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Original article ---> Helping Hands

Helping Hands

Story by Leah J. Simmons
Photos by Don Alquist

They came two by two, sometimes a group at a time. They were armed with shovels, hoes, gloves, spades, trash bags, maps and water bottles. They were also armed with a sense of community, a desire to help and a willingness to work hard to accomplish any task before them.

On a breezy, sunny Tuesday afternoon, bus loads of teenagers, some parents and a handful of adult advisers from the Southwest Unitarian Universalist Summer Institute at Lake Murray traipsed into the Ardmore Village Creative Living Center to receive instructions for the outdoor work they planned to do that afternoon.

At the village campus, there were approximately 70 helpers. Another group volunteered at the Ardmore Animal Shelter, while two others took on jobs at Lake Murray State Park. In total, there were 120 young volunteers from Oklahoma, Missouri, Arkansas, Texas and Louisiana lending a helping hand in the name of community service.

The enthusiastic group at the village met with executive director Jessica Pfau, who told them that 25 residents had requested help with outdoor work. Plus, there was plenty to do all across the campus.

"One resident in particular said, 'Praise the Lord! I've been needing help in my garden and this is the answer!'" Pfau told the group.

"There are a lot of flowers, but there are tons of weeds and we just don't have the staff to take care of it," she said. "We have some maintenance issues we just can't get to, so this will make a stab at it."

At the Lodge at Ardmore Village, teams went with housekeeping and maintenance staff, who put them to work washing windows and doors, and interacting with the residents. The others went outside and did garden work.

Outside the Creative Living Center, Lindsey Langford, Troy Young, Duncan Skiles and Spencer Cannon were busy pulling weeds in the beds next to the building. In other parts of the campus, they cleared drainage ditches, hauled brush, fixed pavers and visited with the residents. Not bad for a group mostly composed of people too young to vote.

But in the week-long SWUUSI camp at Lake Murray, the teenagers showed their mettle.

The teens are part of a youth-led camp that is completely planned and executed by the youth. One of those jobs is the social action coordinator, this year with 17-year-old Aly Tharpe at the helm.

During the orientation at the Creative Living Center, Tharpe passed out maps and assignments to the mostly two-person teams and made sure everyone knew what their responsibilities were. Then, she loaded up her own tools and materials and set out with her own group. But not before explaining a little about the community service concept.

Each year, the social action coordinator researches possible community projects in which the campers can participate. In between school, finals and debate competitions at her school in Plano, Texas, Tharpe contacted the United Way of South Central Oklahoma and asked what service opportunities were available in Ardmore. One of the contacts was Ardmore Village. The others came from various other sources.

"My mom helped me and we looked online and started making calls," Tharpe said. "We drove up from Plano to visit the organizations and make the plans."

She was also responsible for arranging transportation for the campers. Ardmore Village purchased a variety of gardening tools, and the Ardmore Beautification Council loaned gloves for each person to use that day.

"Every year, we choose a new youth staff and one gets to do this job," said adult co-coordinator Ann McDermott from Oklahoma City.

"I definitely like it," Tharpe said. "It wasn't what I set out to do. I applied to do the worship coordination and workshops, which I'm also doing now, too."

Co-coordinator Daron Sachs said there's a higher purpose in the program. "All of this is about building leaders," he said.

At cottage E-4, Pat Rackliff, the resident who was most enthusiastic about the prospect for help, sat inside her home while 14-year-old Amani Deltolton and 18-year-old Scott Grass, both from Houston, worked on her flower beds that had become overgrown with weeds.

"They're clearing everything out of there, and then they're going to rake it for me," she said. "Then, if they have time, they're going to cut some mesh and spray it with weed killer and set different blocks at different places and eventually I'll set a pot on each one."

Rackliff, who is 77, said she hasn't been able to do any bending or lifting for the past several years, which meant her yard work had to be put on hold. She also broke her foot and recently had surgery for another condition. The youth volunteers were a godsend for her.

"I was so thrilled," she said. "I've been waiting for about 31/2 years to have someone do this.

"They are so sweet and want to be able to do all they can."

Deltolton and Grass were more than happy to oblige, but they did have to ask a stranger to identify some greenery in the garden to determine if it was flowers or a weed. Once it was deemed a weed, it came up with the rest of the offending foliage.

Grass said he's officially "retired" from holding down youth committee posts, but has had several positions during his years at camp.

"We really have a good system," he said. "We've gone into the city and picked up trash off the street and in fields and stuff. We went to an Indian reservation that was in bad shape and mowed lawns and cleaned up everything."

They also built a stairway from a plateau to the valley below it, which was one of Grass' favorite projects, along with helping build a house for Habitat for Humanity. Saving Rackliff's frozen lilac bush may seem pale by comparison, but to her, it was just as important.

Across the campus, another group was busy in the E complex, clearing beds and doing a little brick repair work.

"I'm having them dig up some old brick that was put in a form about 11 to 12 years ago and, due to upheaval of the ground from cable work and foundation work we did, it got uneven and became a safety hazard," resident Erma Applewhite said.

Outside her cottage at E-5, 17-year-olds Anna Peterson and Jade Th-ng from Baton Rouge, La., worked with adult adviser/chaplain/friend Bhyllx Phillips digging up the brick, cleaning it off and putting it back into the space evenly.

Phillips has been to Ardmore several times and remembers clearing refrigerators and old tires from creek beds near the H.F.V. Wilson Community Center. But the project didn't phase the youth.

"We were the ones complaining," he said of the adults. "I've never heard a kid complain."

And Tuesday was no different. A large group of youth and adults enthusiastically tackled a drainage ditch project between two cottage complexes, clearing dirt and installing plastic retainer strips on each side.

Texas residents Kenny Wiley, 19, from The Woodlands, and Lucas Richardson, 18, from Magnolia said their favorite job all day was moving branches that had been cut from trees and throwing them into piles. When that job was done, they set out for the next one.

"I know that I'm really driven academically in the classroom and leadership stuff, and I'm athletic, but I don't get outside and help people," Wiley said. "That's why I like doing this in the summer so much."

"I'd say it's just a sense of accomplishment," his 17-year-old sister Muriel said, in agreement.

Richardson had his own take on the outdoor projects "I like seeing it from the beginning to the end, how it looks. I like that we help people."

Pfau said she has heard nothing but positive feedback from the residents who were helped in the project.

"They all worked so hard," she said of the teen volunteers. "The residents were so pleased. I hope we can do this again next year."

Adviser Bhyllx Phillips, left, and Jade Th-ng, 17, rebuild a brick patio section for Erma Applewhite at her Ardmore Village cottage as part of a community service project.
Visible from left, Lindsey Langford, Troy Young, Duncan Skiles and Spencer Cannon weed the flower beds outside the Creative Living Center on the Ardmore Village campus. The teens were from a summer church camp at Lake Murray.
Amani Deltolton, 14, left, and Scott Grass, 18, both of Houston, save a lilac bush while weeding beds for village resident Pat Rackliff.
Students from the camp, along with their adult mentors, clear out a drainage ditch and build retaining walls between the I and J complexes. Recent rains washed away topsoil and clogged the ditch.
Teeny Collins and Eave Sims from Houston fill a trash bag with weeds after clearing out a flower bed for one of the Ardmore Village residents Tuesday afternoon.