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The radio was playing and the kids from YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly were singing and swaying as they bagged up animal crackers at MANNA FoodBank a couple of weeks ago.

In blue hair nets and disposable gloves, the youth from Central United Methodist Church in Decatur, Alabama were grouped around tables at the Asheville food charity distribution center, helping the staff break down bulk deliveries into small units that will go into boxes food pantries throughout Western North Carolina give to those in need.

Having fun while helping others, the teenagers were part of the legions of kids the YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly sends out weekly to help area nonprofits that need extra hands for projects. Another group of teenagers from the Decatur church was helping vets and volunteers at the Veterans Restoration Quarters, a transitional housing development in East Asheville, weed and build a fence around the compound’s garden.

All told, some 130 students and chaperones from Alabama and Florida were working on behalf of others at a half dozen worksites in Buncombe and McDowell counties two weeks ago. Staying at the assembly, the teens interspersed their week of service with fun outings, such as the one the previous evening to see the Asheville Tourists play baseball.

“Blue Ridge (Assembly) is so beautiful that … it can also make you feel insulated from the rest of the world,” said Cliff Christian, the assembly’s spiritual life director who heads up the youth volunteers. “Our mission at the YMCA is to make an impact on the world. The three tenets of YMCA is healthy living, youth development and social responsibility.”

The assembly runs its service leadership program year-round, attracting student groups from middle school to college. Colleges students have come from Florida, Georgia, Missouri, New Jersey, Wisconsin and North and South Carolina. Youth groups this summer have come from Florida, Alabama, Maryland, Indiana and both Carolinas, Christian said.

Agencies they have helped include Bounty & Soul, Black Mountain Recreation and Parks, Habitat for Humanity and Buncombe and McDowell County schools.

“Part of going on a service trip, if it’s planned well,” Christian said, “is (the volunteers) have the opportunity to learn in the process. The idea is, can you learn something here that you can take home to your community that will help others. If we’re open to learning from the successful things that people are doing, we can improve our own situation. The attitude of (the assembly’s service learning program) is that we can learn from a lot of different places.”

Veterans Restoration Quarters, the third largest veteran transitional housing program in the nation, is a 125-room shelter sited in a former motel in Oteen. “It’s a remarkable place” Christian said, one that “gives kids an opportunity to put a different face to homelessness and perhaps help them think of what a homeless person is like, outside of stereotypes. There are all kinds of reasons people become homeless.”

Inevitably, one or two of the veterans living there will work with the young volunteers. Often one will speak to the group about how they became homeless and how the programs at Veterans Restoration Quarters helped them, Christian said. “The veterans encourage the kids not to make the mistakes they’ve made,” he said.

Youth crews have worked at Steadfast House, a shelter in Asheville that helps women create better, more stable lives for themselves. The crews have helped schools get their grounds ready for the coming school year. They grow vegetables at the Blue Ridge Assembly for Swannanoa Valley Christian Ministry.

Young volunteers come to Black Mountain Home for Children, Youth & Families throughout the year and then several times during the summer, said Sarah Thomas, the home’s spokeswoman. They weed, mulch, paint and clear trails, among other tasks.

“We also have more skilled groups that will take on specialized projects (from) demo to drywall at our new West Campus,” Thomas said. Recently, a group helped put a new roof on an animal barn. Others helped remodel a cabin.

“It was fun to see adult staff not only getting work done, but also taking time to teach the kids how to do things like paint and hang Sheetrock,” said Jason Covert, the home’s campus coordinator.  “It’s not just service for the home, but also an educational experience for the kids.”

“On our own, there’s no way we could accomplish all the volunteers do for us,” Covert said. “They even allow us to take on projects above and beyond our initial plans. It’s a lot of fun to work with groups that come in with a servant attitude. It’s amazing to see how much work they get done in a short amount of time.”

Black Mountain Home tracks the number of volunteers it attracts but doesn’t break them out by group, Thomas said. Youth groups from YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly were “significantly” represented among the 2,608 volunteers who worked there during the fiscal year and the more than 21,300 hours the workers put in, she said.

Every month during summer, the assembly sends two or three groups to MANNA FoodBank, said Matt Farr, its volunteer manager. Working in two- or three-hour shifts, they cull, sort and package food. “They’re super enthusiastic, and they love to help,” he said. “We love having them.”

MANNA FoodBank collects food for and distributes it to 220 partner agencies such as homeless shelters, soup kitchens and food pantries in WNC. About one in six people in the region is insecure about having enough to eat, Farr said. One in four children in WNC is food insecure. MANNA volunteers or staffers often share that information with the youth groups that come from the assembly.

“Often, they’re really surprised at how great the need is here,” Farr said. “That just further inspires them to be enthusiastic. What we do here is more than get food out the door. We also create space where people can practice compassion and empathy.”

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