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Catholic camp volunteers visit Riverpark neighborhood to help with home repairs



More than 200 Catholic teenagers from across the country came to Oklahoma City last week to paint some siding, plant some flowers and make residents' lives a little easier.


The Catholic Heart Workcamp is a national organization based in Orlando, Fla., that sends youth to perform community service at sites all over the country, said Peter McConnell, co-manager of Catholic Heart in Oklahoma City.

Kids have the choice of which site they go to, as far west as Denver. The camps run from the beginning of June until early August, he said.

While at the site, campers work with local social agencies to see what work needs to be done in the community they're serving. Typically, the groups work in homes, food banks or day care centers, doing anything from weather stripping and building wheelchair ramps to painting, McConnell said.

"They're seeing what kind of impact they can make," he said. "It's pretty addictive. They want to do it again."

Georgie Rasco, executive director of Neighborhood Alliance of Central Oklahoma, said she was approached by Joe Welch, co-manager of Catholic Heart in OKC, who asked what community service projects were available around the area. Rasco recommended Riverpark, a South OKC neighborhood that was just getting started with Neighborhood Alliance.

"They came here the first year and have been coming back ever since," she said. "The neighborhood embraces them."

Riverpark is a very unique neighborhood, according to Rasco. Some of the members of the community have been living in the area for 50 years, while others are young families that have just moved in. The neighborhood used to be riddled with gang violence and graffiti, but now has a city park that is crime-free, and the neighborhood intends to keep it that way, she said.

Over the last three years, Catholic Heart campers have repaired fences, torn down garages, weatherized the windows and doors, and installed wheelchair ramps and grab bars, as well as dozens of other small projects, Rasco said. 

"If the public were to hire (for these jobs), it would be in the tens of thousands of dollars," she said.

Although the camp provides free labor, the social agencies it works with have to provide the materials and paint, which is often donated by the community, McConnell said.

The neighborhoods and residents make lists of what needs to be done by the campers, but they often find more things to get done during the week, he said. A group of campers working on the home of Riverpark resident Lonnie Epperson were just set to paint and fix a few odds and ends, but decided to plant flowers and clean up the front yard, as well.

"You come in for one thing, and you end up doing more," said Margie Schneider, a parent volunteer from Cypress, Texas.

Epperson said he and his wife, who is on oxygen, are unable to take care of the house the way they used to.

"They're really good people," he said. "They've changed it so much. My wife can't get on her knees and clean the flower beds anymore."

Schneider said that although the work might be grueling, there is never a single complaint. Despite the new experience of Oklahoma heat, the volunteers are generally excited about the prospect of helping others and giving back to the community, she said.

"(We do this) because we know they need it," said Brittany Hatfield, a camper from Huntsville, Ark. "It's good to give back to those less fortunate than us."

Jody Isham, the hospitality director for the Riverpark Neighborhood Association, said by the end, the campers will have worked on 70 homes in the community.

"It's hard for (residents) to ask for help," Isham said. "But (I tell them), 'These people pay money to come help us. It's not going to cost you anything.'"

By the end of the week, campers get to enjoy activities around the area, such as White Water Bay or the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum, but are most excited about the work they've accomplished during the week, McConnell said.

"No job is too small or too large," Isham said. "No job is too dirty."

Rasco said the campers don't necessarily do huge renovations on the homes, but they make it a little more livable for the residents.

"The city is only as strong as its weakest neighborhood," she said. "We need to give to those neighborhoods that are struggling."  "Jamie Birdwell

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