Church group volunteers seek service projects

News-DemocratMay 11, 2013 

— A group of 1,600 volunteers will come to Belleville for one day in July to do service projects as part of their annual national youth church conference in St. Louis.

The city is asking Belleville residents for ideas -- from building a community garden to painting a concession stand -- for volunteers from the Christian Missionary Alliance Church.

The teenagers will be in St. Louis from July 9-13 for the LIFE 2013 youth conference. As part of the conference's "Big Day of Serving" component, each attendee will do at least three hours of volunteer work in the St. Louis area.

Matthew Cesare said the idea is to do as much as possible on one day to impact a city and make a visual difference. Cesare was contracted by Group Cares, which organizes "Big Day of Serving" events nationwide, to help the Christian alliance plan the service work.

"When they said they wanted to make it an integral part of the conference, I thought of all the things we could do in the St. Louis metro area," Cesare said.

The city of Belleville was chosen as the destination for volunteer work on one of the days, July 11.

So far, the city has worked with various community groups to compile a list of service projects for the volunteers. They hope to finalize projects by the end of May.

But the ideas so far -- mostly beautification work -- only utilize about 400 of the available volunteers, said Peggy Hartmann, an assistant in the city's human resources department.

Hartmann said city officials can easily come up with projects for the volunteers, but they want input from residents on what needs to be done in neighborhoods throughout the city.

One such example is an idea generated from the Pleasant Hill Neighborhood Watch through the Belleville Neighborhood Partnership program.

Donna Mauno, a Belleville Neighborhood Partnership leader for the zone that encompasses the Pleasant Hill area, said residents wanted to do a project that was geared toward helping the nearby senior center.

So on July 11, the Pleasant Hill group has asked for 50 of the youth church volunteers to help them install a walking trail around the perimeter of Gass Park, 110 N. 10th St.

The group will also build a community garden in the middle of the park, Mauno said.

The Rev. Rob Dyer, of the First United Presbyterian Church in Belleville, said it is a gratifying thing to help make connections within the community, such as bringing volunteers to assist the Pleasant Hill group.

"When 1,600 people descend on your town, that tends to leave a footprint," Dyer said.

Dyer's church was volunteering for another "Big Day of Serving" event in North St. Louis in April when Dyer heard that Cesare was looking for another city as a destination for the July conference.

"He said he was still looking for a project for the third day and I said, 'Come to Belleville!'" Dyer said.

Residents in Belleville already have a "volunteer mentality," Dyer said, so events like the "Big Day of Serving" act as rally points for the community.

"The potential is there and the people are there," Dyer said. "What we have to do is just to tap into it, organize it, harness it."

Amanda Guinn, a member of Dyer's church and the program director for Belleville AmeriCorps, has been working with city officials to organize project ideas.

Guinn agrees that the city already has a collaborative spirit, and that draws volunteers from other cities to Belleville.

In August 2012, for instance, The Mission Continues and 400 volunteers worked for a day to remodel South Side Park. And, after this July, Guinn hopes Belleville residents gear up for the city's bicentennial in 2014.

"The city wants to do 200 service projects during the 200th anniversary year," Guinn said. "We see (the July event) as a kickoff project to inspire people into service."

Guinn encourages residents to be creative when thinking of projects, but some parameters are that the teens should be able to complete the task in about three hours. And, safety is a concern, so the teens are not allowed to use power tools or climb labbers, for example.

The teens will be traveling in buses that carry about 45 passengers each, so the projects should be designed to utilize at least that many people.

Other ideas on the books include:

* One group of 50 teens will be cleaning up trash from the lake and other areas of Bellevue Park.

* About 150 volunteers will be at Bicentennial Park clearing a 1.6-mile cross-country trail and doing landscaping for the entranceway.

*A bus of volunteers also could be dropped off and then break into smaller groups to do different projects in the vicinity.

Contact reporter Jacqueline Lee at jlee@bnd.com or 239-2655. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/BNDBelleville.

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