To Eliza Smalls, it must have seemed like a miracle.
On April 28, a band of volunteers gathered to make needed repairs to the 94-year-old widow’s house. They were part of a group of more than 100 volunteers who gathered to help others in need as part of the Hands of Christ Service Project, which has been held twice a year since 2004.
Debbie Bergman has been to all six of the events. “We have two per year, one in October and the other in April,” she says.
Several projects are organized so that volunteers can have a choice of projects. “We had six houses of elderly people that needed repairs,” Bergman says.
“We made at least two dozen, probably closer to 30, fleece blankets for Union Mission,” she says. “Something new this year was decorating pillow cases for Morning Star and Greenbriar children’s homes. They give each child a fresh pillow, so we decorated pillow cases, about two dozen, for them.”
Receiving blankets were made for Georgia Lutheran Ministries. Participants also did landscaping at Habitat for Humanity and Union Mission, and donated blood to the Savannah Community Blood Bank.
Landscaping was done at Habitat for Humanity last year and was very much appreciated, Bergman says. “They wanted us to come back and do it again,” she says. “We added some shrubbery and planted a new tree.”
This year’s project was much bigger than those in the past. “We started off with five or six churches,” Bergman says. “We had seven churches last year. This year, we had 11 churches.”
The participating churches were Asbury Memorial United Methodist Church, First African Baptist Church, First Baptist Church, First Christian Church, First Presbyterian Church, Grace United Methodist Church, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, Trinity United Methodist Church, Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church and Wilmington Island Presbyterian Church.
Bergman served as the project photographer, capturing the volunteers in action. She was serving on the social services committee at St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church when the first project, then called Congregations in Service, was started in October 2004.
“I loved the idea of the churches working together on community outreach,” Bergman says.
Nell Bordeaux is a member of First Presbyterian Church. The next Hands of Christ Service Project will be held Saturday, Oct. 27 from 8 a.m. to noon, she says.
Participation isn’t limited to members of the 11 churches, Bordeaux says. “Any other congregation or individuals are welcome,” she says.
Bordeaux chose to help with house repair this year. “I helped at the home of a 96-year-old man,” she says. “He built his house in 1940, and it hadn’t been painted since 1970.”
The project also draws positive attention to the churches that participate. “So much publicity about the church is political, but this project is an example of what churches are supposed to be about,” Bordeaux says.
“The name says it all,” she says. “We reach out to others. It’s a wonderful, meaningful project for everyone.”
The volunteers are all ages. “We have small children who volunteer,” Bordeaux says. “Hopefully from an early age, they will learn to be of service to others.”
The first service project was born during a worship service, Bordeaux says. “We have a team of volunteers that plans the projects,” she says.
“Some are hands-on construction jobs,” Bordeaux says. “Some are seated jobs that are ideal for elderly volunteers.”
Betty Hodges of First Baptist Church was a member of the coordinating committee, and says the service project is fun for everyone involved. “It’s great, like an old-fashioned barn raising,” she says. “Everyone has a good time while doing something useful.”
Some recipients are surprised to be helped by the project, Hodges says. “Sometimes at first they don’t quite get it,” she says. “Once we do it, they are very responsive. And some agencies get permanent volunteers from it.”
When Union Mission wanted someone to help them catch up with filing paperwork one year, there were two volunteers who decided to volunteer there permanently. “One to file and one who is a nurse,” Hodges says. “This benefits everyone who participates.”
It’s helpful if each participating church has a volunteer on the coordinating committee to help plan the event, Hodges says. “They can bring ideas to the committee,” she says. “We’ve found it’s easier if someone on the committee knows someone in the agencies.
“We do have a lot of repeats,” Hodges says. “We’ve done something for Union Mission every time.”
Josh Brooks was the construction supervisor for the team of 12 that repaired Smalls’ home. He has overseen other projects, including construction of a wheelchair ramp.
“We have painted the outside of houses, the inside of houses, replaced floors in kitchens, living rooms and dining rooms,” Brooks says. “We’ve done siding repair and window repair.”
Those who get house repairs are chosen by the city through an application process, Brooks says. “They are always very thankful for our efforts,” he says.
Brooks says he participates “just to help the community.”
“It’s a philanthropic thing, but it really is fun,” he says. “We get a lot of enjoyment from helping people who really need it.”
All volunteers get a big reward at the end of the day’s projects -- a free barbecue lunch. Marty Ward of the First Christian Church cooks 50 to 60 pounds of Boston pork butts, as many as nine of them, in his backyard, while his wife, Mary, oversees preparation of the side dishes, including baked beans, cole slaw and bread.
The Wards have participated in the service project since its beginning. “I felt that after everyone comes and works hard, they should share a meal together,” Ward says.
“That’s very Biblical,” he says. “Christ did it at the Last Supper.”
It’s become something that the participants look forward to. “Everyone asks if the barbecue is going to be there,” Ward says.
“I cook it myself on the grill in my back yard,” he says. “We fed the troops from the very beginning.”
Ward estimates that 125 to 130 volunteers participated -- and were fed -- during the most recent service project. He says he and his wife learned to prepare food for lots of people when their children attended Savannah Christian Preparatory School and they fed 200 people at a time.
The gratitude of recipients keeps Ward coming back.
“You have to look at the smiles on their faces,” Ward says. “They can’t believe people in the community want to come out and help them. It’s the look in their faces that says it all to me.”
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