The city of Belleville welcomed 1,000 teenagers from across the nation and set them loose on parks, schools and neighborhoods with shovels, gloves, wheelbarrows and other tools.
At 18 different locations, the teens spent three hours Thursday cleaning and sprucing up the Belleville community as part of a Big Day of Serving.
Young adults from the Christian Missionary Alliance Church traveled from St. Louis to Belleville on 27 buses. The teens are taking part in the LIFE 2013 youth conference that started Tuesday and ends Saturday in St. Louis. About 5,000 teens from across the nation are attending the conference, which is held in a different city every three years.
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Youth sponsor Margaret Zhan of Gaithersburg, Md., said her group of about 160 teens had to do a little improvising at Gass Park because the volunteers outnumbered the equipment.
"(Belleville Parks and Recreation) were only expecting 40 at this location. We're like, 'We need more tools!' So we're stomping down on (the dirt path,)" Zhan said.
At the location on North 10th Street, volunteers constructed walking paths as part of the first stages of the development of Gass Park.
Leandra Choy, 16, of Portland, Ore., said it felt amazing to create something out of a vacant lot for the people of Belleville.
"We're showing love and putting it into the city by putting this walkway around, making a park. It just feels awesome," Leandra said.
Marlena Chan, 15, also of Portland, Ore., said volunteering in this way was new to her but she enjoyed being able to actively improve a community.
"I feel like I'm actually doing something. I'm not just sitting here listening to words about Christ that may or may not someday help me," Marlena said. "Doing this work makes me feel fulfilled."
Youth Director Kevin Zhan, Margaret Zhan's husband, of Gaithersburg, Md., said this year at the LIFE conference is the first in which all attendees were required to volunteer.
"The director of the LIFE program, he said that a lot of conferences that come through cities ... a lot of the people, locals, are like, 'These conferences come by and just take from our city. They litter, deplete the resources.' So he said he wanted us to be different. Instead of taking away from a city, we wanted to give to a city and give back so when we leave the city, hopefully it's a better place than when we first arrived."
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Two buses of attendees found themselves at Abraham Lincoln Elementary School in Belleville, where they pulled weeds, trimmed bushes, put mulch down in flower beds around the school, added gravel to playgrounds and generally gave the school grounds a facelift.
Sue Eshbraugh of Roanoke, Va., is attending the conference with 13 teens and two other adults from Virginia and was part of the group at Abraham Lincoln Elementary. The Virginia group is from Faith Alliance Church in Roanoke.
"It's good for the kids to get out and learn to give," she said. "These are good kids. They aren't complaining or anything, they are just getting out there and giving. They pastors and leaders keep stressing 'be a blessing,' and that is what they are doing. This is good -- it's just good."
Eshbraugh's son, Evan, a 16-year-old junior, was happy to be out in Belleville, helping a community he has never visited before.
"We wanted to give back to the area for inviting us here," he said, referring to the conference.
Evan's cohorts, Keagan Harmon, 16, and Josh Hodges, 16, both seniors, said they were happy to give up a few days of their summer vacation to give back.
"It's really nice to get out and help people who have nothing to do with church," Keagan said. "We do a lot of projects at home, but it's been a privilege to help a different community. It changes people's views to see that teens will actually do something like this."
The group spent part of the day Wednesday touring St. Louis and took a trip to the top of the Arch. Coming from a small, mountain town, the teens were all impressed with how far the landscape stretched.
"I'm really glad we're doing this," Josh said. "Going out and serving people and helping the community, not just out pushing God, but helping."
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At Bicentennial Park, volunteers cleared the cross country trail and picked up trash, but one attendee said they picked up more than they bargained for.
"We found an old rusted up shopping cart and some other people found $20 and a 1923 Coke can," Haley Johnson-Jones, 18, of Louisville, Neb., said.
Lydia Seipel, 17, of Omaha, Neb., said even though picking up trash was her group's small contribution to the city, she hopes residents feel blessed.
"It's kind of a blessing and just a way to show that we care," Lydia said. "There's kids everywhere around the St. Louis area ... not just staying in one spot and then everybody else being like, 'Oh, they helped out there,' but we're going to so many different places and helping just a little bit at a time. I think that can really make a big difference."
Haley said she hopes residents are inspired by the teens' actions.
"I hope it makes an impact on them and I hope it encourages other people to go out and volunteer in their community if they don't," Haley said. "I mean, we're only here for three hours and I think we can do so much in three hours. I hope they get a group together ... and help out in their community."
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The teens worked on more than 15 projects in Belleville, including at Bicentennial Park, Laderman Park, Highland Neighborhood, Signal Hill School, Khoury League, Gass Park, Hough Park, Bellevue Park, Citizens Park, Green Mount Mobile Home Park, Main Street, Henry Raab School, Roosevelt School, Abraham Lincoln Elementary School and West Junior High School.
They picked up trash and debris in parks and along Main Street, added mulch and gravel to bike and walking trails around parks and cleaned up other sites.
The teens worked side-by-side with members of Belleville churches, said Rob Dyer, pastor at the First United Presbyterian Church in Belleville. He organized the teen volunteers for their Big Day of Serving in Belleville. Other teens attending the conference worked on projects in the St. Louis area Wednesday and Friday, Dyer said.
"We wanted to get the kids outside and working with people in Belleville," Dyer said. "We wanted them to work together, as a community, and I think it will be a spark to get our community together and do more things together, as a community. These kids are coming out here, taking a break from day-to-day life and taking a few days to focus on their faith and life and God and it gives them an opportunity to make an impact. Our city gets a lot of great things out of it, but these kids also get a lot out of it and it impacts them spiritually."
A Facebook page has been created to allow participants in the day of service to share their experiences. To find it search for "Big Day Belleville."