For Jake Garness, the Ozark Mission Project created a portal to connect him with people he might otherwise have observed only from a distance.
“It really teaches you not to judge a book by its cover,” said Garness, a high school freshman from Cabot. “Not everybody is going to have the best house, the best clothes … It teaches you how to respect people you don’t know.”
Garness is among about 60 high-school-aged students and adult campers spending a week in Pine Bluff from June 10 to June 16 as part of the statewide Ozark Mission Project. The project is designed to allow students and more experienced adults to build wheelchair ramps, paint, repair porches and conduct other small-scale but important home repairs for residents – referred to as “neighbors” by those involved in the project.
As explained on its website, the Ozark Mission Project is a 501(c)(3), a “non-profit mission of the Arkansas Area United Methodist Church, organized for ministry to persons in need in response to Jesus Christ’s call to servanthood.” The project began in Arkansas in 1986, and it’s been conducted for the past several years in Jefferson County with the First United Methodist Church in Pine Bluff as its hub.
On Tuesday, Garness was among several students, supervised by one adult camper, helping to build a wheelchair ramp for a home on West Second Avenue in Pine Bluff – one of dozens of projects throughout the county. Jeni Rooney, the adult camper, was teaching students some of the technical nuances of such a project, explaining regulations for slope, width and other aspects of the construction.
“I basically train them how to do it, and eventually they become adult campers,” Rooney said.
Students working on the project are staying at First United Methodist Church in Pine Bluff, explained Rev. Mike Morey, pastor of the church. That means about 60 students and adult campers are staying in a building with two showers – and that, Morey noted, creates a challenge that other community members have helped to solve. Members of the congregation, he said, are providing places to bathe – or “shower houses” – for students to use after their working days.
It’s the kind of interaction Morey likes to see. He stressed the value of the students getting to know other members of the community – including the people they’re helping. With that hope in mind, Morey said the church will host a dinner on Thursday for the neighbors the students have been helping out.
“It’s really important for them to get to know the person whose house they’re working on so there’s a relationship,” he said.
Carissa Tarkington, camp director for Pine Bluff, stressed that it’s important for students to learn about living conditions that need attention in Arkansas.
“I think it’s just really good for them to see there’s work to be done in their home state,” she said. Tarkington also lauded the people whose homes are receiving the work.
“It takes courage to ask for help,” she said, noting that about 30 people in Jefferson County are experiencing the help this week.
On Tuesday, in the home on West Second Avenue, students worked together as they carved out the wood for the ramp, and they also took time to reflect on the whole endeavor.
“It gets you involved with community while growing your relationship with God,” said Emily Armstrong, a high school senior from Lonoke. Armstrong noted, too, that the project helped to put her into contact with people she might not meet otherwise.
Other students also contemplated the contact they have with neighbors.
“We learn about people we’re working with, and we learn about people we’re helping,” said Dalton Tucker, who just graduated from high school in Van Buren.
“It really helps up build something that’s special to someone,” added Jax Harry, a high school freshman from Cabot.
And for Gayle Ponder, the homeowner on West Second Avenue, interaction with the students created a big part of the project’s appeal.
“We really enjoy having young people here,” she said.