Early on a Sunday morning in late June, 27 students, 12 adults and one Counselor-in-Training circled up to pray before piling into vans and traveling from Anniston First UMC to Panama City Beach for a week of mission work and fun. Before leaving, the students were challenged to think about what they were "bringing to the table" as a team member on the trip. Mark Kilgore, one of the church's youth directors, had put in many hours planning and setting the table so that the students would be able to accomplish what God had planned for them.
The mission site was the Hiland Park UMC Transformational Recovery Center, whose calling is to care for women and their children who have nowhere to go and are trying to get back on their feet. The work projects were many:
"I have been on many youth mission trips over the last nineteen years and have never seen a group work any harder, maintain better attitudes, or have more fun than this group," said Kilgore.
Speaking of having fun, during the five day trip, the students were divided into teams to compete in the Soul Survivor Challenge. The competition included brain teaser games, foot spelling, cup stacking, bear hunting, scavenger hunt and card blowing. On the final night, the winning team was presented a first place trophy and bragging rights for a year. Mix in a lot of laughing, story-telling, games of spoons, bowling, singing, dancing, swimming and general mayhem and you end up with a great mission trip.
One of the students, Maia H., recounted the first day's events."The first day held a lot of excitement," she said. "We left the retreat center very early and drove to Hiland Park to start working on our mission work. We painted, did yard work, and began work on picnic tables and a playhouse. It was a lot of hard work, but we were rewarded with a trip to Cosmic Bowling at Rock It Lanes. We not only enjoyed the bowling, but the dancing too. Soon we got everybody dancing! After an exciting night we went back to the retreat center, ready for what else this trip had in store for us."
Day two was also eventful, according to Korie B. "The playground began to look like a playground, and not just a wooden box," Korie recounted. "We built the rock climbing wall for the playground, and the slide finally came together and was attached to the rest of the structure. The picnic tables were stained and decorated with our signatures. Multiple trash cans were full of raked leaves. The guys were weed eating and cutting grass around the shelter. Even the painting came to a close that day. We got quite a bit done in such limited time. We cleaned and packed up, got showers, and headed for Pier Park. We all split up to go eat at the places we preferred. We all met back up and divided into teams for the scavenger hunt. After walking, picture taking, and more walking, we all gathered at Marble Slab for ice cream given as a treat by the church. Tons of hard work and fun went into Tuesday creating a family bond that’s been long awaited. It was probably one of the best days of the trip and made us all closer."
Elizabeth M. reports that a little inclement weather could not slow this group down. "Despite the rain, our third day was still a perfect day to serve the Lord as any other," she said. "Wednesday was our last mission day, so we finished our painting job and power washed some sidewalks. Meanwhile, some of the other youth dug up a large tree root. We finished turning their petty house into a beautiful home, as Ms. Wanda said."
Each day, co-director Jeff Lee led a lesson on the fruits of the spirit and how God has blessed us with these fruits to share with one another. Due to some scheduling conflicts, the group found itself without a place to hold its final service. Our brothers and sisters at Lynn Haven United Methodist Church came to the rescue. After a phone call on the afternoon of July 4, they jumped at the opportunity to help. Lynn Haven opened its doors and allowed the group to use their sanctuary for the closing ceremony.
At that closing service, after the youth praise band led a time of praise and worship, Jeff reminded them of the challenge to "bring something to the table." As the group pondered that question, he reminded them that Jesus brought His life to the table. Our Lord did not leave anything behind; He gave all He had for us. Participants were then invited to come to the table to share Holy Communion with one another. It was a wonderful end to a marvelous week.
The group left Panama City Beach with tired backs, sore muscles, blistered hands, a variety of scrapes and bruises, and hearts full of memories—of ladies served, laughter shared, love for one another, and the love God has for us all. "We ended with an amazing vespers service where everyone expressed how awesome the trip was, how we were truly moved by the work we had done, and how anxious we are to get back next year and do more work at Hiland Park," said Elizabeth.