This July, when most kids are lounging at pools, enjoying family vacations or earning money at summer jobs, 85 Loudoun County teenagers will be in Niagara Falls, N.Y., engaged in manual labor, from sunup to sundown, for seven consecutive days.
They will construct wheelchair ramps, fix dangerous porches, repair crumbling roofs and complete other projects. And, at the beginning and end of each day, they will pray like they have never prayed before.
"We do more than repair homes," said Sarah Lucas, 16, a sophomore at Stone Bridge High School in Ashburn. "We introduce or reintroduce people to God. And we work so hard together. You figure out a lot about yourself in a week. You don't get to do that in a school setting."
The teenagers and the 15 adults who will accompany and supervise them are members of the student ministry at Crossroads United Methodist Church in Ashburn. From July 11 through 17, they will participate in a work camp sponsored by Reach, a national nonprofit organization that coordinates service to poverty-stricken communities across the United States.
Crossroads has sent teams to Reach work camps for eight years to help low-income, elderly, disabled and other financially strapped residents by providing them with a warmer, drier and safer home. In some instances, the repairs also reduce utility bills. All repairs are made at no cost to the residents.
Niagara Falls may seem an unlikely spot for such an effort, but, according to Crossroads youth assistant Carol Vacca of Lovettsville, the local economy has been devastated by the migration of tourism to the Canadian side of the falls. "Many U.S.-side employers have closed their doors," she said.
Vacca said the Crossroads team will join 400 students and adults from across the country in Niagara Falls to refurbish more than 60 homes, many of which may have serious, but repairable, problems that pose risks to the residents.
The teenagers can't wait to go. Those who have experienced the week-long work camps in years past say it changes lives, including their own.
"The most rewarding thing is seeing the residents' reaction. I'm really eager to make a difference," said Lucas, who participated in last year's work camp in New Philadelphia, Ohio. "There was no doubt in my mind that I had to come back. It's such a great feeling to help people."
Aaron Bond, 15, of Ashburn, a freshman at Georgetown Preparatory School in North Bethesda, will attend his fourth work camp this year. He said that he likes spending quality time with friends and that the hard labor humbles him.
Also participating for the fourth year is Missy Muir, 16, a Stone Bridge sophomore. Muir said her experiences have deepened her faith and taught her the enjoyment of working on a team. "One year, we painted two football fields' worth of fence. We were covered in paint," she said, laughing.
For David Leme, 16, a junior at Broad Run High School, the Niagara Falls work camp will be his third. Last year, his crew reroofed a home, and in addition to nailing shingles all day, he carried "a lot of heavy stuff" up and down ladders. "There weren't many strong people in my crew," he said.
Leme said giving up his summer to raise funds and work for others was "spiritually uplifting." Like many of the teenagers going to Niagara Falls, he has attended Crossroads United Methodist since childhood. He helps create the audiovisuals for the church's Sunday morning service at Stone Bridge High School and is a member of the youth ministry's band, which plays at Sunday Night Live (SNL) -- the church's weekly evening youth service. All the work camp team members regularly attend, and many say their involvement in SNL inspired their desire to join the summer work camp mission.
SNL is a teen-led, adult-supervised worship gathering that draws nearly 200 teenagers from across the county every weekend, ranging from sixth-graders to college students. Leme is often at the front of sanctuary, leading the group in song. Although the underlying messages of these services are traditionally Christian, the worship celebration itself is decidedly contemporary and youth-oriented.
At the service May 2, for example, Leme's 15-year-old brother, Michael, performed a Christian rap song he had composed, and later, 18-year-old Ryan Webb and others break-danced for the assembly.
"What's exciting to me is the way the teenagers are being transformed," said youth pastor Jeff Peck. "They come to understand that each of us is unique and priceless and beloved by God, even if broken and incomplete."
For Kevin Kessler, 18, a senior at Loudoun Valley High School in Purcellville, his longtime involvement in SNL and toiling at numerous summer work camps led him to join a church mission to Uganda last August. There, he taught carpentry and woodworking skills to villagers and built desks and chairs for a school that Crossroads helped erect. Kessler said participating in service missions, particularly his experience in Uganda, has changed his "everyday life."
"I saw the most extreme poverty [in Uganda]. Pictures in National Geographic don't do it justice," he said. "But what's amazing is how happy and full of life the people are. In every picture I have, every single child is smiling. They [the children] expect nothing, so they're happy with everything. Material things don't matter."
Kessler said he hopes to organize a youth mission to Uganda in the next couple of years. Meanwhile, he will enter Penn State University this fall. But instead of majoring in aerospace engineering -- his original plan -- he will prepare for a career in psychology. "These trips have completely changed what I wanted to do. Now, I want to help people, and a psychology degree will help me do that," he said.
In addition to paying a registration fee that helps pay for repairs and offsets personal expenses for food and lodging, work team members pay for their transportation and must bring tools and supplies to perform the repairs. Lodging is spartan. They bring sleeping bags and set up residence on auditorium floors in local schools. The total cost is about $500 a person. To defray costs, Crossroads holds a series of fundraisers and solicits donations from its congregation and Loudoun businesses.
Among this year's group are several first-timers, such as friends Kevin Allen, 16, and Philip Volz, 17, both of whom attend Stone Bridge. Allen and Volz have been active in the SNL group for several years and have performed other service work, including feeding the homeless in the District. The boys said the work camp experience is the next step, a way to do more to help others less fortunate -- and to help them learn more about themselves.
"You're out helping people that need the help -- instead of going to the movies, the mall or on vacation, doing things for yourself," Volz said. "It opens your eyes."
From noon until 4 p.m. Saturday, Crossroads' Men's Ministry will host a chicken barbecue to benefit the Reach work camp crew. The event will be held at Crossroads United Methodist Church, 43454 Crossroads Dr., Ashburn. The cost per meal is $7. For more information, visit www.ecrossroadsumc.org or call 703-729-5100.