By Debbie Adams
When Pastor B. Failes of Thrasher Memorial UMC described to the congregation what the youth mission team had been up to the week of June 14-18, he commented that they had been “all over town, making a difference.”
Traditionally, the Thrasher Youth Mission Team travels to Appalachia each summer to repair homes through the Appalachian Service Project (ASP). Younger teens participate in the Jeremiah Project, also traveling outside of the area. This year with COVID restrictions still in place to some extent, they elected to do missions locally in the Roanoke Valley.
Once again, they had a partner—this time the youth-oriented REACH (Real Experiences Affecting Change) volunteer program founded in 2010 by the late Pastor Tim Dayton. REACH brings volunteers from across the nation to perform a variety of service projects. “Here are my hands; how may I serve?” embodied his concept for the program.
Thrasher’s Youth Director Bonnie Jones met with the youth mission team on the Sunday before their activities began on Monday morning, June 14.
She emphasized that it isn’t necessary “to cross the sea to see the cross” in mission work. “Mission work can be done here in Roanoke. Missions is a way of living to witness for Christ; you don’t have to go someplace else.”
She focused on scripture from Acts 1:8, one of the last statements Jesus made to his apostles before he ascended into heaven: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Members of the mission team were commissioned during the 10:45 worship service on June 13. About 20 students and several adult assistants participated in the missions week and work.
Members of the REACH Thrasher Youth Missions Team (and their adult leaders) in 2021 included McKenzie Crow, Stella Jones, April Jones, Cary Jones, Molly Crow, Madison Crow, Thrasher Pastor Seong Jae Jo, Tara Montague, Jacob Montague, Mary Ann St. Clair, Dave Jones, Bonnie Jones, Marty Crow, Ethan Sutton, Hannah Sutton, David Richardson, Eli Richardson, Avery Ewert, Isaac Anderson, and Jacob Heck.
Early Monday morning, the youth gathered at the church, equipped with water, sunblock, closed-toe shoes, lightweight clothing, gloves, and lunch. The main COVID restriction remaining was to wear masks on the church bus as they were delivered to their assigned areas each day. Work got underway by 9 a.m., sometimes earlier, and concluded between 4 and 5 p.m.
During the course of the week, team members volunteered at two REACH project houses on Dale Avenue, assisting with some construction and also weeding, digging, and cleaning up trash. They worked at the Keystone Community Center, processed food donations at the Presbyterian Center, and weeded, planted, and repaired and rebuilt garden beds at community gardens. They played Bingo with residents at Morningside Manor, cleaned up Tinker Creek, and more.
“This trip really opened our eyes to all of the mission opportunities right here in Roanoke,” Bonnie Jones said. “We are hoping to form some lasting relationships with some of these agencies. REACH does an amazing job of finding needs in the Roanoke Valley and doing something about them. We hope to get back to Appalachia for the Appalachia Service Project and to West Virginia for the Jeremiah Project in the future, but it is good to know we can be God’s hands and feet right here at home.”
As work got underway one morning at the Campbell Avenue Community Garden, LEAP (Local Environmental Agriculture Project) Coordinator Maureen McGonagle explained that her non-profit organization is in charge of the four community gardens in the Roanoke area. Their goal is to “forge partnerships in the community, to nurture the food community, create equitable food and farming systems, and prioritize health and abundance by supporting community initiatives, markets, farms, and farmers.”
“LEAP is involved with all food stuff in the valley,” she said. “All community gardens fall under the LEAP umbrella.”
Members of the community and non-profits can rent plots in the gardens for $30 and plant whatever they wish. Renters are in charge of maintaining their plots. Non-profits may use volunteers, like those from the REACH program, to keep theirs maintained and then distribute the food to selected causes and populations.
McGonagle offered the team some pointers about which plants were weeds and which were fruits and vegetables. She noted that the garden beds the team was weeding were originally built by a Boy Scout as his Eagle Project.
Another morning was spent at the Christian Soldiers Food Pantry, located in Southeast Roanoke. As a partner agency with Feeding America, the food pantry distributes the wholesome food it receives from area grocery stores and restaurants, both big and small.
On the day the Thrasher mission team was there helping to process and distribute food, available items included mangoes, Driscoll strawberries, bags of apples, fresh salad greens and other vegetables, meats, a huge variety of breads, some bakery desserts, and much more.
Christian Soldiers Food Pantry is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. There are just a few rules for shoppers: clients must show a driver’s license or DMV ID card; they must live in Roanoke or Vinton; and they may visit the pantry just once each week. Veterans are admitted first with proper ID. No children under age 18 are permitted. No weapons are allowed. There are no questions about income.
Prior to COVID, the pantry was serving over 30,000 clients a year. During COVID, food distribution was limited to packaged bags of food prepared by volunteers. The facility has just reopened for “client choice” indoor shopping, which allows clients to choose which foods they would like to take home.
Manager Rayma Mills says the Christian Soldiers Food Pantry is the largest client choice pantry in southwest Virginia. The center has been open for over 25 years; she has been volunteering there for 23 of those years, starting off as a client herself–then deciding she wanted to give back. She says the food pantry got its start with distribution of surplus food from the back of a pick-up truck.
Veteran Jim Wissler says he began volunteering at the food pantry last year when he heard that they were short on volunteers due to the pandemic. He came to sign up and was put to work immediately. Now Wednesdays are his day at Christian Soldiers.
“Mission is wherever, whenever, whatever, whoever, however, no matter what!” is how the youth missions team summed up their week.
“I am very blessed to see all of these wonderful people start working together again,” said Madison Crow. “I missed the missions and am happy to be part of it again.”
“I really enjoyed seeing the happiness and gratitude on the people we were able to serve!” was Hannah Sutton’s comment.