By Paul Black
WASHINGTON – The smile and sparkle of Mia Pruitt’s eyes told the story.
While members of a mission team finished the last connecting pieces of her new swing set, Mia was already making plans.
“It’s exciting because now I can have my friends over and we can have fun together,” she said.
The swing set delivery was one of several made in the third week of Hope Swings in Washington, a seven-week mission blitz for youth groups throughout the United States that are coming to central Illinois to build 100 swing sets in 42 days. In all, more than 300 will rotate in for a week and build swing sets before the work is completed July 25.
“We know what the task is – build swing sets – but the bigger goal is to build relationships – between ourselves, between teams and leaders as well as relationships with the community as youth meet familes that were affected by the Nov. 17 tornado,” said Dan Philips, director of community ministries at Peoria First UMC.
Peoria First, Washington Crossroads UMC and Washington Evangelical UMC are partnering in this seven-week endeavor that began June 8.
Kyra Austria of Peoria, who just completed school at Illinois Central College and is planning to enter nursing school, is one of 10 interns, ages 19 to 23, that has been hired for the summer. The intern’s job is to lead small group Bible Study Monday through Friday mornings before groups head out to build swing sets. They also lead the work teams along with the adult youth sponsors and lead worship.
“Following the tornado, I didn’t know how I could help, and then I heard about Hope Swings,” Austria said. “It has been exhausting but amazing. I have met people I never knew before, I have drawn closer to youth that are participating and we have clicked. I have no doubt these will be lasting friendships.”
Lucas Kern of Palmyra UMC in Palmyra, Mo., agrees. Kern said he had worked on a mission trip to Oklahoma prior to the Hope Swings.
“Helping people is the reason I came and the faces of the children make it all worthwhile,” he said.
First-timer Jumobi Arowolo, a member of Friendship UMC in Bolingbrook, Ill., said the community building was the most memorable part of the week.
“I was sort of new to the youth group and I made new friends and learned how to use tools,” Arowolo said. “The intern has been so encouraging, because in the beginning, I kept breaking things! And now, I made some new friends, built some swing sets, and I am looking forward to delivering it.”
Hope Swings in Washington began when a youth pastor from Coral Gables, Fla., was looking for a mission project for his youth group. Contacting Peoria First UMC, he asked whether or not his youth group could come to build swing sets in Washington, Ill., after tornadoes touched down there Nov. 17.
“The youth director called our missions director (at Peoria First UMC),” said Julie Rolffs, who is coordinating many of the logistics for Hope Swings. “He said he was around when Hurricane Andrew hit Florida in 1992 and remembered a niche for mission work – swing sets – because it was something that insurance companies usually didn’t pay to replace which affected children involved in the storm.”
The phone call sparked a discussion among the three United Methodist congregations about how the concept could be expanded from a one-week mission to a seven-week build along with a week for training 10 interns who would connect with teams a week at a time.
Rolffs said that Peoria First had seen a similar operation in Cincinnati at Hyde Park Community UMC and its Awaken the City mission. “Hyde Park’s inner-city mission experience included all the components – interns, worship and the relation building we were looking for,” she said. “We used their model as a template for Hope Swings in Washington.”
Philips said a variety of partners emerged as the Hope Swings concept began to take root. “We call them God moments and Christ connections,” Philips said.
After reaching out to the “big box” stores which were unable to assist in such a project, Philips contacted a manufacturer in Janesville, Wis.
“We told him what we were trying to accomplish and he initially said it was beyond the scope of how they could assist. He noted we sponsor a Little League team and that is about all of the community support we provide,” Philips recalled. “After being turned down, I sent a collection of letters with names and identities hidden, but from families that applied for swing sets. The very next day, he called me back and said he had 50 of last year’s model of swing sets in a warehouse which he would sell at less than cost. Later, he called a second time and said he found a friend who had the other 50 we needed. He understood the need and the letters to know of the personal stories.”
A local bus company is providing a charter bus each Sunday night for the community prayer tour and another company is providing semi trailers for storage of materials.
The Illinois Great Rivers Conference has supplied $38,500 from the Conference Disaster Fund to purchase the materials for the swing sets.
Information about Hope Swings in Washington can be found at: www.hopeswingswashington.org