Annie Clara Martin, 85, gets misty eyed when she speaks of the way her garden once looked.
As she inspects her recent crop of Big Boy tomatoes, she leans on her "brown walking stick" and recalls the lush flora she nurtured when she moved to her Gainesville home more than 30 years ago.
With a toothy grin and chipper upswing in her voice, she said she’s excited today is the day when a gaggle of youth will pour into her yard to polish it up once again.
For several years now, teens and young adults have spent three days each summer cleaning up Martin’s house and yard through the Gainesville Aid Project.
Project leaders began organizing Gainesville area youth to spruce up the homes and yards of the elderly and disabled 30 years ago.
Martin said she couldn’t ask for a nicer group of people to surround her each summer.
"They are just as much of a joy as they are a help coming down to work," she said. "... Over the years I haven’t been able to do like I did when I first moved here, but when somebody comes along to help you carry out what you like to do, it just makes you feel good. It means so much. I feel like it’s a prayer answered when help comes like that."
What started in 1980 with a handful of youth workers at Antioch United Methodist Church has blossomed into a project in which 200 youth from dozens of churches fan out through Northeast Georgia each summer to pitch in where a helping hand and kind heart is needed.
The first session of 100 workers set to work earlier this month. The second crew of 100 youth pick up garden tools and hammers today.
Since its inception, the aid project has recruited about 1,600 kids to assist nearly 600 elderly or disabled locals in weeding gardens, mowing lawns, cleaning houses and building wheelchair ramps, said volunteer Joe Strickland.
The project’s director, Ken Parker, said the program has grown to regularly include volunteers from churches such as Gainesville First United Methodist.
"It’s a love of helping others that’s been fostered in the church, and I think that’s a huge reason it’s a big success," Parker said of the project. "Any organization is only as good as its volunteers, and we’ve got the best volunteers there are."
Gainesville Aid Project volunteers, otherwise known as GAP-ers, rely solely on donations and volunteer coordinators to support the service organization.
Libby Sayre, 15, is a member of Redwine United Methodist Church and said she looks forward to each June when she temporarily moves into a cabin at the Antioch Campground for service and worship. Her participation in the early June session marked her fourth year of service.
"I did it the first year, and I’ve done it ever since because I really like it a lot," Libby said. "I’d much rather clean a GAP client’s bathroom than my own."
Libby said many of the project’s clients are older and have interesting tales to tell the young folk. She said sometimes it seems like the clients are glad just to have someone to talk to, and it’s fun for the workers to visit with them.
Like Libby, fourth-year GAP-er Jeremy Naylor, 16, said through the aid project he has learned there’s no need to travel to a foreign country to do mission work. Naylor will set to work today for his seventh session.
"A lot of people don’t see it, but there is so much that needs to be done in our own community that you don’t see on a day-to-day basis," he said. "We really try to address that. We really try to bring out the community."
And Naylor said clients aren’t the only ones who benefit from the experience.
"The more you put into this program, the more you really get out, because you really learn more about yourself and it expands your thoughts on life and spirituality," he said. "... You see how much these people need it and you see how many lives it touches besides your own."