Up and down the streets, in city parks and surrounding schools, all over Kokomo and even into Greentown this weekend, hundreds upon hundreds of people have been picking up trash, splashing fresh coats of paint on fading or chipped structures, building wheelchair ramps for the needy and scrawling positive messages on the sidewalks in chalk.
The list goes on and on. But the theme is universal: serving others.
More than 40 churches have banded together this weekend for the common good of serving others as the annual Serve Together Weekend unifies people from different denominations throughout the area, their paths weaved together through the common thread of performing selfless acts.
“Our big goal is to get out and love on the community a little bit, make it shine, clean up some of the debris, just be a pleasant face and interact, light up the kids’ day with some popsicles,” said Christine Warnack, a member of Kokomo’s Fuel Church. She and her friend Betsy Bush were part of a cleanup effort at Highland Park, also passing out frozen goodies to kids young and old.
Beginning yesterday and concluding today this year’s weekend features hubs around the Kokomo area including Indian Heights, Kokomo Rescue Mission, Northwest Park and Greentown. From those areas, volunteers offer free food while hosting fun activities and serving surrounding neighborhoods with services including street cleanup and lawn care.
In Greentown, which was playing host as a hub for the first time, groups weaved up and down the town sidewalks – many wearing red “Serve Together” T-shirts – picking up debris. Others visited with residents at Century Villa Nursing Home, painting residents’ fingernails, participating in activities, or just cheering up spirits.
People in those same red shirts darted about the Howard County 4H fairgrounds in Greentown involved in a variety of painting projects.
Greentown resident Zach Foland, who attends Crossroads Community Church in Kokomo, was working on a shed at the fairgrounds, repairing broken and worn boards to prepare for a fresh coat of paint.
“We got involved a little bit last year,” said Foland, who was with his 13-year old son Hunter, an Eastern middleschooler. “It’s just a good way for the church to come out and help the community.”
Hunter’s friend Daylen Schrock and his grandfather were helping the Foland’s with the project.
“The Bible and God call us to serve one another, and that’s what it’s all about,” said Zach. “We’re out here serving the community.”
Added Hunter: “God says to put others before you.”
For Greentown Wesleyan Church Pastor Jeanne Winter, hosting the hub meant seeing different projects fall through but regrouping along the way and planning other things. Overall, she stressed the importance of so many different churches coming together.
“Most of the people I don’t know,” said Winter. “That’s the great thing that I like is different churches working together, community people coming together. Some of my parishioners are cooking [today]. Some people from Greentown and some people from other communities said this is where I want to work. That’s the great thing, it's just people really coming together.”
Now in its fourth year, the event had 38 participating churches in its first year and has had more than 40 in each of the years since, according to Kevin Smith, Executive Pastor at Crossroads Community Church. Smith, who is a Serve Together lead team member, said the idea caught on quickly.
“It began four years ago as an effort by our church and as we invited other churches in to participate, the idea caught on,” Smith said. “I think there were several of us, not just at Crossroads, as I made contact with friends of mine in other churches some of them were having similar discussions and we all kind of said let’s not compete but let’s serve together.
“I don’t know how to put a number on it but I think there’s been a growing sense in the churches of Howard County that we need to get more active out in the community, showing that we love our community and love the people in it.”
The weekend will culminate with tonight’s church service in Kokomo Municipal Stadium at 6 p.m.
“It’s a very joyous, celebration-toned service, worship leaders and musicians from multiple churches all on the stage at the same time taking turns, leading particular songs or styles of music,” Smith said. “We’ll have speakers from four different churches, we’ll have a number of special elements.”
After drawing 2,000 people to the stadium each of its first two years, the event was rained out last year. Today, with rain in the forecast, the service will be moved to Crossroads Community Church south in the case of inclement weather.
The Kokomo Rescue Mission and its Care and Share lot across the street were both bustling on Saturday morning, as hamburgers and hot dogs were doled out under a large tent while children played in a nearby bouncy house ahead of Saturday night’s carnival.
“It’s pretty awesome, we can help a lot of people,” said Serve Together volunteer Lynn Shaffer, a member of New Life Assembly Church who was trimming shrubs at the Rescue Mission. She was volunteering for a second year. Last year, she visited with residents at Waterford Place. “We’re a community that likes to help each other.”
Anna Brown, a special events coordinator with Kokomo Rescue Mission, said the help received through the Serve Together Weekend allows for several large projects to be completed, including 25-30 people working on projects in the warehouse with backlogged inventory, as well as landscaping, handling book donations and moving large boxes.
“It’s amazing,” Brown said. “Obviously we love when volunteers come in and we are able to knock out some of those bigger projects. It’s just a great community event. It’s one of those things where you just see God’s love through all of it. It’s overwhelming how much this community cares for each other.”
Kokomo Rescue Mission Executive Director Van Taylor echoed Brown’s thoughts, saying that the opportunity to clean up, organize, beautify, pull weeds, and do other projects that manpower and resources often won’t allow is a huge help to the organization.
“I think it really shows what kind of community we are,” Taylor said. “We not only talk about it, this day puts hands and feet to it, about the caring, about the sharing of time and resources and I think it’s just a wonderful thing for Kokomo. It’s a real witness and testimony to the love and concern that really is in the heart of a lot of people.”
The Serve Together weekend is certainly no easy feat to pull off, based on the sheer number of people and projects involved.
“Yes, there are challenges,” Smith said. “You’re trying to coordinate with 40-plus churches that each have different governing styles and sometimes creeds of faith and things so you’re trying to find some common ground.”
Smith and others involved with the weekend made a determination early on that they wanted to serve people rather than places, meaning that instead of a handful of large projects with many people, they would have many different projects with fewer people on each one.
In all, more than 100 projects were set to take place Saturday and today.
Among those projects, something Smith has really enjoyed watching blossom is groups building wheelchair ramps for those in need. In the first year of Serve Together, a request was made for a wheelchair ramp. This year, 10 will be made.
“There is not much bigger of a joy than seeing a person who was having trouble getting in and out of their trailer or house now getting down a solid ramp safely,” Smith said. “That’s a cool feeling to have.
“I think the biggest thing for people to know,” Smith added, “is in a day where everyone has been burnt often enough to believe that nothing is ever the way it appears to be I would like for the community to know that we mean what we’re saying, that we’re here to serve together, no strings attached,” Smith said. “It is simply acts of service to a community and to people in the community solely because they matter to God and they matter to us.
“We want the community to know this has integrity and also want the community to realize that churches can work together and serve together and get more done together. The vision of what needs to be done is bigger than we can do individually. We have to come together to accomplish the vision.”
Smith applauded the city of Kokomo for working closely with the group each year.
“The city of Kokomo partners closely with us,” Smith said. “They provide us with dumpsters to put our trash and refuse in, they have some of their city workers work right alongside our volunteers so we’re very grateful to the city administration and the way they partner with us. Without that it would be a lot harder to serve our community.”