So often in the media, there are critical stories about teenagers. Recently, much has been made of how teenagers are video game addicts who cannot concentrate; and we all need to be concerned about the future if these are the people who will be in charge. It is because of this portrayal I wish the media had been waiting at Old St. Pat’s on July 10, 2011. What they would have witnessed from 24 teens who volunteered for the Worktour in Virginia, would have easily refuted every stereotype in their news stories. They would have shown the world that teenagers are giving, caring, and kind.
On Saturday, July 2, we loaded three vans with 24 teens and six chaperones, and headed to Dungannon, VA, a town of 312 people nestled in the Appalachian Mountains. Dungannon was born from the coal mining boom and was a center for coal transportation. When all of the coal was cleared from the mountains, the town cleared out as well.
Jobs were lost; small businesses failed (there is no grocery store or bank in town, the closest is 30 minutes away); and many residents left to find jobs elsewhere. Today, Dungannon is a small community of people who care for one another. From that care was born the Dungannon Development Commission that organized our Foundations service opportunities.
Twenty-four teens left their families, friends, jobs, and technology (yikes — no cell phones or Facebook) for nine days to make other lives better. From the moment we gathered together, I was in awe of these teenagers. The teens promised the Worktour would be hard work, but the rewards would be worth every single drop of sweat.
When we headed to our work sites, I could feel the excitement and anticipation of the teens. I have never experienced a group more excited to get up early and go to work! They returned to the volunteer center each night with wonderful stories of the homeowners and their families. One homeowner who survived fire and flood needed help building stairs for safe entry into his home. Another homeowner struggled with mental health issues and wanted a kitchen from which she could proudly cook her own meals. I will never forget Gaby sharing how amazing her homeowner was for overcoming disabilities and staying so positive. Nor will I forget Clare sharing how inspired she was by her homeowner’s ability to welcome complete strangers into her home with such open arms. Or Brendan’s happiness about being told by his homeowner that the wallpaper trim he and Julia put up was “purty.”
Throughout the week and some difficult situations, I did not hear one, single complaint from anyone. McKenna was bitten by an unknown bug while she was painting and refused to quit because she wanted Ms. Betty’s house to look “purty.” Connor H. worked for hours trying to break through concrete without complaining for a minute, even when progress was extremely slow. Connor D. and Luke did a lot of heavy lifting in their group because only a few people could fit in the home at one time.
The best story I can give comes from Ceili. When asked on our second day to give an example of a time in her life when she had been blown away by the presence of God, after much thought, she said she knew it has happened, but had no specific example. On our last night, she raised her hand again and said she would like another chance to answer the question. She answered without hesitation that it was on Worktour. She had seen and felt God in all we did on Worktour. Needless to say, tears were shed as every person knew exactly what she meant. God was present in everything we did, everywhere we went, and every person we met.
I wish the media could see Foundations and the work of these 24 truly inspirational teens. I have learned that changing the world does not often happen in big movements or big changes, but one person, one family, and one home at a time. The truth is these 24 teenagers changed the world in nine days. Please do not believe everything you read in the media when they talk about teenagers. The future of our world is in great hands, I am sure of it. I just spent nine days changing the world with 24 of our future leaders.
Bridget Nelson is a Foundations leader and a first-time Worktour chaperone. She also is a Chicago public high school teacher.