It’s common for churches to send its students out during the summer to other communities for mission work.
One local organization works to bring those students to the city to help make a difference in a couple of Memphis’ neighborhoods. Service Over Self (SOS) started in 1986 at Christ United Methodist Church. Church leaders realized that while they were sending their youth out to other parts of the U.S. for mission work, there were plenty of needs at home in Memphis. So they recruited a church from Mississippi and together repaired houses in the city.
That effort kept growing and eventually the organization launched as its own nonprofit in 1999. They acquired the current headquarters building on Poplar Avenue just east of East Parkway in 2001 and began hosting summer camps there in 2002.
In many ways the camps resemble a typical short-term mission trip a church group might take. But the focus at SOS is on home repair, so groups of students from around the U.S. come to Memphis for a week during the summer to complete home repairs, primarily roofing. Students arrive on a Sunday and go out in small groups to do home repair every day during the week. At night they are fed and have chapel at the Poplar Avenue location, where many of the students are also housed for the week.
Most of the camps are during the summer but there are spring break projects as well. Over the course of the year there are about 2,000 high school and college students who come to Memphis to do repairs on 40 homes, 30 to 35 of which take place in the summer. It’s usually about 240 campers each week during June and July.
The work generally is roof repair.
“The roof is probably our staple because so many of the houses we see have so many problems that are a result of a leaky roof,” said Philip Walkley, executive director of SOS. “You can’t fix other problems unless the house is dried in. And roofing is a volunteer-friendly process. It’s labor intensive but we have lots of labor. The goal is a warmer, safer and drier home so we’re not putting up crown molding or painting trim. We make sure there is a functioning bathroom and kitchen, make sure a handrail on stairs.”
It’s also focused on specific neighborhoods instead of city-wide. That began in 2000 when the strategy shifted to Binghampton. A great need was saw in that neighborhood, and now some 180 students work each week on houses in Binghampton and The Heights nearby.
Orange Mound was added in 2009 when they realized the Binghampton work was at capacity. Instead of turning away volunteers they expanded.
The students who work in Binghampton are housed at the Poplar headquarters. Students who focus on Orange Mound homes are housed at Union Avenue Baptist Church. Some 60 volunteers work each week in Orange Mound.
SOS isn’t necessarily running out of houses, but only about 25 percent of the houses this year are in Binghampton. Walkley is clear that the organization only works on homes in neighborhoods where they are wanted.
Houses are chosen through an application process. The applicant must own the home and live in one of the neighborhoods. From that point the construction director completes a home assessment in the fall and places the houses in order of greatest need that the organization can address.
The work is a blessing for homeowners who don’t always have the means to address problems on their home.
“So many of these homeowners we partner with it truly is an answer to prayer for so many of them,” Walkley said. “I don’t have a graph of data that says this many lives have been changed from our work but we hear so many stories of a homeowner who wasn’t certain how they could remain in their home but because of our work they can.”
While a United Methodist Church started the organization it’s an independent nonprofit that’s not tied to any one particular denomination. Christ United Methodist remains a supporter, but so do other churches in the Memphis area from other denominations.
“In our earlier days it was almost all United Methodist students but now it’s a wide variety,” Walkley said. “We’ve had Catholic, Quaker, Baptist and Methodist. We’ve had some Christian schools and even some urban youth ministries working with urban youth in the city.”
The students are generally from states east of the Rockies, although there have been groups from Montana and Washington state. Walkley estimates students come from 20 different states each year. The work groups consist of students from one church, but some work sites might have multiple groups from different churches. And the students have opportunities to socialize during free time in the evenings.
Walkley first came in contact with the organization nearly 20 years ago as a freshman at the University of Mississippi. He came to Memphis to do home repair with the organization one weekend and was hooked.
He came back a few other times and as a senior worked on the college summer staff. He worked as a youth minister in Mississippi and brought his group to Memphis to work with SOS. He eventually was hired as executive director in 2007.
“SOS is the first place I saw adult Christians living out what they believe,” Walkley said.
He said it’s an eye-opening experience for many of the students.
“A lot of the kids realize how much privilege they come from,” Walkley said, “but the goal is not for you to come observe some people’s lives are rougher and for you to be thankful. It’s to fuel you to use the gifts God has given you and use that for the good of others. It ties back to the Gospel. That’s exactly what Christ did.”
Walkley said they had numerous alumni move to Memphis and are now working for various nonprofit organizations in the city.
The organization doesn’t lack for student volunteers. But there are several ways the Memphis community can chip in besides a youth group signing up to volunteer. All the home repair is free of charge to the homeowners and it can cost anywhere from $2,000 to $5,000 per house.
Local churches adopt a week of camp to volunteer to clean the facility, serve meals to students and do laundry for the summer staff.
The organization also works to raise up leaders in the community including a summer staff that includes 50 college students who spend the summer in Memphis. There also is an internship program called SOS Academy that is an urban training program for young adults. Those participants live in Binghampton in houses that SOS owns. They work during the week with a partner ministry organization to gain experience.
The organization raises scholarship funds for students from Memphis to work alongside the summer staff. These are high school students from Memphis who are paid to work 30 to 35 hours a week. There also is an after-school construction training program for Binghampton students who come once a week throughout the year.