Facedown in the dirt, holding hammer and chisel, 16-year-old Austin Holder looked up through a hole in a rotted floor. The part of his face not covered with grime was streaked with paint. Sweat rolled off him.
He then did something magical – he smiled.
All these “Salkehatchie kids” smile. These summer campers doing volunteer work for the Salkehatchie Summer Service camp run by the United Methodist Churches throughout South Carolina smile because their work helps people who need it.
There is no other explanation given or needed.
“I am spreading God’s love and doing good works,” Austin said.
Then some dirt and sawdust fell on his face, and he didn’t even complain.
This week, more than 70 campers are in Rock Hill, refurbishing six homes belonging to people who otherwise could not afford repairs.
Some houses needed a roof. Some needed floors and paint and gutters. Some needed everything from the ground up to the peak of the shingles.
This is the 25th year Salkehatchie campers have come to Rock Hill. The statewide camp, with 50 sites, is marking its 35th year of free construction help.
The clients come as referrals from the city of Rock Hill, Carolina Community Actions, and other agencies that serve people whose homes need repairs, but who don’t have the money to fix what leaks or is broken.
“These kids, this whole thing, has been a true blessing,” said Jonetta Sandifer, who has lived in her College Downs neighborhood home for more than 20 years. “Last year they replaced the entire roof. I cried so much and hugged them all.
“This year, well, it is so much underneath the roof they are doing. I am so thankful.”
The students come from all corners of the state. Sarah Moser came all the way from Nebraska to help people in a place she had never heard of before this trip.
“The whole idea is to serve others, to give,” said Chuck Hailey, a retired construction teacher who, along with his wife Tammy, have run the Rock Hill camp for 20 years.
The campers pay more than $200 each for the privilege of spending long, hot days working – then sleeping on cots or air mattresses at Methodist churches.
They work all day under the direction of adult volunteers who have some experience in construction, take a shower and wolf down a bite prepared by church volunteers, then fall asleep dog-tired – just to get up the next morning and do it all over again.
“God would want me to help,” said Iris Tetsch, 14.
“The work helps others,” said Robert Caviness, 16.
Michael Holinko came with his grandfather, who is an adult volunteer.
“You give back something of yourself, to someone,” said Michael.
Not even Monday night’s storms could stop these campers. At a home on Clara Street, the roof and ceiling and much of the house needs replacement.
The workers on Monday stripped all the rotten roofing but found holes in the ceiling big enough to jump through. There wasn’t time to fix the holes Monday before the storms roared through, pulling tarpaulins stretched over the holes off the roof and sending debris falling through to the floor.
The resident in the house, age 96, had just walked into another room late Monday when some debris fell onto where she had been lying in bed.
“A miracle,” said Bobby Taylor, the Salkehatchie site manager for that house. “The weather wreaked havoc, but we will work on.”
These resourceful Salkehatchians brought in a rented truck, loaded the entire house’s furnishings into it, and cleaned out all the ruined drywall and more and began to fix the whole place.
Teens Anthony Provenzano, Carl Strickland and Adri Watford, who are not from Rock Hill and until Monday had never met the lady who lives in the house, climbed back up on the roof Tuesday and went back to work.
“You do it because it is the work God wants us to do,” Anthony said.
Back at the College Downs house of Jonetta Sandifer, one of the volunteers came around the corner covered with paint. Tessa Belk, 16, had worked on the house last year. She came back and said she wanted to work on this same house.
“Because we are like a family,” said Tessa. “We work together to help someone.”
Not just anybody, but Sandifer.
Tessa and Sandifer are from different places and different backgrounds, but Salkehatchie has brought them together in a big, warm, wonderful hug.
“Tessa was just like one of my own kids when she left here last year,” Sandifer said. “All the kids were. They are part of my family now.”