Visiting students perform service projects in Madison County

Malia Morgan puts a screw into a board while Luke Hudson, from left, Liam Strode and Kat Caserta watch. The students were building back steps and a ramp at a home in Aurora.

Ozark Missions Project, based in Little Rock, brought two groups of middle school students to Madison County last week to work on service projects.

The two projects in Madison County were at the home of Mike Byrd in Aurora, where they built back stairs and a ramp in the front of a house, and at a house on North College in Huntsville, where they built a six-foot ramp off the side of a front porch.

According to OMP‘s website, “Ozark Mission Project is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit mission of the Arkansas Area United Methodist Church, organized for ministry to persons in need in response to Jesus Christ’s call to servant hood.”

Two camps were held in Arkansas last week. This summer, 60 middle school and 80 high school students will participate.

The middle school students worked Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday in Madison County.

“We send church youth groups to camp sites and churches around Arkansas where they, in turn, engage in the surrounding communities by serving individuals and families, our neighbors, who are in need of minor construction and yard work,” the website says. “In addition to the physical service projects, we strive to meet social and emotional needs by spending part of our time visiting, sharing lunch and, if the neighbor so chooses, a devotional. We make no demand of race, age, income or religion in the selection of our neighbors.”

The program began in 1986 with one camp and 35 participants. Today, more than 1,000 youth take part in OMP.

Kat Caserta, youth pastor at Lakewood United Methodist Church in North Little Rock, was working at Byrd’s house in Aurora. This was her 28th camp over a 16-year period with OMP.

Working in Aurora were Liam Strode of North Little Rock and Malia Morgan and Luke Hudson, both of Fayetteville. In Huntsville at the home of George and Betty Kirman were Jake Dunn of Benton, Catherine Henry of Fayetteville and Isaac Huckaba of Conway.

Byrd said a home care nurse nominated him for the project. Organizers met with him recently, then brought supplies to his house on Saturday.

“I’m always in need of help,” Byrd said last Wednesday. “They came out and looked and said, ‘yeah, we can do that.’

“I think they’re a real good, young Christian bunch. They’re learning – and when they’re 40 years old and the house is still standing – maybe when they go down the road, they can say ‘whenever I was a kid, I built the porch on the back of that house.’ They’re gaining knowledge and everything that will help them.”

Byrd said the help was appreciated.

“It’s going to help me a lot. They’re going to put a ramp in up front,” he said. “I had pallets stacked up there [at the side of the house] on concrete blocks and whenever I would try to come out that back door, I almost had to quit using it. It’ll give me an entryway into my back yard.”

Byrd said his wife died two years ago on July 4.

Byrd said he often uses a walker or a wheelchair. He has battled leukemia and congestive heart failure for the past year. After being on hospice for a year, Byrd has survived longer than many thought. He’s even been taken off of hospice.

He said the past year has been “miraculous time.” He was given a new medicine to fight the cancer.

“Things are changing and looking up,” Byrd said.

Emma Davis was a college staffer working at both locations last week. She is a math major at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway. She said her father, grandfather and brother “were heavily involved in OMP.” Her father was involved with the first camp in 1986.

Davis was a camper for seven years, worked as a volunteer staffer last year, and was on her third camp as a college staffer in Huntsville.

Davis said between 30-35 middle school students were working last week in Huntsville, Farmington, West Fork, Springdale and Fayetteville. At least a dozen camps were held over three weeks this summer. OMP has a limit of 60 middle school campers and 80 high school campers.

“We go out and we meet everyone who’s applied” Davis said. “We meet everyone and we kind of get a layout of what they want done, then we go back and discuss with our director ... budget wise, resources and time we’ll be able to do it.”

The campers stayed the week at Sequoyah United Methodist Church in Fayetteville.

“I think it’s great,” George Kirman said as he watched the students work on his home. “It’s a real thoughtful gesture for the old people.”

Kirman said he bought the house about 11 years ago.

Betty Kirman, who will begin using a wheelchair soon, was emotional when she watched the youth work.

“I think it’s one of the most wonderful things ... I needed a ramp,” she said with her voice trembling with emotion. “Somebody turned us in, saying we needed some help. It’s just wonderful.”

The Kirmans found out on Monday that the youth would start working the next day.

“I’ve offered to pay for the material and they said ‘no,’ that they do fundraisers. I didn’t know it was going to be kids,” she said. “I was impressed with these kids, to spend time at a camp like this. They’re workers. They don’t sit around – they actually do the work.

“It’s impressive to me because I’m not a person that receives very well. I love to give, but I’m not a receiver, so this has been a lesson ... to receive this gift.”

Kirman said both she and her husband need assistance, and the wheelchair ramp will help them both.

“I’m very impressed because it’s something I needed really bad,” she said. “I’m just very grateful. I feel very blessed. It’s a gift. It’s hard because we’re independent people. We’ve been here almost 11 years and this is the first time I’ve experienced this.

“This is impressive to me, especially with it being children. I’m totally grateful. I’ve been blessed a lot in my life, but this is really a blessing to me.”

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