Kiersten Betty, 14, was standing in a stranger's yard in the Cumberland Mountains of Tennessee with a group of five other people she just met. The amateur carpenters were sent there to build a shed, but there was a problem.
"The leader didn't know anything about construction. I had built some sets at school, so I ended up leading the group," Kiersten said. "I ended up on the roof."
Each year volunteers from the Herndon United Methodist Church travel two days to the Mountain T.O.P. (Tennessee Outreach Project) camps to take part in a week's worth of service projects ranging from carpentry to painting to simply making an Appalachia resident a little less lonely.
This year, the church sent its largest contingent, with volunteers ranging from rising eighth-graders to grandparents, to spend July 13-19 working in the mountains. This was Kiersten's second trip to Mountain T.O.P.
"This means so much to the people. There was a man we painted a porch for. He had pictures of all the Mountain T.O.P. volunteers that had done work for him in the past. He was proud of them," said Kiersten, a rising Herndon High freshman.
MOUNTAIN T.O.P. began in 1974 after a group of youths from the United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tenn., returned from a mission retreat and decided they could do the same service projects in their own backyard. Since then the interdenominational Christian mission has grown to include 13 counties throughout the Appalachia region. This was the seventh year, Herndon United Methodist Church sent volunteers.
The volunteers arrive at one of the program's rural camps — there are cabins with bunk beds, a dining hall and running water that may or may not be hot — and are randomly placed into work groups of six. The idea is to foster new relationships among the various groups at the camps. Throughout the week, the make up of the work groups remain the same as they are sent out into the community for various service projects. Because Herndon United Methodist Church sent so many volunteers they were split between two camps.
"Our church sends one of the largest groups. We sent 43 this year," said Anne Harrison, director of program ministries at Herndon United Methodist Church. "The first year we sent 19."
In addition, Herndon United Methodist Church also had a member, Matt Enzler, 22, and now a student at the University of Montana, spend his third year as a Mountain T.O.P. staffer, which requires a 10- to 11-week stay, as new groups arrive for duty each week during the summer. Enzler has been going to Mountain T.O.P. in some capacity for seven years.
"I've grown so much from top to bottom in faith and personally," Enzler said. "It's matured me. I'm much more outgoing. I can talk in front of a group now."
"ONE OF THE MAIN IDEAS is home repair. A lot of the people don't have the best living conditions and some don't have the best emotional conditions," said Nick Jacobs, 14, a two-year Mountain T.O.P. veteran. "Sometimes you just go to someone's house to talk and listen."
Kiersten said her friend's group was sent to the home of a bedridden man who asked for a shed, even though he had no intention of ever using it.
"He asked for it because he knew people would be working there for two days," Kiersten said.
The campers spend most of the day working on the service projects, with three hours allotted between quitting time and dinner for sightseeing in the local communities, said Enzler.
The accommodations at the camps are livable, but sparse. In fact, a portion of one of the camps, Camp Glancy, was washed away in springtime floods.
"You definitely need faith at Mountain T.O.P. The camp is not in the best condition," said Nick, a Herndon High rising freshman. "... It's an experience. You can't get it anywhere else in Virginia. On the way down there you see Mountain T.O.P. sheds and porches everywhere and you know they're Mountain T.O.P."
Enzler said the workmanship is not as important as the building of leadership qualities among the volunteers.
THE TRIPS TO MOUNTAIN T.O.P. are part of the church's larger youth leadership ministries. Altogether the youth programs has raised enough money to provide Enzler's salary as a Mountain T.O.P. staffer and some of his living expenses; sent a young congregation member to Voices of Youth, nationwide youth conference; sent another youth to Russia for a two-week mission and had 25 people take part in the Relay for Life, said Harrison. The youth ministry raised $35,000 this year for the various programs.
"This group works all year. If I ask the kids to do something, they show up," Harrison said. "This congregation supports this program."
To raise the money it needs — Mountain T.O.P. costs $325 per camper, plus the rental of seven vans and two trucks, hotel rooms on the road and food; the trip to Russia cost $2,800; and Voice for Youth was $1,000 — the young members hold spaghetti dinners, deliver phone books, have a silent auction and will even put a pink flamingo in someone's yard for the right price.