From the Editor

Drescher: Program teaches teens to make a difference

Executive EditorAugust 3, 2012 

Whitney McRae Jones

The summer after her sophomore year in high school, Whitney Jones of Raleigh embarked upon her first church mission trip. She was part of a team of five teens and two adults who spent a week repairing a roof on a weathered house in East Tennessee.

She’s never forgotten that first trip and how it solidified her view of selfless service.

That was 17 years ago. Last week, Jones led seven teens and two adults from Raleigh to rural West Virginia to repair and improve homes.

Her first mission trip “showed me that I can make a difference,” said Jones, 32, who teaches genetics at N.C. State University. “I want to show (the teens) that they can make a difference, especially the young girls.”

In West Virginia, Jones’ group was part of a Group Workcamp sponsored by Group Cares, a Colorado-based nonprofit that sponsors faith-based, home-repair trips for teens. The first Group Workcamp was organized after a Colorado river flood killed 145 people in 1976. The next summer, about 400 teens and adult leaders helped restore homes damaged by the flooding.

Helping the elderly

In West Virginia, about 300 teens and 60 adults divided into 60 crews. They spent the week working on homes for people who need help, many of them elderly. They built steps and handicapped ramps. They painted and made repairs. They got to know the residents, who embraced the teens and sometimes prayed with them.

I joined the Raleigh group and worked with a crew that worked on a house in Fayette County, where the median household income is $33,000; the U.S. median is $52,000.

The West Virginia effort was one of 42 Workcamps this summer across the country. Americans are generous and faith groups lead all kinds of charitable endeavors. In the last 15 years, there’s been an explosion in short-term missions.

While this is good in many ways, authors Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert have raised questions about the value of some charitable work in their provocative 2009 book, “When Helping Hurts.”

Charitable efforts, while well intended, can build dependency and make recipients feel ashamed. They wrote: “Our efforts to help the poor can hurt both them and ourselves.”

A key point: Avoid paternalism. “Do not do things for people that they can do for themselves,” they wrote.

There are different kinds of paternalism, they said, including what they call “knowledge paternalism.” The people who are being helped might have better ideas than the helpers. That’s why it’s important to listen to them and involve them.

Passing the test

Did the recent West Virginia Workcamp pass the Corbett-Fikkert test? I think so. Many of the residents who received help were elderly. They couldn’t have done the work themselves and could not have afforded to pay someone else to do it.

Repairing homes was important. But the primary mission of the Workcamps and of the Appalachia Service Project, another faith-based program popular with North Carolina churches, is to instill in teens a sense of service that will influence the rest of their lives.

“That’s No. 1 for us,” said Dale Roberts, director of the West Virginia camp. “The home repair is the catalyst to do that.”

In filling that mission, each program has a track record of success. They build a commitment to service among young participants. Which is what brought Whitney Jones from a rooftop in Tennessee as a teen to the mountains of West Virginia as an adult.

Drescher: 919-829-4515 or On Twitter @john_drescher

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