By PAUL A. BARRA
COLUMBIA — Even the wrath of El Nino could not deter the hordes of hungry teens who descended on the weathered home of Mary L. Clark on March 7. They hungered to help the elderly woman, a former teacher at St. Martin de Porres School, whose home had deteriorated from decades of neglect.
More than 100 students and their adult mentors from places as far away as Spartanburg and Aiken, and from faith traditions as diverse as Baptists and Lutherans, united in a joint effort of Catholic and Episcopalian leaders to involve youth in service projects.
“It’s a natural,” said Father James Lyon, pastor of Good Shepherd Episcopal Church and coordinator of work trips for the Upper Diocese of South Carolina. “This is our way of hands-on working to help reunite our two communions. This is the Gospel in action.”
The effort was coordinated by Hank Chardos. Chardos, famous in the Diocese of Charleston for his tireless work in such volunteer projects as Birthright and Home Works, the umbrella agency for the Mary Clark project, interested so many young people in the home rehabilitation idea that it expanded.
“We started out to help a parishioner and had so many volunteer that we decided to fix the house next door too,” said Father James L. LeBlanc, pastor at St. Martin de Porres.
The priest and the parish youth director, Janice Coleman, gave Chardos credit for recruiting all the help and soliciting the donations of material. But both acknowledged that the kids themselves were fertile soil for the seeds he planted.
“Our youth group is wanting to do things. They are really interested in it and I’m impressed,” Coleman said.
Some of the things they apparently wanted to do involved scraping paint, caulking windows, landscaping front and back yards, hanging sheet rock, plumbing, painting and applying vinyl siding. They worked outside and in as the steady rain poured over them and their work all day, from the 6:30 a.m. prayer service on the sidewalk outside Clark’s house to the house blessings on Sunday. When asked why they would give up a Saturday in the middle of the school year to labor under such conditions for zero pay, the youngsters had a simple answer: “I like helping people.”
That was Mindy Townsend, a ninth grade student from South Aiken and a member of St. Mary Help of Christians Parish. Her friend, Christina Somers, said that neither teen was earning service points for their work. They were there, in the storm, building a rock border for the front lawn, “because we want to.”
Inside, drier but jammed into the heat of dozens of working youth, were three high schoolers from the home parish of St. Martin, Natasha Tyler, Malorie Harrison and Kelly Coleman. The friends often get involved in community outreach. They are Girl Scouts and work in the Special Olympics and for such charitable projects as Harvest Hope and the Carolina Marathon. They think that kind of commitment to works of mercy is common among their peers — at least more common than people perceive.
“People do tend to report the bad things we do instead of the good,” Tyler said.
Harrison said that teens “don’t deserve that reputation.”
If Clark has any say in the matter, the reputation of teenagers will improve greatly following their work in the spring rain. The 77-year-old retired from the local Catholic school in 1965 and was confined to her bed with a flare-up of arthritis on the day of the renovation project. She said that teens in her teaching days were good, and she was happy to see that they hadn’t changed in that regard. She called the work the 1998 version did for her “amazing.” She was grateful for the improvements to her home and to that of Mazola Washington next door. But as bright as the newly renovated houses looked by day’s end, the smiles on the faces of the weary teens were the features that cut through the slanting rain as darkness fell over the capital city.
“Our purpose is to teach young people to help others before they drift away and become selfish,” said Layne Waters of Good Shepherd.
On March 7, none of the teens drifted away from the work or the storm.