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'Meeting people where they're at'
Youth retreat brings teens together for service
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Josh Butler, left, talks with Kris Moen as the two remove an overgrown vine July 15 at a home on Goldmine Drive. - photo by Jim Dean

For three days last week, tents filled the field beside Creekside United Methodist Church.

The inhabitants, youth working for the church's Community Outreach Project, wandered through the church doors, their blistered palms and sunburned cheeks hinting at the hard's day work.

Fatigue aside, there was something different about these 95 teenagers, who through the program serve local nonprofit organizations, help the elderly and visit Atlanta housing projects.

The effort is ongoing. The annual retreat, however, lets teens bond with each other through six-hour work days, games, concerts, worship and camping at the church.

In turn, other church members grow closer to the youth as they volunteer to be "host parents."
Relating stories of doing yard work for church "clients," or senior citizens with limited mobility, Taylor Godfrey seems to glow.

"Some can't even get out of bed to do yard work," said Godfrey, a 16-year-old from West Forsyth High School. "A lot of the yards just haven't been taken care of since last year when we were there."

In addition to her hands, she lent her ears, hearing their stories and thanking the clients for having them over.
Godfrey's hope is that others may find the time to volunteer or otherwise help the community.

"Get involved," she said. "There's so much in this county you can get involved with. There's so many opportunities for us to help that people just don't take advantage of."

While the service itself affected the teens, so did simply leaving the county.

Josh Butler, a 16-year-old from South Forsyth High, went door to door in some of Atlanta's most impoverished areas. One of the communities, Bowen Homes, is scheduled to be razed.

Butler and his team, the "purple team," as they were organized by color, entertained the younger residents and played bingo at a nursing home for much of one afternoon.

"This one place that we went to is eye opening," he said. "They have nothing, but they're still so happy."
Butler said he could see "the love of the Lord in their eyes."

Hillary Murphy, a 17-year-old fellow South student, believes she's been changed as a person after attending the retreat project five years in a row.

"Just enjoying being together in God's house is all you can ask for," she said. "It makes me appreciate the things that I have so much more. I guess it just makes me feel more whole, more complete as a person."

The kids' stories reinforce the efforts of Liz Hatchel, who started the project.

"There's one thing that I've said for six years, which is that this ministry is about reaching out to the needy and being the hands and feet of Jesus," Hatchel said.

It's about "meeting people where they're at," she said, noting that there are more chances to help locally than may meet the eye.

"Forsyth County is a very affluent place, no doubt about it," Hatchel said.

But, she added, there is a "huge population of elderly and people in need and they're our primary client base."

"There are some that have need and they live in the nicest of houses, and have the nicest of yards, but they need Jesus, too."