June 25, 2010

Youth work for a week, and what's their reward?
Charlie's mustache and Austin's Mohawk!

 Austin Greco appears to be having second thoughts as his new Mohawk takes shape

For 12 years, hundreds of church kids from around the Midwest have been coming to Racine for a week in the summer, working on their own spiritual growth and doing home repairs for the needy.

Today they received an unprecedented reward: Charlie French's bushy white mustache. On the left is what Charlie looked like, before...

Actually, the prize was a two-fer. A win would also shave much of the hair from Austin Greco's head.

While the Group Workcamp youth came here to work on houses, they also challenged each other to a food donation contest. Last year's youth contingent collected over 1,000 cans of food. When this year's minivans and buses from California, Nebraska, Maryland, Michigan, and Illinois arrived last Saturday, with some 260 kids, they brought hundreds of cans of food to donate to the Racine County Food Bank.

This year, it appeared the group initially met last year's goal -- so Charlie French, executive director of Neighborhood Watch who coordinates the Racine Group Workcamp, and Austin Greco of Ohio, a student at Johnson Bible College who is a Workcamp program manager, upped the ante: Double last year's food pantry donation, they said, and Charlie -- who has had a mustache for 30 years -- would shave it off. And Austin -- that's his before photo below at right -- would allow his full head of hair to be shaved into a Mohawk.

Say what you will, the incentive worked. Piles of canned goods lined the stage area where the youth held their morning meeting today and, after prayer and announcements, former youth pastor Jodie Ginter stepped forward with a hair clipper. A portable barber chair was provided and Charlie took the seat. In just a minute or two, his mustache was gone.

Then it was Austin's turn. It took longer to trim his head into a Mohawk, because there was more to cut. But Ginter knew what she was doing, and before long the sides of Austin's head were shaved clean, his thick sideburns were gone. At one point Austin picked up two piles of hair from the floor in a vain attempt to put it back. He was assured that -- in most cases -- the hair grows back. Most cases...

This was the fun part of what's been a week of hard work. Neighborhood Watch interviewed more than 100 homeowners, verified income guidelines, and picked the 45 whose porches were rebuilt, whose rooms were repainted, who had other repairs done.

Group Workcamps Foundation, of Loveland, CO, has been coordinating trips like Racine's since 1977. Racine is unusual in that it has hosted the youth for 12 consecutive years (and the contract for next year already has been signed.) The youth each raise $400 to pay for their trip -- and for the commodious accommodations in the Case High School Field House, where they sleep in sleeping bags on the gym floor. They also raise the money for the donated food; the ten kids and four adults from Graceham Moravian Church in Thurmont, MD, for example, said they collected a Joyful Noise Offering ... just the change from parishioners' pockets.

CDBG funds help run the program here, paying for Neighborhood Watch; and a $19,000 donation for each of the past ten years from the SC Johnson Foundation pays for construction materials: paint, wood, nails and the like for those 45 homes. All told, the Workcamps project has improved 600 homes in Racine over the years.

"It's instant," said French. "I get a porch built in a week, a house painted." For obvious reasons, "the community is very welcoming, very supportive."

And Dan Taivalkoski, executive director of the Racine County Food Bank, now has enough food for perhaps another week... The Workcamp group's total donation won't be revealed until tonight's wrap-up reception at 7:30 p.m. -- to which all those whose houses were worked on are also invited -- but a preliminary count showed about 2,100 cans.

Pretty good return on a mustache and sideburns.

 Jodie Ginter makes quick work of Charlie French's 30-year mustache