Blood, sweat, and service—that was the gist of my time in Aiken this past week. For the past six years, I have attended the Sand River camp of Salkehatchie Summer Service, whose mission is to help homeowners in need while also allowing high school students to learn what Christian servanthood is all about.
As a ministry of the United Methodist Church and a partner of United Way, Salkehatchie allows dozens of students 14 and older to spend a week out of their summer repairing homes for South Carolina locals. Participants physically improve homes while also reaching out to these families and one another in friendship.
For the past six years, I have only attended the camp in Aiken, which was established in 2006, but there are over 50 locations statewide. To this day, it is said that around 6,000 homes have been repaired by 63,000 campers since the organization was established 40 years ago.
Some typical home repair tasks include patching and shingling roofs, building porches, replacing windows, repairing floors, painting, and more. For four out of my six years, I have been a roofer. I have experience with both shingle and tin roofs, but I definitely prefer shingling.
One reason I love Salkehatchie is that it teaches students that they are capable of more than they could ever imagine, especially when God has a hand in it. When I tell people that I started roofing at 16 years old, they look at me like I forgot to take my medication that morning. They cannot seem to grasp that I, a young woman, am capable of such a task.
My site leader of five years, Kennan, was the youngest site leader in the history of Sand River camp when he was chosen to head up a work site at 22 years old. His first year running a site was my second year of camp. I was then chosen to be his co-site leader my fourth year of camp at 18 years old, which was an incredible responsibility for me. Salkehatchie shows us that age is only a number when you are doing God’s work and how He will see us through it despite our doubts and inadequacies.
Another reason I continue to go back to Salkehatchie year after year is to see how my students have grown. I have been able to watch them transform as people and develop in their faith through their service every summer. I have seen students go from not knowing a hammer from a crowbar to being some of the best leaders–and roofers–on my work site. It really is amazing to watch them grow into such incredible young adults. Many of my campers have even given me the nickname, “Mom,” and it has thrived for the past three years without any let up.
The biggest reason I continuously return to Salkehatchie, though, is solely to serve others. This camp is an amazing vessel for helping people and its unorthodox methods make it that much better. There’s nothing normal about a bunch of inexperienced teenagers fixing homes, so it just shows the power of God and how through him, all things are possible.
Also, getting to interact with the homeowners is unlike anything else. These are people I usually would never get to cross paths with, but it is astounding to hear their stories and struggles throughout the week. We are not just fixing houses, we are repairing someone’s home. We can’t ever forget that.
This year, we repaired the home of a man named Ali Walker. Ali is a very special character and I am so thankful that I was chosen to work on his home.
St. John’s UMC generously provides rooms, showers, and meals for participants and a typical week at Salkehatchie is packed with activities, hard work, and fellowship. Upon arriving for Salkehatchie, campers and adults receive a thorough orientation, safety training, and are presented to the church’s congregation to put faces with the people they are supporting and housing that week.
This takes place over the weekend and then the real work starts on Monday morning. Each day, participants rise and shine around 5:45 a.m. and are on the work site from roughly 7:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. with a lunch break around noon. We then return to the church for dinner and have various nightly sessions Monday through Friday.
One major part of Salkehatchie is the symbol ceremony that concludes the work week on Friday night. Both students and adults are instructed to keep their eyes peeled throughout the week for an object or “symbol” that represents their time at Salkehatchie that year.
This year, I chose my gloves because it was time to retire them. They had been with me through years of roofing and hard labor, protecting my hands all the way. I have used them so much that I have worn holes in the fingertips.
I chose my gloves as my symbol because when I look at them, I see everything Salkehatchie stands for. I explained this at the ceremony through two Bible verses.
Galatians 5: 13 says, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.”
Romans 5:3 says, “Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”
The Bible instructs us to be the hands and feet of Jesus and during Salkehatchie, our physical hands and feet are undoubtedly our most valuable tools. My gloves have endured years of service, providing protection from harm, just as God has protected us from harm all the way.
The Salkehatchie volunteers have become my family and Aiken is my home away from home. I’ve been able to see students leave their comfort zone and transform into strong leaders, fostering a newfound confidence. I have seen homeowners regain their hope and receive some relief from the daily stressors of living in a crumbling home. I’ve seen changes in myself and how my passion for service to others has deepened over the years.
I’ve only been home for a week now, but I already can’t way to go back.