Camp with a mission Help: Forget lolling on the beach. These church members of all ages spend their vacations repairing the homes of area elderly and the needy.

July 18, 1996|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,SUN STAFF

They look like typical campers in their baggy shorts, T-shirts and backward caps. But the similarities end there.

These campers -- who range from teen-agers to retirees -- wield hammers and paintbrushes, using precious vacation time to repair houses for the elderly and infirm in Baltimore County.

And despite nights that some spend bunking on a hard church floor, participants in the 13th annual Baltimore County Christian Work Camp are more than willing to pay up to $25 for a week of grueling volunteer work, often in sticky, 90-degree weather.

"You get a lot of gratification helping someone who needs help," said Jim Miller of Lutherville, one of 160 adults and young people taking part in this year's camp, which started Sunday and ends tomorrow. "Many think you have to go to exotic places or away from home to help people."

The program, which this year will repair 30 homes, apartments and trailers from Lansdowne to Dundalk, is among several such church-sponsored programs around the state, including one in Carroll County next week and another in Washington County in August and September.

Howard County churches are planning to start a similar work camp next summer.

Maureen Robinson, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore County Department of Social Services, offers a simple explanation for the growth of volunteer service camps: "When you get good work and have a need and few other resources, it becomes popular."

The Christian work camps, which are interdenominational, are part of a tradition that dates at least to the 1940s, when churches in the United States sent volunteers to help rebuild war-torn Europe.

In the 1960s, there was a resurgence of the camps in the United States, sending workers to Appalachia to repair or replace homes of low-income families.

More recently, church volunteers have realized there are needs in their own communities. Sharon E. Neumann, who lives near Parkville, has worked on homes in West Virginia in connection with a similar Christian camp.

"I thought if there's a need there, there's got to be a need locally," said the bookkeeper, who has been involved in the Baltimore County work camp for six years.

Dwellings being repaired by Baltimore County campers this week were referred by county agencies, churches, neighbors and, in one case, even a postal carrier.

Clients include a reclusive 90-year-old woman in Catonsville; a .. frail, 94-year-old couple in Parkton on a limited income; and a 53-year-old disabled county employee in Hereford.

Campers' work duties can include building porches and wheelchair ramps, cleaning houses, doing yardwork, glazing windows and working on plumbing and electrical systems.

Never enough

This summer, Hunt's Memorial United Methodist Church in Riderwood is coordinating the camp, which includes 25 churches from seven denominations. The churches contribute at least $100 each for supplies. But there's never enough money, materials or time, those involved say.

"We never get finished," said Miller, a retired county school-system supervisor who has participated in the repair program 12 years. "The social services people are sending more than we can handle."

Not all houses are pleasant work sites either, said work-camp coordinator Chip Day -- a "vacationing" disability examiner for the Social Security Administration.

"Don't judge," he told campers at Sunday's orientation. "Just go ahead and do it."

And they do -- despite some locations where overpowering pet odor, excrement and roach infestation make the jobs more difficult.

"The word is flexibility," Day said.

'Most funnest thing'

The camp also provides some real-world work experience for younger participants, such as the crew of teen-agers scraping plaster one recent afternoon in a tiny dining room on West Seminary Avenue in Lutherville in preparation for spackling and painting.

They have until tomorrow to complete this job plus several others, including a new porch roof on a nearby house.

"This is the most funnest thing of the summer," said Ben Judge, 14, of Jacksonville, who was working with his cousins Kristen Judge, 16, and her brother, Steve Judge, 13, both of Towson, and Kelly Hunter, 17, of Jessup.

But young people aren't the only ones attracted to the camp, which includes some who come for just a day or two and others who spend the week.

"It's learning for me, too," said Steve Lippy, a veteran camper. He was taking time off from his job as an engineer to help tear out an old ceiling and replace it with modern tiles at a home on Railroad Avenue in Lutherville.

The Railroad Avenue resident, Elizabeth Owens, has health problems and was appreciative of the work being done by Lippy and his partner for the day, Duke Severn, a retired technician for RCA Service Co.

"It's wonderful! It's beautiful!" said Owens.

Some playtime, too

The campers do get a chance to play. In the evenings, they swim in a church member's pool, play miniature golf and have ice-cream socials after feasting on bountiful church dinners of lasagna and meatloaf.

About 20 participants spend each night at Hunt's Memorial church on a variety of bedding from red sleeping bags to a blue-and-white lounge chair.

Monday, some of the younger overnight campers, energized after their first day of work, didn't settle down until after midnight, adult chaperones said. But they paid the price Tuesday when the breakfast call came at 7: 30 a.m.

The teen-agers were groggy and uncharacteristically quiet as they ate an egg casserole, doughnuts, bagels and fruit. "It's a lot of fun," acknowledged Kristen Judge, but added that there was a downside -- "not sleeping."

For more information on the Baltimore County Christian Work Camp, call Sharon Neumann at 882-0431 or Chip Day at 744-2794.

Pub Date: 7/18/96

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