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Salkehatchie teens build more than homes

Sitting on the porch of the 70-year-old wooden house with the leaky roof, Marjorie Wise Tucker listened to the sound of teenagers working outside with hammers.

"They are just angels," said Tucker, 62, who raised seven children and seven grandchildren in the house. "See what these kids are doing for an old lady like me!"

The eight angels were sweaty, some on the roof, some on the ground around her house just north of Blythewood.

"Makes you feel proud of yourself, giving of your time to helping somebody who can't help themselves," said Elliot Park, 17, a rising senior at Myrtle Beach High School. Many of his friends are back at the beach, "hanging out, driving down the boulevard."

Park and the others - from places such as Irmo, Darlington and Greenville - are part of the 34th Salkehatchie Summer. The South Carolina-grown summer Christian youth work program is held at 44 sites around the state, as well as three sites in North Carolina and one in Georgia. Teens work for a week, fixing houses.

The program returns to Rock Hill this summer from July 16-23. For the 24th year, Chuck and Tammy Hailey are in charge.

This year's Rock Hill camp will have 70 teenagers from six states. About six homes in the city are slated for repairs.

"Some of the teens are more excited about Salkehatchie camp than they are Christmas," Tammy Hailey said. "They just don't come to work on houses, they come to make relationships with families."

Salkehatchie camps are also being held in Fort Mill, Clover, Lancaster and Chester, Hailey said.

How it all started

In 1978, Salkehatchie's first year, 30 young people and 10 adults worked on four houses in the Hampton County area. They had a budget of $5,000.

This year, about 2,500 Salkehatchie volunteers, ages about 14 to 21, are working on hundreds of houses in June and July. About 800 adults volunteer with them. They help single mothers, grandparents raising children and poor families in need of serious repairs on leaky roofs, rotting floors and more.

"We try to reach kids intellectually, spiritually, physically and emotionally," said the Rev. John Culp, 65, pastor of Virginia Wingard Memorial United Methodist Church on Columbia's Broad River Road and founder of Salkehatchie. "Kids are being entertained to death, but they want to do something constructive."

When Culp started the program in Hampton County, he named it after a local river.

"We never expected it to be this big," said Culp, who thought the program would be a way to expose white suburban youth to rural poverty. He had just seen a fire in which substandard housing caused the deaths of three infants. "Fifty cents could have fixed a wire," he said.

The program has a $1 million budget this year. Most comes from the $215 fee each participant pays. Local businesses and individual donors contribute thousands more in supplies and skills. Paid staff members from South Carolina's United Methodist Conference coordinate the program.

Most participants are Methodists, but Baptist, Presbyterians, Lutherans and members of other religions participate, too. This year, they expect to fix several hundred houses.

This week, at Wise's one-story house north of Blythewood, the Salkehatchie youths - assisted by three adults - were doing $20,000 or more in improvements. That figure includes donated new windows and doors, a new roof, a new bathroom (there had been no bathroom), drilling for water, and painting the outside for the first time in 30 years.

"Technically, we are putting on a roof, but theoretically, we're showing Ms. Tucker a little bit of love," said John Covert, 39, a Blythewood contractor and member of the Blythewood's Trinity United Methodist Church, which is base camp to 100 youths this week.

'Helping myself'

Mandy Martin, 19, a rising sophomore at USC, is in her sixth Salkehatchie year. She was hammering nails on the 41-degree roof nearby. "I wanted to do for people, helping myself with my faith and sharing the word."

Down below, Tucker sat on her porch, a smile on her face.

"I'm one of the lucky ones, one who God shined the light on," she said.

Even before the "angels" came, she said, she felt blessed. Unlike city folk, she can count "a billion" stars in the sky. Her enormous garden has string beans, collards, cabbage, squash, okra, peaches, blackberries, field peas, tomatoes and corn. Her flowers include gladiolas, day lilies, marigolds, dahlias, azaleas, roses and gardenias.

Her widow's pension - her husband died some years back - is hardly enough to make do. "But I learned how not to need everything I see," she said, laughing.

Sports camp competition

Organizers say one big obstacle to attracting more young people to Salkehatchie camps is youth sports camps.

"Lot of times, coach says, 'If you go, you can't play,'" Culp said. "We compete with that all the time."

Adults running the program say they go to great lengths to ensure participants' safety. They teach work site safety and have strict rules about sleeping, waking and meal times, as well as separation of sleeping facilities by gender. With transportation, tools, food, dormitories and communication, the program is akin to running an army on the march.

"It's a very well-oiled machine," said the Rev. Cathy Jamieson-Ogg, 49, pastor of Blythewood's Base Camp Trinity, from which a convoy of buses, cars and vans departs each morning for Midlands work sites.

For years, Chance Zobel, a Columbia firefighter who died in an on-duty traffic accident in November, had been a leader in the Salkehatchie movement. He would have been back this year as a site leader.

His brother, Randy Zobel, 14, who is at Dutch Fork High School, was working this week at the Tucker home site, inspired by his brother's past work.

"This gives a feel-good thing in my heart," he said. "I like to help others. This is how the world should be - everybody helping each other."