Teens from Florida United Methodist churches are headed to Mississippi this month on a mission to help rebuild homes still scarred by hurricanes Irma, Nate and Katrina.
They are part of the U.M. Army (United Methodist Action Reach-out Mission by Youth), a 40-year-old group with “Christ-centered missions that serve people in need” that has been expanding in the Sunshine State.
|More than 30 teens participated in the U.M. Army mission at First Sebring U.M.C last June.|
“It’s a great program and very organized,” said Greg Harford, director of Youth Ministries at First Winter Garden UMC.
Harford took 12 young people to Gainesville in 2016 and Sebring last year, where they painted houses and built wheelchair ramps as part of a U.M. Army mission.
“It’s run like a fine-oiled machine. It’s so well-planned we don’t have to do anything. They have the supplies, the food all planned, everything from morning to evening devotions and activities. I wish I could get more of youth directors on board with it,” said Harford, who will take 17 youngsters to Gulfport, Miss., June 17-23 for another U.M. Army mission.
Gulfport is still recovering from hurricanes Irma and Nate in 2017, with some homes still capped in blue tarp from damage sustained in Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Working with elderly, low-income and disabled homeowners in Gulfport, young adults will be painting, doing minor floor repairs, working on siding and debris cleanup, among other things.
“As is the case with many disaster response sites, you have the immediate rush and then you have the residual effects; and the people who may not be helped in the immediate rush because their needs may not be as extensive … they become forgotten,” U.M. Army Executive Director Brian Smith said.
Founded in 1979 when 36 teens and adults held the first U.M. Army mission week in Texas, the group now runs more than 60 programs a year in 18 states.
The group held 1,230 mission weeks and completed almost 40,000 home repairs from Arkansas to Vermont, working with 4,750 churches since it was founded. Some 95,000 people have participated in the program.
U.M. Army works with local churches and local nonprofits to find “needy people who otherwise might be overlooked,” Smith said.
|U.M. Army Executive Director Brian Smith|
“Last year in Sebring we got most of our referrals through Habitat for Humanity. Those were people who might not qualify for a new home construction, but they had needs at their current homes,” he added.
Ashley Rape, director of Youth Ministries at First Sebring U.M.C, will also lead a platoon of teens to Gulfport, a year after hosting the U.M. Army mission.
Along with eight local young people, Sebring hosted about 80 students from Winter Garden (First Winter Garden UMC), West Palm (Good Shepherd, now a campus of Community of Hope), Melbourne (Suntree UMC) and Texas.
“They did home repairs for the vulnerable population in our community who either do not have the means to do (the jobs) or are unable to because of their health,” Rape said.
Health issues had prevented one woman from leaving her home, so the team helped build a wheelchair ramp.
“We had a big celebration dinner Thursday evening; and because she had that ramp, she was able to join us,” she said. “The transformation of the students was really powerful; just the stories they were able to tell our church about how the homeowners changed their lives.”
Hannah Tucker, 21, was one of those transformed by the experience. She is packing her bags for the trip to Gulfport.
“None of us from Sebring had ever experienced that … it was funny to realize I could do a mission trip in my own town and make such a big impact,” she said.
“We local kids were able to create relationships with people who we can now check up on and keep sharing the ministry with. We are all excited to go to a new location.”
For more information about the U.M. Army call (281)479-0103 or visit UMARMY.ORG.
—Kevin Brady is a freelance writer based in Brandon.