Love your neighbor, and your camper

In July 2013, I rolled my zebra print suitcase through the Wesley Center doors at Cabot United Methodist Church for the first time. I had my air mattress tucked under the crook of my arm, and I was terrified. I was an awkward 15 year old girl who had just made her profession of faith and joined the church in April. I had never been to summer camp before, let alone a mission trip. I had no idea which side of the hammer to actually hit the nail with, and I didn’t know the difference between a drill and a screwdriver. I believed that I was in for a long, rough week heading into my first camp experience with Ozark Mission Project. Looking back four years later, I think it was one of the best decisions I could have ever made.

Fast-forward to July 2017 as I once again rolled that same zebra print suitcase through the Wesley Center doors at Cabot United Methodist Church. This time I had my clipboard and Ozark Mission Project accordion folder under my arm. I walked in as a college staff member for an organization that had defined my faith only four years prior. I was ready to see how fifty youth were going to impact the local Cabot community. I was eager to meet the citizens that made this community what it was, and I was excited to see how high school youth would abandon the social and Love your neighbor, and your camper material trappings of their lives in order to meet their neighbors’ needs. The decision I made to attend Ozark Mission Project in 2013 altered and revitalized my life in indefinable ways. After four years of being a camper, I was finally a college staff. Being a college staff has been more than I ever anticipated it to be, in all the best ways.

The Wednesday before camp begins, college staff arrive at their host church and begin moving in and planning first visits. This summer, Ozark Mission Project hosted 13 camps in 13 cities across Arkansas: Texarkana, Hot Springs, Mountain View, Marianna, Magnolia, Little Rock, North Little Rock, Blytheville, Siloam Springs, Pine Bluff, Mountain Home, Cabot, and Rogers. Once at camp, high school and middle school students are divided into groups and complete projects for citizens within the community; OMP refers to them as neighbors. Camper projects range from building wheelchair ramps and porches to yard work and painting. I was a major group leader. Each week, I worked with 15–20 youth and observed their spiritual and emotional growth. I had the opportunity to meet their neighbors first hand. I assigned groups of youth to their projects, and I proudly watched as they formed close bonds with their neighbors. I witnessed these youth not only transform someone’s home, but their lives.

Before I was on college staff, I was a camper. I joined the church right before I began high school; therefore, OMP played a vital and large role in my faith journey. In all honesty, that first camp was the first time I truly felt a tangible, genuine connection with God. Youth group meetings, conferences, and Sunday school classes discuss how we can serve others. Ozark Mission Project is one of the few times in my life that I have had the ability to serve God and create faith bonds with others in a raw and real setting.

As a college staff member, I get to be the hands and feet of God, had the privilege to watch youth be transformed by the neighbors for whom I had selected and planned projects. As a camper I had 1–2 neighbors I served a week, but as a college staffer I had 8–10 individuals. Being on college staff allowed me to bond with my fellow staff, and every single camper during every week of camp. As college staff, I came to truly understand the mission and meaning of Ozark Mission Project. Ozark Mission Project is more than construction, painting, worship or fellowship. It is about showing Christ’s love to others, and most of the time, without realizing we are doing it.

This summer, I had the opportunity to serve in three different towns across Arkansas: Hot Springs, Magnolia and Cabot. During my first camp on staff at Grand Avenue United Methodist Church in Hot Springs, I met Grace Smith*. She was a volunteer at her local hospital, mother, and had been paralyzed her entire life due to cerebral palsy. When I pulled up in front of her home a local transit was dropping her off. The first thing she said to me was, “I was praying on my way home that I hadn’t missed you, and look, I was blessed with perfect timing.”

As I walked up her ramp, I felt uneasy. The boards underneath my feet bent with every step, and there was a large hole on her porch that was covered with sagging plywood. As we got acquainted, she told me about her dog, son, and her boss who encouraged her to apply for a new wheelchair ramp. That conversation was the first of the summer that made me question the career I had been pursuing throughout my first year of college. Not only was OMP a period of personal spiritual growth and development, it was a time of maturity. I learned more about myself and the community around me as college staff than I ever had in a classroom.

That week, I viewed Grace sitting on her porch every day. She watched with a never-ending smile on her face as the campers began building the wheelchair ramp. She talked with them. She ate with them, and she laughed with them. She cared about them. She knew their quirks, and their passions. She went from brief daily interactions with a few people at the hospital, to making five fast friends in only three days.

On Thursday evening at camp, we invited the neighbors we had been working with all week to dinner at the church. Every evening during camp worship, the campers share about how they witnessed God during the day. At our meal, we asked the neighbors if they would like to share how they saw God that week. That night, Grace stood up and shared about how she had been born with cerebral palsy, and that “this ramp had been the nicest ramp I’ve had in my entire life.” She said, “I think I got more out of this experience than these kids did, and I hope they visit me in the future.”

Tears welled in my eyes as I thought about how a ramp turned into a life-changing relationship for Grace and for the campers. As a camper, you are a piece of that relationship. As a college staff, you play a part in the formation of that relationship. You are a piece of it, and you watch it grow.

Before camp began, I had the shallow expectation that I would have a summer filled with cheesy camp songs and splinters from split 2x4s. In reality, it was a summer filled with spiritual and emotional transformation, and the opportunity to truly put others before myself. *Name has been changed for privacy purposes.

BY JESSICA FRAZIER EMERSON – Special Contributor

Jessica Frazier-Emerson will be a sophomore at Hendrix College where she is studying English and Neuroscience. In addition to being an OMP college staff member, she is the summer intern with the Conference Center for Communication. Email: Jessica. Frazier-Emerson@arumc.org.