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Youth service project expands to urban setting

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Courtesy of Sierra Service Project

Volunteers with the Sierra Service Project help landscape a yard in south central Los Angeles.
Aug. 23, 2005

By Mayerene Barker*

LOS ANGELES (UMNS) — The Sierra Service Project, a Christian organization that usually spends summers helping the less fortunate on Native American reservations, added a new location to its list of work sites this year: urban Los Angeles.

For three weeks in June and July, high school-age youth groups and their directors worked to repair homes and fulfill other needs of church members and neighbors of Martin Luther King Jr. United Methodist Church in Hyde Park, a neighborhood of small, older and well-kept homes in south central Los Angeles.

Eva Thai, site director of the urban program, said the Sierra Service Project aims to bring young people into closer relationship to God through service work. Projects in Los Angeles this year included putting a new roof on one side of the church, painting homes and building wheelchair ramps, stair rails and a backyard deck.

An important part of the program, Thai said, was to take young volunteers on a tour of the seamiest sections of Los Angeles. “The theme for our time in L.A. was, ‘Being God’s Chosen Servant.’ …Youth learned about being God’s servant by working to help repair homes of church members. They also learned the need for justice in the inner city.”

“It was mind-blowing,” said Bryn Heidenriech, a youth from St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in Tucson, Ariz. “I have seen poverty before, but not in that magnitude.”

The youths and their leaders spent Wednesdays in the Skid Row area of Los Angeles, a 10-block area where the homeless and needy live and congregate. The Sierra Service group took a tour of the Midnight Mission, a center that provides warm meals, showers, beds, counseling service for addicts, children’s care rooms, job placement and more.

“We passed out nutritious sack lunches for many of the people living in the streets,” Thai said. “Lunches included peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, crackers, cookies, applesauce and bottled water.”

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
Photo courtesy of Sierra Service Project

High school-age youth groups and their directors pose after working to repair homes in Hyde Park, a neighborhood in south central Los Angeles.
In all, the group handed out nearly 500 sack lunches to Skid Row residents this summer.

“It was almost frightening to see what it was really like for those people and what they had to live with every day,” Heidenriech said. “Although I felt sorry for what they had to deal with, I was glad to see their faces light up when we gave them a lunch. It felt good to know that they really appreciated what we were doing and that we at least helped a little.”

Thai, who normally works in the Long Beach District office of the denomination’s California-Pacific Annual (regional) Conference, said the young people were also challenged “to look at their own prejudices and stereotypes that they have about urban environments. Most of the youth attending SSP were Caucasian, middle class and from suburban cities. Living and working in L.A. helped them to break down those prejudices.”

Brittney Cope, a youth volunteer from Gilbert (Ariz.) First United Methodist Church, said she learned not to be judgmental “no matter where you are (or) what you’re doing. The most important thing I learned at SSP was, no matter how many sins you have, God still loves you. God forgives you no matter what. It was an important lesson for me to learn, and SSP was the perfect place to learn it.”

The Sierra Service Project also allowed the young people and their counselors to experience different cultures. “You don’t have to go inside the reservation to experience a different culture,” said Kim Ogle, youth director of St. Mark’s in Tucson.

The Rev. Jim Conn, Cal-Pac director of new ministries, led Monday evening bus tours of the area for two weeks, while Marx and Jennifer Gutierrez led the tour for the third week.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
Photo courtesy of Sierra Service Project

A crumbling walkway is repaired by members of the Sierra Service Project.
“We saw the diversity of L.A. in Koreatown, downtown, USC (University of Southern California), the financial district, Watts tower, the old Broadway and other areas,” Thai said. “Youth learned about and saw the history of the city — both old, where movie stars used to spend their time at MacArthur Park in the 1940s, and current, the corner of Normandie and Florence where the 1992 L.A. riots began.”

During the first week, about eight youths from California and Arizona participated in the Los Angeles project, Thai said. The second week, 25 youths from Rhonert Park United Methodist Church in Northern California and Gilbert First in Arizona joined in the work. The third week, 33 young adults, ages 18 to 30, from Rancho Cordova (Calif.) United Methodist Church, St. Mark’s in Sacramento and St. Mark’s in Tucson helped out.

A typical day for the campers included home construction work from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., showers at Vermont Square United Methodist Church, afternoon free time, dinner, an evening program and worship at the end of the day, Thai said. The participants ate and slept at the host church. The congregations and homeowners were welcoming to the young people, she said.

“I am excited that the SSP has answered the call to do works in the urban city and to address issues that are in our own backyards, such as homelessness,” Thai said.

Sierra Service Project teams will return to Martin Luther King Jr. next summer. Registration for participation will be available in late September. More information is available at

Project directors Rick Eaton and Toni Eaton saw the need for work in urban cities about three years ago, Thai said. For the last two years, work was done primarily on Native American homes in Anaheim, Calif. This year’s work in Los Angeles marked the organization’s first official urban undertaking.

Sierra Service Project, founded in 1975 by a group of United Methodist ministers, was modeled after the Appalachian Service Project, which helps the poor in the Southeastern United States. Now an independent nonprofit organization, the Sierra Service Project still maintains a close affiliation with the United Methodist Church but also draws participants from other Protestant denominations.

The ministry does more than one work project every summer but still concentrates on the needs of Native American reservations. This year, the Sierra Service Project had five work sites in McDermitt, Nev.; Chiloquin, Ore.; Lukachukai, Ariz.; Round Valley, Calif.; and Big Pine, Calif. Thai said 1,650 youths, young adults and counselors participated in the 2005 projects.

*Barker is the editor for Circuit West, the newspaper of the denomination’s California-Pacific Annual Conference.

News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or


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