On a blazing hot summer morning, teens clad in orange shirts were transported to a Houston Health Department community garden on the city’s southwest side, where a lush array of vegetables, herbs and fruit trees grow.
Their arrival surprised Hawa Mahamad and Varsha Bhabad—neighborhood residents who routinely work in the garden.
“We didn’t know that the students were coming,” said Bhabad, a 39-year-old mother of three who was born in India. “When I reached here at 8 o’clock, I saw all of the students and I was like, ‘Wow. Good.’”
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s triennial Youth Gathering convened in Houston for one week in June, but the impact of thousands of adolescents volunteering throughout the city will be felt far longer.
Volunteers gave two Texas Medical Center member institutions a boost.
Dozens of teens worked alongside immigrant mothers at the health department’s Southwest Multi-Service Center by helping to fertilize a hearty harvest of okra and other vegetables in the raised beds that the women tend regularly.
And across town in the Montrose area, teams of young people and their mentors spent two days cleaning the school at The Center for Hearing and Speech and turning the agency’s summer camp area into a superhero sanctum.
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At the community garden, the out-of-town youth in their ponytails, crew cuts and short-sleeved T-shirts worked alongside local women who wore scarves on their heads and long-sleeved tunics.
“It’s fun. It’s good,” said Mahamad, 40, a cafeteria worker from Sudan who has eight children. A member of the Darfurian Association of Greater Houston, she uses okra from the garden to make different kinds of soup. “Every season has its own thing. I like tomato, squash. I like the watermelon.”
The women appreciated the volunteers so much that they left briefly and returned with drinks and snacks.
“They’re just doing from their heart,” Bhabad said. “They are having fun.”
Lutherans have been convening young people for summer meetings for more than a century in the United States. In 1988, the Chicago-based Evangelical Lutheran Church in America became the nation’s largest Lutheran denomination through a merger of three smaller bodies and continued the Youth Gathering. After two conferences in 2009 and 2012 in New Orleans to address lingering needs from Hurricane Katrina, the gathering landed in Detroit in 2015. About 30,000 young people descended on Houston this year.
In addition to strengthening their faith through worship sessions, each participant engages in a day of “service learning” to put his or her faith into action through one of dozens of local projects. That makes the conference one of the nation’s largest public service efforts.
The outdoor service project was guided by Joe Icet, a veteran urban farmer who assists the Houston Health Department with more than a dozen community gardens through Last Organic Outpost, an organization that works to create food security using urban agriculture resources and collaboration.
“We create this opportunity to gift a whole neighborhood with food and food production through reintroducing farming or gardening back into communities,” explained Icet, founder and CEO of the group, which describes itself an “urban pioneer collective.”
When Icet explained and demonstrated different tasks, the volunteers followed. Some sifted soil to separate the larger pieces for mulch and the finer components for fertilizer that will break down and provide nutrients to plants.
“They’re using one of the local fertilizers to create a really good blend and then what we’re doing
is going and top dressing all of the beds with our fertilizer mix. It’s called the Minnesota Hot Mix. It’s a fertilizer that was created right here from the local resources,” said Icet, a retired refrigeration mechanic. “I’m teaching how we can be real effective in creating food systems for communities.”
The Houston Health Department—formerly known as the City of Houston Department of Health and Human Services—became a Texas Medical Center institution in 1963. Many of the agency’s multi-service centers feature community gardens.
Though the Lutheran youth were sent to help Houston, the experience also had a profound impact that will return home with them.
“I wanted to grow my faith and be … closer to God and meet new people,” said Brook Ekenberg, 15, of Frisco, Texas. “A little bit of help can go a long way.”
Katie Mersiovsky, 14, also from Frisco, said she enjoyed learning something new.
“I think it’s fun because we don’t really get to garden a whole lot and plant stuff and get our hands dirty,” she said. “It’s hard work … but this is going to a great cause and helping a lot of people.”
Unexpected assistance came just in time for The Center for Hearing and Speech, which teaches deaf children to listen and speak without using sign language. The nonprofit, which joined the Texas Medical Center in 2017, usually has a group of returning volunteers to help prepare for a summer camp, but that group was unable to help this year. Real-life superheroes in orange shirts came to the rescue.
“We were so grateful that they were able to help us.” said Mari Bosker, the center’s director of development. “It’s a huge job preparing for camp and they filled a gap that we had this year.”
Getting ready for the camp required expanses of craft paper, numerous boxes and lots of painting to make children who enter the hallways feel like Spider-Man, Batman or Wonder Woman navigating a city skyline. The volunteers also thoroughly cleaned the Melinda Webb School—which serves preschoolers and kindergartners with hearing impairments—by disinfecting tables, chairs, walls, cubbies and toys for the fall.
“Their work wasn’t glamorous,” Bosker said, “but it will transform the lives of children with hearing loss.”
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