By Allen Turner
Hundreds of teenagers and adult volunteers arrived in Columbus County over the weekend to begin a week of working in the hot July heat to help rebuild homes damaged by Hurricane Matthew in 2016. It marks the second straight summer that project Mission Serve has brought youngsters to the county for such labors.
The Rev. Dr. Dave Heller, missions outreach director of the Columbus Baptist Association, said that a total of 330 teens and adults came here from five states. They arrived Saturday and will stay a full seven days. They’re being housed at West Columbus High School.
The 20-member teams are working primarily in Fair Bluff but are also working in Chadbourn and Cerro Gordo. They come from both Carolinas, Maryland, Virginia and Florida. A group from Vero Beach, Fla., traveled the farthest, a more than eight-hour trip of 576 miles. There’s also a group participating from Hagerstown, Md.
Volunteers from five Columbus County Baptist churches also are taking part: Riegelwood, Pleasant Plains in Whiteville, Safe Harbor in Delco and Cherry Grove near Cerro Gordo.
The specific projects where they are working were selected after consultation with officials of the Town of Fair Bluff and the Columbus County Department of Aging. Twenty-one of those projects are residential structures, but work also is being done at one business, a day care center in Fair Bluff, and at the Cerro Gordo Town Hall.
The teenagers paid $250 each for the privilege of coming here to help. Last year’s contingent of 287 teens came from 16 churches in five states.
Heller and the Rev. Joe Monk of Fuquay Varina have been working closely together to put together the mission project. Monk has been involved in the umbrella Mission Serve organization since 1999 and he’s been the group’s project coordinator since 2011. Monk is personally involved in about two projects a year. Last year, in addition to leading the group to Fair Bluff, he led a similar mission to Guatemala.
Monk hopes that this summer his volunteers can complete some of the work they couldn’t finish last summer. “Some of the stuff we’d have liked to have done, we couldn’t finish,” he said. “Some mobile homes had some really bad flooring, and when a mobile home gets that way, we can’t fix it. We’d have to gut the whole thing, and we just don’t have the funding for that.”
Primary projects for the teens will include things like installing wheelchair ramps, repairing roofing and installing flooring, in addition to painting houses. “Stuff like that, we can do fairly easily with our teenagers,” Monk said.
Monk had fond memories of the time his group spent in Columbus County last summer. “The community was great to us, and I’m talking about all the local churches, not just the Baptist Churches. When you’re walking down Steele Street in Fair Bluff when we had 14 students working on one particular day and those local churches brought us enough food for 28, that says something about the local support.” Monk said. “We had a big buffet all up and down Steele Street. The local churches did a great job in helping us, and so did the school in providing a place to stay. The school board was vital to our success by giving us a place to stay.”
He characterized last year’s mission to Fair Bluff as “a great project” and said that for that reason a lot of churches who sent volunteers last year sent volunteers again this year. “It’s a good sign that people would want to come back,” he said.
“Fair Bluff is just a beautiful town with great people,” Monk said, “but they’ve been forgotten.” He noted that, while places like Lumberton and Princeville got more publicity after the 2016 flood, he believes the needs in Fair Bluff are just as great or greater.
He said the teenagers who honed skills like putting shingles on roofs, hanging sheetrock, hammering nails, sawing lumber and other essential tasks found the experience last year to be a rewarding one. “It’s easy to get together and get to be friends and get to know each other if you’re working for the same purpose,” Monk said. “That is kind of how it works. We bring them together, they come work, and they’re the hands and feet of Christ during the week they’re working.”