“They touched my heart,” said Betty Cobb, a senior resident of Gainesville, who last year welcomed mission team members of U.M. ARMY as they worked on her yard and her house. U.M. ARMY stands for United Methodist Action Reach-Out Mission by Youth.
U.M. ARMY’s first foray into the state of Florida was in 2016. The youth mission group based in College Station, Texas, brought together about a dozen middle and high school youth and a similar number of adult chaperones from Florida and Texas to build ramps for those with physical limitations, do yard work and other projects. The group was based at First UMC Gainesville then; this year they will be based at First UMC Sebring during June 18-24.
|A volunteer team works to build an access ramp for Gainesville resident Betty Cobb and her husband during U.M. ARMY week in 2016. This year's event will take place in Sebring June 18-24.|
“This is a match made in heaven,” said First Sebring’s senior pastor, Rev. David Juliano.
“First Church has the resources and facilities in our Family Life Center to house the team, and our church is in the middle of a neighborhood where there is a lot of need,” he said. “We thought if we could find an intersection of community needs and our resources, that’s a real opportunity for the church.”
Lorraine Macpherson is National Growth and Program Manager for U.M. ARMY. She was instrumental in getting the organization up and running in Florida in tandem with United Methodist churches.
At press time, Macpherson said registrations had doubled over last year, with many youth and chaperones returning with their own tools to build wheelchair ramps, work construction on new homes, repair old homes and do yard work. Needs will be identified by local partners such as Habitat for Humanity, Eldercare and the Champion for Children Foundation.
“There is enough home repair work around here to keep you busy until Jesus comes back,” said Juliano, who said he’s always looking for opportunities to use the God-given talents and facilities at his church to make a difference. He first learned about U.M. ARMY at the Annual Conference last summer.
Church members will be a big part of the effort when it happens in June. “We have let people know it’s coming, and there will be a dozen people here every day serving breakfast and cleaning up. We have let them know there are other ways they can help, such as in-kind donations, lending tools and praying for this mission,” Juliano said. He has also reached out to neighboring First Baptist Church for use of its shower facilities.
“During this week, we have to expect that people will be introduced to a life-changing experience with Jesus Christ,” Juliano said.
The U.M. ARMY operation lines up projects and makes sure big warehouse tools and lawnmowers and ladders are at the ready. They also make sure that the mission experience has an emphasis on bonding, teamwork and a sense of community in the groups.
Hailey Robins, a 16-year-old high school junior from Winter Garden UMC, has been going on mission trips since the fifth grade and this will be her second trip with the U.M. ARMY. “Since they recruit people from other churches and areas, it’s more fun to meet new people,” she said. Last year, she told the team leaders midweek, “I want to keep doing this.”
Robins said she worked on a handicap ramp and helped paint a house last year. She was glad the owner liked the end result and was pleased with the team members’ work. She also enjoyed the evenings, which included games, puzzles and a spiritual walk through the scriptures. “I love helping others,” she said.
“Working with U.M. ARMY is such a great experience. It’s like a well-oiled machine, as they have projects and supplies ready. There’s also the spiritual end of things, with planned evenings for praise time,” Harford said. She helped U.M. ARMY identify Florida areas that might be a good fit for the youth mission teams’ work and helped make connections with different churches.
As for her own experience chaperoning, Harford said the youth happily did chores and didn’t seem to mind sleeping on the floor or taking quickly scheduled showers.
It’s not only an outreach, but “it helps build a stronger young person,” according to Harford.
Or, as homeowner Betty Cobb remembers: “It seemed like they enjoyed working together and doing something for somebody else. I was really excited that they came.”
There is still time to sign up for the Sebring mission, Macpherson said. “We could easily do 100 volunteer youth or even more. We can always find ways to accommodate those who want to be a part of this.”
For more information, go to the U.M. ARMY website at umarmy.org.
--Anne Dukes is a freelance writer based in Atlanta