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Ozark Mission Project campers help with needed repairs

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Photographs by Flip Putthoff

NWA Democrat-Gazette/FLIP PUTTHOFF Camryn Clarke (center) checks the level of a wheelchair ramp Tuedsay July 12, 2016 built by volunteers of the Ozark Mission Project.

On a steamy hot Tuesday morning, the sound of saws and electric drills buzzed in Loretta Shoemaker’s backyard and the smell of sunscreen and freshly cut wood filled the air.

A group of three teenagers, three adults and a college staffer from Ozark Mission Project were busy building a shed and a back porch for Shoemaker. The previous day they had cleaned up her backyard and built a screen door.

The additions will give Shoemaker, who works as a greeter at Wal-Mart, a safe way to get in and out of her home, and a dry place to store her things.

Ozark Mission Project is a statewide summer camp program associated with the United Methodist Church. About 60 teenagers and staffers from the Pulaski County area were in Siloam Springs late last month doing yard work, painting houses, building porches and wheelchair ramps, and doing other minor home repairs, according to Amy Bennett, a youth minister for Asbury United Methodist Church in Little Rock.

Each summer, about 1,000 students participate in 13 Ozark Mission Project camps across Arkansas. Last year, the project served 271 individuals and families in 25 Arkansas counties, said Bailey Faulkner, executive director of the organization.

In Siloam Springs, the organization partnered with Kind at Heart Ministries to identify individuals in need of service. Ozark Mission Project set a goal of doing 60 projects in the Siloam Springs area, which included work sites in Colcord, Lincoln and Gentry, Bennett said. The camp teaches students practical skills, such as construction, as well as life skills like loving their neighbor, Bennett said.

During the camp, participants also have fun. They spend their evening doing activities and workshops together. They also have a dinner with the people they serve. Siloam Springs campers stayed at the First United Methodist Church and showered at the homes of volunteers.

Lydia Schallenberge, 15, was participating in Ozark Mission Project for the first time recently. Her friend Phoebe Sanders, also 15, has been involved in the organization for three years.

Schallenberge said she decided to get involved after hearing from fellow youth group members how much fun the project is. She said the camp is teaching her how to care for others. Like Schallenberge, Sanders said participating in the camp has taught her how important it is to help others. Both girls agreed they will be back next year.

Camryn Clark agreed that the best part of Ozark Mission Project is the relationships campers build with each other and their neighbors. Clark has been participating in the project for nine years overall and four years as a staff member.

Ozark Mission Project has pushed Clark outside her comfort zone and given her a chance to meet new people, including neighbors, community members and fellow youth group members. Being involved with the camp has helped her form a massive network of friends throughout the state.

“The amount of acceptance and love you feel in this community is something I’ve never felt before,” Clarke said. I just feel like there are very few places you can show up whether you are in a bad mood or you don’t know anybody, and whatever mindset you come into it doesn’t matter because at the end of the week you have a group of people who have been behind you and care about you. That’s something I don’t ever think I’ve experienced outside of OMP. You walk in and you have 60 people who want to be your best friend.”

Shoemaker said she has a great amount of respect for the teenagers who are willing to spend their summer helping others. They’ve been working really hard doing as much as they can with what little time they have,” Shoemaker said. “They’re helping a whole lot of people.”

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