Spring Break Service

Students repair homes during SOS camp

By Aisling Maki

Like many college students, Annie Marcum and Lisa Stockdale of South Carolina’s Clemson University had planned to spend spring break enjoying the beach.

Students from Western Illinois University renovate a kitchen for SOS Ministries (Service Over Self). SOS is a Memphis-based nonprofit that works to transform Memphis neighborhoods.

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

But the friends changed their minds after a resident assistant in their dormitory told them about her experiences volunteering with Service Over Self, a nonprofit, Christian ministry focused on improving housing conditions for economically disadvantaged homeowners in inner-city Memphis.

“Lisa and I both felt really called to do it,” Marcum said. “We both talked about it one night and decided to scrap our plans for the beach and come to Memphis instead.”

They are among 90 college students from around the country – including Arkansas, Texas, Indiana, Illinois and Missouri – who have spent this week repairing homes in Memphis’ Binghampton and Orange Mound neighborhoods.

Like Marcum and Stockdale, most hear about the SOS Urban Home Repair Camp through word-of-mouth from other campers, while others learn about the volunteer opportunity through college church groups and campus ministries.

“We’ve been blessed that our camps have been essentially full for years and years,” said SOS Executive Director Philip Walkley, who was introduced to the organization when he served with a college team in 1998. “We even have waiting lists for some weeks of camp. We haven’t had to do a tremendous amount of marketing.”

Founded in 1986 as a ministry of Christ United Methodist Church, SOS in 1999 was established as its own nonprofit.

“Christ United Methodist is still a huge supporter of our work,” Walkley said. “But the great thing about not being connected to a particular church or denomination is we’ve seen Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, Catholics, Quakers – just the whole spectrum of Christian denominations – who come and participate.”

Each week in March, a new crop of students arrives, taking up residence in the upstairs dormitories at SOS headquarters, 2505 Poplar Ave., where they eat, sleep, socialize and participate in evening worship services.

Memphis homeowner Tim Moore had his kitchen renovated last week by students from Western Illinois University working for SOS Ministries (Service Over Self).

(Photo:  Lance Murphey)

Each morning, campers head to preselected homes, where they work together in small teams to accomplish tasks that include stripping and shingling roofs, painting siding, repairing damaged sheetrock, and replacing leaky plumbing and rotting floors.

“We do significant home repairs,” said Walkley, who leads a full-time staff of seven. “We’re not just using the home repairs as an excuse to teach kids about serving; we really want to meet real needs. I just came from a house this morning where we replaced the entire roof, ripped off four layers of old shingles, and fixed any decking that was broken or rotten.”

Students are not required to have previous home repair experience. SOS employs a construction director who is a licensed general contractor, as well as two assistant construction directors, and when camp is in session the nonprofit hires college students with previous urban repair mission experience to lead the teams.

Walkley said homeowners interact with the campers and are very much a part of the process.

“We try to do it in a way that’s empowering and dignity-giving,” he said. “In other words, the homeowner may have the means or ability to in some way partner with us in that work. We want to encourage participation in the work. … We want the homeowner to be engaged in that process. Just because they’re a low-income homeowner doesn’t mean they don’t have some gift or talent to offer. We try to make this a partnership.”

Participation is free for qualified homeowners, who are selected through an application process. Applicants must live in one of SOS’ two target neighborhoods and prove they own their home. SOS staff then visits applicants’ homes and ranks them according to greatest need.

Once selected, homeowners are required to attend a homeowner education workshop developed in partnership with the Binghampton Development Corp. that includes financial and home maintenance components.

“We noticed there were a few cases where we worked on a home where we had, say, put in a new kitchen,” Walkley said. “We came back a year later and the kitchen was falling apart again because they weren’t taking care of the home. The workshop was partly designed to help empower homeowners so that the work we do lasts longer.”

Spring break campers pay a $205 tuition, which includes meals and housing. That tuition also makes up roughly 50 percent of SOS’ operating revenue, with the remainder raised through church and individual donations as well as foundation and government grants.

In addition to its spring camps for college students, SOS hosts summer camps for junior and senior high school students, and fall weekend camps for groups of all ages.

Altogether, close to 2,000 SOS volunteers repair about 40 local homes annually; this month alone, 14 homes will be repaired.

“The motivation behind what we do is the gospel of Jesus Christ,” said Walkley, who lives in Binghampton with his wife, Kelsea, and two young children. “We believe that we as Christians are called to love and care for those who have needs, and that if God has given us resources, it’s for the purpose of blessing others.”