Six teenagers sit around mounds of fresh-dug dirt, with tools, rather than cellphones, in hand. Their hands are dirty, their brows are sweaty, and they are happy.
This summer marks the 35th year the Gainesville Aid Project has taken groups of teenagers around the community doing yard work, making home repairs and providing any service they can to the elderly, disabled and disadvantaged.
“It started with 13 kids and three work sites, and it just grew and grew and grew,” said Lee Hudson, who has been a part of GAP since its beginnings at Antioch United Methodist Church in 1980. “There are needs all over this county.
“What we care about is the client. We ask nothing of them. The important thing is do they need us? Is there something that we can do for them that they can’t do for themselves anymore?”
At client Yvonne Wilson’s home, the kids tore down her old deck and were building a new one.
“I’ve lived here all my life. ... They’ve been a godsend,” Wilson said.
For every group of teenagers, there are one to two leaders. Ricky Smith and Chuck Hudson are paired up on this project and have been volunteering together since the first years of GAP.
Chuck Hudson, 12 when he started, is Lee Hudson’s son.
“When we first started, we’d pile into pickups and just went out and cut grass, cleaned gutters, met clients and tried to meet their needs however we could,” Chuck Hudson said. “I make sure I come to this because relationships, to me, are what it’s about. It’s our responsibility as younger generations to make sure you take care of those that came before because they were taking care of you.”
Over the years, Smith said he has seen this program “opens their eyes to the real world.”
“The kids are able to get out and see that everybody doesn’t live like they do,” he said. “The kids, to me, are the heart of this program. They’re the ones that get out and learn from it and help do the work. They grow from it. It helps some of them form the direction that their lives take.”
This group of kids is an even mix of first-timers and GAP veterans, ages ranging from 13 to 17.
“My friends have been doing it for a couple of years now, and I just decided, you know, ‘I’ve got a free week during the summer so I’ll just go ahead and try,’” said first-timer Olivia Bradley, 15.
Kyle Steigerwalt, 17, is the most seasoned gapper, as they call themselves, with this being his sixth summer.
“My favorite part is probably how all the people at GAP are basically a family. You just have friends that never really go away.”
The GAP program has 90 teenagers each session. They come from different local churches for a week of camp fellowship in addition to volunteering.
“It’s all about God and all of us coming together, helping out the community and getting closer to God,” said Grady Rothweiler, 17. “I like the worship.”
The week closes out with a service at Antioch United Methodist Church on Sunday and a barbecue lunch all the kids look forward to, Lee Hudson said.
“These kids come back year after year after year,” she said. “It’s just remarkable.”