By Lindsay Peyton
Families of Special Needs Children Taken Aback by Youth Workers
There’s an army of youth in the UMC marching out into the world to make a difference. U.M. ARMY stands for “United Methodist Action Reach-Out Mission by Youth.”
High school and college students serve adults who are unable to maintain and repair their homes. While combining their strength to help others, these cadets enjoy spiritual growth, fellowship and leadership development along the way.
A recent group of projects in Athens, Texas brought together U.M. ARMY members to build wheelchair ramps for children with special needs, making their homes more accessible. Occupational therapist Laura Blair helped lead the way.
She grew up with U.M. ARMY – spending seven years volunteering with the group in high school and college.
“I just fell in love with it,” she said. “U.M. ARMY gave me skills. I learned to do things. And the smiles we brought to our clients, you just can’t describe it.”
Blair even got her brother Ross Viergever to join – and her mother Lou Ann Viergever also became an adult volunteer.
When Blair later embarked on her career helping children with special needs, she never expected her job would collide with her favorite youth volunteer activity at church.
Then her mom called with some news.
“You’ll never expect who’s coming to Athens,” Blair remembers Lou Ann saying.
Blair just moved to the city herself and was surprised to hear that U.M. ARMY was planning to be in her neck of the woods this summer.
“It blew my mind,” she said. “It’s not coincidence. God is doing big things. And it’s just exactly where U.M. ARMY needed to be.”
Blair explained that, because of her time in Athens, she knew exactly who the volunteers could help.
“I told them, ‘I have so many kids who could use that kind of love,’” Blair recalled.
U.M. ARMY relies on having someone in the community that it is setting out to serve, Jack Matthews, director of the group for the Texas Annual Conference, explained.
“We have a list of agencies and groups we work with year-to-year,” he said. “We get in touch with them and say, ‘I have a group of students and adults looking to work.’ We’re always looking for individuals who need help with maintenance.”
Usually, U.M. ARMY helps seniors and adults who are confined to their homes.
“This was a little outside our norm,” Matthews said. “We usually don’t have an opportunity like this fall into our laps. But it’s the exactly the kind of work we do.”
Instead of building wheelchair ramps for seniors, the volunteers helped families with special needs children. There were four teams who went to work.
In addition, one family needed a patio since their child’s wheelchair did not roll in the grass. Another wanted wider doors so their child could travel through his home.
Blair told parents that U.M. ARMY could help. “They were like, ‘How much is it going to cost?’” Blair recalled. “They’re all used to high medical bills. When I said it was free, they were all so amazed. I got to show off what U.M. ARMY is all about.”
She explained that wider doors, patios and ramps made a world of difference for these children.
The students in U.M. ARMY also benefitted from learning about individuals with disabilities and their families.
“They learned from the kids and their parents to be accepting of all people,” Blair said. “If you just listen, you learn so much.”
Bryson Wintjen was one of the students on the trip. He joined U.M. ARMY in high school and now remains active with the group in college.
In Athens, Wintjen helped build a wheelchair ramp for a child with cerebral palsy. “All they had at their home were steps up to the door,” he said. “We built them a 30-foot ramp, with railings and cleaned up the yard on their farm.”
Then, his team headed to the local food pantry to build a ramp there.
Matthews said that U.M. ARMY provides its members with skills needed to become future leaders. He experienced this firsthand – volunteering with the group in high school before assuming his current post as regional director five years ago.
“I feel like it gave me confidence,” Matthews said. “Everybody on the team, regardless of age, learns something.”
Now, he enjoys seeing young members rising to the occasion constantly. “Students see what leadership looks like,” he said. “They have a desire to make good things happen.”
U.M. ARMY has been in its mission since 1979. Annually, about 5,000 participants work on about 2,000 projects in the U.S.
Wintjen said he would encourage every student to volunteer with the group. “You’ll meet lifelong friends,” he said. “You bond with people, and you grow in your experience with God.”
Wintjen added that the volunteers are all giving up a week of their summer to make a difference.
“You’re around a great group of people,” he said. “They’re all giving their time to be the hands and feet of God. It’s pretty amazing. It’s an eye-opening experience.”
For more information, visit umarmy.org.