ROWLAND — The day most teenagers would trade in their swim trunks for snow pants and the sun’s rays for the chilly wind would be a cold day in July. But members of the Elrod Baptist Church did just that in a recent mission trip to Nikiski, Alaska, the largest state in the U.S., and also the coldest.
Sixteen-year-old Makayla Locklear was among 22 church members who went out of her way to lend a hand to rural, poor families in the 49th state. For her, the 3,500 mile journey began with a few reservations.
“I was nervous about getting on the airplane because that was my first time ever flying,” Locklear said. “But now I can do it again. I loved it — the first one, after that I was ready to get on the rest of them.”
The feeling inside the youth center at 538 McRae Road, where Makayla sits talking about her experience, is as electric as the simmer of cicadas in the outside trees. It’s a feeling of community.
Members of the group and the congregation met at the youth center for their weekly Wednesday get-together, and also to discuss their third year working with World Changers, a Southern Baptist mission for youths, which pairs students with community projects throughout North America.
In the past, the group has traveled to Savannah, Ga., and Norfolk, Va., for mission trips with World Changers. This summer, members opted for a colder place to spread the warmth — Nikiski, a town of 4,493 people, where about 10 percent live in poverty.
After touching down in Alaska to begin their work, the youths were separated into groups and given a different project. Each group had a crew chief who specialized and taught the necessary skills. But according to Jonathan Chavis, co-youth director at the church, the volunteers were learning much more than what was being taught to them outright.
“A lot of people have lost the value of hard work,” Chavis said. “They plan to hire somebody to do everything. This gave volunteers hands-on experience and gratification at the end of the week.”
Joined by volunteers from all over the United States, the local group worked on anything from vinyl siding, to laying shingles, to creating new friendships.
While painting a two-story home, 16-year-old Ana Jacobs made friends with a man who reminded her of her late father, Johnson Jacobs.
“He’d always make jokes, make me laugh,” she said. “I only knew him three or four days, and it felt like I had known him for a year.”
“Group development” is one goal of the trip, according to the website. Another is “understanding the on-mission lifestyle,” which in Alaska meant freezing temperatures.
Chavis, who has been to the state three times, said that with temperatures falling in the low 30s at night, it was “the coldest it has ever been” at this time of year. But for the group, working through the weather was part of the assignment.
“Working in the cold was hard because I had to hold a paint brush and my hands were freezing the entire time,” said Jacobs. “… But, I realized that I love helping people.”
Nineteen-year-old Deion Baxley said the weather wasn’t on his mind.
“When you go out to help somebody,” Baxley said, “you’re not thinking of yourself, you’re thinking of how it will benefit them.”
The stories of how it benefited the locals poured forth — vinyl siding helped keep the chilly wind from a nearby lake out of one house, a tire fence protected children at a park, and a wooden fence kept grizzlies and moose out of a residential yard.
“Most people could not have done the work themselves,” Baxley said. “We worked on one house for a woman with chemo and we did everything she needed.”
Danielle Chavis, Chavis’ wife and the trip coordinator, said the group started planning in January 2011, working toward the $35,000 that was needed to pay the way. Fundraisers included plate sales, car washes, a babysitting service and a human “rent-a-team” auction during which church members were auctioned off for manual labor.
But the hard work paid off in more ways that one. In addition to the labor and nightly worship, the youths got an opportunity to hike to the top of Flat Top Mountain, a 3,510-foot journey. They also dined on prime rib and salmon on a dinner cruise, and saw humpback whales up close.
As the volunteers drift into conversation about all of their experiences, Locklear peeps up with something she forgot to say — her personal reason for spreading the warmth.
“My daddy, he wasn’t there in my life and God fills a space in my heart,” she said. ” … I wanted people to see Christ in me.”