By Mitch Talley Whitfield County Director of Communications
A crew of workers is busy on the roof, getting it ready for new shingles.
On the front porch, a young woman is cleaning off the windowsills.
Nearby, two more teens pick up brush off the ground to get the yard ready for mowing.
Inside in the kitchen, other workers are emptying the old cabinets, getting ready to tear them out and replace them with a new set that will hold plumbing that won’t have to empty into a bucket underneath the drain.
These men and women, boys and girls were just a few of the volunteers taking part in the Dalton Area Project, a week-long partnership between Dalton First United Methodist Church, Rebuilding Hope, Dalton-Whitfield Habitat for Humanity, Action Ministries, Dalton-Whitfield Community Development Corp. (CDC), many businesses that provided great deals on building supplies and food for the workers and the city of Dalton and Whitfield County.
The project, which began Tuesday and ends today, is blending the talents of adult supervisors and the enthusiastic muscles of youngsters ages 12-18 to provide badly needed repairs to five Whitfield County homes, repairs that would have been difficult for the homeowners to do themselves.
“These are real, life-changing repairs that we’re making on these people’s homes,” says Nate Juvinall, director of youth ministries at Dalton First United Methodist Church.
Gaile Jennings, director of the Dalton-Whitfield CDC, provided a list of several homes to Juvinall, who then met the homeowners and narrowed it down to five.
“It’s a big thing when at first you see a name on a piece of paper in black and white, but then now you meet a person and you listen to their story and you learn that these are real people with real needs,” Juvinall said. “And you learn about their faith and who they are and that you now want to help them.”
At one home, volunteers rebuilt a wheelchair ramp for a double amputee and made his bathroom handicap-accessible.
Down the road, a hole that goes straight down to the ground underneath the house was repaired for an elderly gentleman and his bathroom was gutted and renovated.
Another homeowner recently had an electrical fire, and repairs there included a new ceiling and cabinets in the kitchen, as well as a new roof to prevent any future damage. Another project, in Tunnel Hill, which was done in conjunction with Action Ministries, provided improvements to a home that provides transition housing for people who were once homeless.
“So you can see these were not superficial things that were done,” Juvinall said. “These are life-changing repairs on these people’s homes, which we think will really impact the quality of their homes and their lives.”
Juvinall believes the approximately 50 young people who volunteered for the project have gained much from their experience.
“We hope that they have gained several things,” he said. “One is that they have a greater understanding of the world around them. Here at the church, and in a lot of churches, we talk about going out and being the hands and feet of Christ out in the world beyond us.”
For some people, that means mission work in Africa or South America or even the inner city in Atlanta.
“All of those things are great,” Juvinall said. “We do a lot of that here at the church through student ministry, but part of my heart, part of who I am, is to say, what can we do for those right down the street from us? What can we do for those right next door to us? And all of these projects, even the one up in Tunnel Hill, are within 10 miles of this church.
“These are all our neighbors,” he said. “In the Bible, Jesus talks about loving your neighbors. So our neighbor can mean lots of things — it can mean that person in Africa, but certainly for me and I think for our church and the people in our community, it means those who are literally right down the street from us, too. And if someone right down the street is suffering, and is in a dire strait in their own home, what is our call? What is our call then to help them?”
He believes the students have gained the knowledge that they have many blessings afforded to them.
“So now how do they give back? No matter if they’re 12 years old or 18 years old or us adults, there is almost a certain responsibility as Christians to give back to others and share what you have been so richly blessed with, with others around you,” he said.
Juvinall says he and the rest of the volunteers gained much from their time with the people they helped.
“Their house might be falling down around them, but what is amazing time and time again is the amount of faith they have,” he said. “In other words, their house is crumbling around them, but they talk to you about Jesus, they talk to you about how strong their faith is, about they never doubted somebody would come help them and how we are Jesus to them coming to them.”
The Dalton Area Project wasn’t just about work, though.
The students worked all day, then spent the night at the church.
“They left each day by 8:30 in the morning and headed back about 3:30 or 4 in the afternoon, so that was a full work day,” Juvinall said. “But they stayed here at the church, they worshipped at the church, they slept at the church, they ate at the church, they lived in almost a camp setting at the church. We were all on work teams and then came back each day and shared with each other what our day was like. Doing the work on the homes was important, but another whole huge component of DAP was the fellowship.”
Juvinall praised the efforts of the students, as well as the approximately 100 adult volunteers who spent hours each day overseeing the work.
“We were grateful for the adult support that helped us make sure we did the job correctly,” he said. “We certainly didn’t want to do any shoddy work.”
Help from Jennings and the CDC, which helps local residents with housing issues, was another key part of the project.
“The help of Gaile and her team was very important,” Juvinall said. “Making sure we had the right supplies and the right equipment and tools to make sure things were done right.”
The community also helped tremendously, with several restaurants donating meals or providing discount prices and several businesses making monetary donations.
“We are very excited where God is leading us in this project,” Juvinall said. “This isn’t my thing. It’s all about God and we’re excited where we’re going. We feel like this is just the first step on this journey and that God calls us to help those and to love our neighbors, so we’re trying to answer that call through this project — and hope to do it for years to come.”
Juvinall actually participated for years in a similar project in the Atlanta area before coming to Dalton three years ago.
“One of the things that surprised me when I first came to Dalton,” he said, “was the huge issue of homelessness. We have helped a lot, like a lot of other churches and other people. We helped Tent City, we helped with food drives and clothing drives, we worked with a lot of non-profits in town like many, many people do. But we started to think bigger, started to think what can we do in a more long-lasting kind of thing?”
Thus was born the Dalton Area Project.
“Get all these students together, get the energy, the vitality, the excitement of teenagers who can do anything that they put their minds to,” he said. “They have young backs. They’re strong. They’re agile. They are flexible in ways adults aren’t. Then you get them excited about helping others, and they don’t have idle hands anymore. They’re using their hands and feet for Christ, and how powerful that message is.
“Then you partner that with adults who care, who give a darn about teenagers, who believe that all teenagers aren’t bad, that these are amazing students, these are amazing young people. I mean, when you have a 60-year-old, a 70-year-old person in our church or in the community teaching a young man, young woman how to use a circular saw or how to use a nail and a hammer, or how to properly use goggles, not only are you teaching a skill, but you’re teaching relationships.
“You’re building up not only the student but also the adult and you’re investing in each other, investing in the community,” Juvinall said. “There’s a lot of great extrinsic value that takes place at something like this that sometimes we don’t see right away but that we are planting those seeds that will then develop over time.”