lakeland
*Hastings is executive editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Shaw is a freelance writer based in Tampa, Fla.