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Church-based community service program still busy after three decades
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Gainesville Aid Project volunteer Austin Sanders pulls kudzu from the shrubbery of Sue Bennett’s home while Bennett looks on from her front door. - photo by Tom Reed
Gainesville Aid Project
To learn more about the ministry or to get involved visit the website or call Antioch United Methodist Church at 770-536-7351.

Gainesville Aid Project is headed into its fourth decade of a youth-oriented community service initiative, with some of the original members still in tow.

The program got under way in 1980, an idea that sprang from members of Antioch United Methodist Church in northeast Hall County returning from a youth mission trip in Tennessee.

They had spent the week in rural Appalachia helping the needy with tasks around the home.

“The (youth) came up with the idea in the van coming home. They decided they could work in their own backyard,” Lee Hudson said.

“We don’t have to drive out of state to find people we can help,” Joe Strickland added.

Hudson and Strickland are Antioch members who have taken part in GAP, as its popularly called, from its earliest days.

Hudson initially was a mother pushing her reluctant child into the summer program and Strickland was a “young and green” youth director.

What began as an Antioch summer program grew over the years to encompass area churches from many Christian denominations.

The program has helped 500 people since its start and involved some 1,500 teenagers.

Many of the youth “come back year after year,” Strickland said.

They start as workers, pushing mowers, clipping hedges and building wheelchair ramps, and evolve into staffers, driving youth to work sites and overseeing the completion of projects.

The program has two summer sessions. This year, the first one began Wednesday and ends Sunday. The second one is set for June 23-27.

Each participant pays $80, which includes meals, cabin lodging at the nearby Antioch Campground and a T-shirt.

About 200 youth and volunteer staff will take part in this year’s service projects, with dozens of other volunteer workers helping provide meals and other needs for participants.

In addition, because the church receives so many calls for help throughout the year, the church will hold “mini-GAPs,” typically on Saturdays.

“If they need a wheelchair ramp and they’re in rehab, and they can’t come home until they get a wheelchair ramp, we’ll build them a ramp,” Hudson said.

Overall, the program tends to be an eye-opener for many participants.

“I think it’s good for the kids to see that not everybody has ... Internet and cell phones and air conditioning,” Strickland said.
Program leaders have “clients” they help out year to year, but they also try to collect new ones through sign-ups at such agencies as the Senior Life Center or The Guest House adult day health care center in Gainesville.

“We go and visit them, look at the work site, see if it’s something that we can do and then make a determination (if it can be done),” Hudson said.

During a GAP session, groups arrive early at work sites and try to leave by 3 p.m. They return to the church for dinner, relaxation and a worship service at the campground. Lights out is 11 p.m.

Group driver Eric Pittman attended his first GAP session 28 years ago as a youth with Buford First United Methodist Church.

Now 41 and living in Statham, he only has missed one summer, the year his father died.

“After those first two years, I understood. I was one of the kids that got it,” Pittman said.

“There’s nothing more special than sitting in a worship circle and you hear (youth) talking about their day and (sensing) in that moment ... they realize what service is.”

Amy Bullock, a second-generation GAP volunteer from Jefferson, said she has pondered why she goes to strangers’ homes to help with housework.

“I guess it’s just a great godly experience, and you always want to keep coming back,” the 14-year-old said.

Sweat pouring down his face as he worked on a hedge at a North Hall home Thursday morning, 16-year-old Austin Sanders said he is in his third year participating in GAP.

“I enjoy (the program) because we get to meet all these people who can’t really do anything for themselves because they are elderly or disabled,” said Sanders, a rising 11th-grader at Lanier High School in North Gwinnett.

“Our church does other missions that are in North Carolina and other states, but I enjoy doing this one,” he added.

“That’s because it’s here and it shows you can (give) help right here in town. You don’t have to go to other countries or states.”

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