Workcampers (Finally!) Rebuild Multiple Locations During Recent Trip To Pue

Following two delays — but never losing focus or their commitment — 47 residents finally made their way to Puerto Rico in late June, representing the current members of Newtown Ecumenical Workcamp Servants (NEWS).

NEWS had planned to send a group to the Island of Enchantment in 2020, and then again in 2021, but both trips were canceled due to the international COVID-19 pandemic. Fundraising efforts continued — and funds raised were donated to local organizations instead of covering travel and work expenses — and the group pivoted so that local work sessions were still conducted during the past two summers.

Nearly seven weeks ago, however, this year’s team finally boarded planes and made the 1,500-mile trip to the long-intended destination.

NEWS board members and chaperones Laura Roche and Jen Tousignant were two of this year’s 12 adults. They traveled with 35 young adults, leaving June 25, and returning home July 1.

“The connections made on these trips, and the lessons we all learn, are so lasting,” Roche said August 8, when she and Tousignant sat down to talk about the recent trip. “You make connections in such a wonderful way.”

NEWS traditionally spends a week away from home — Pennsylvania, New York, and Mississippi are among previous destination states — undertaking home improvement tasks for those unable to do so for themselves.

The group has always traveled within the contiguous United States, however. This year’s was the first trip that took campers to an unincorporated territory, and the first time NEWS worked with Praying Pelican Missions to organize the trip.

It was also the first time all work was done in 3½ days instead of the traditional five days. That was due to PPM’s schedule, according to Roche.

The Newtown group divided into four teams, who were assigned jobs at three sites.

Although PPM projects are generally light work — painting, cleaning, and community engagement, said Tousignant — NEWS trips have featured the heavier renovations, repairs, and other light construction.

“Our original mission was to go down in 2020, knowing that there was still substantial damage from the hurricane in 2017,” Tousignant said.

Team Iglesia

Team Iglesia was situated at a church that had been built — primarily by hand, by its pastor, Edith, according to Roche and Tousignant — after a community founded it in that area following Hurricane Hugo in 1989.

At the church, campers did ground leveling and installed a new chain link fence. That work included clearing the ground, digging holes, and mixing cement by hand before putting up the full fence.

“There is a lot of crime, and a lot of theft that happens even on personal properties that really don’t have much,” Tousignant said. “They’ll steal tools, they’ll steal farm eggs, so everything is fenced in.”

The team also put up exterior walls on a parishioner’s home on an adjacent property.

“It was actually the start of a parishioner’s home,” she said. “When we arrived it was not livable. When we left it was not yet livable, but we put some exterior as well as some interior walls up.”

Those in Team Iglesia drove each day to the home of the pastor’s daughter, who was “incredibly accommodating,” said Tousignant, with her lunch offerings for the group.

“Our group was able to, in two of the sites we went to, really do significant repairs,” she said.

Team Escuela

Team Escuela was based at a school that needed sheet rocking done to create interior rooms including one office, more than a dozen classrooms painted, and exterior scraping and painting including a wrought iron fence.

A few of the workcampers received permission to update a mural in one of the rooms, expanding and rejuvenating the work that was already in place.

“It was a simple mural of a tree, and two of our workcampers asked if it would be OK to maintain the tree,” Tousignant said. “Most rooms, we were just to paint the walls a plain color, but they didn’t want to waste the mural.

“So they hand painted around it, and they added flowers and leaves and additional work,” she added.

“They really added to the mural,” said Roche. “They left it better than when they started.”

Two of the NEWS teams worked at the Team Escuela site.

Team Casa

Team Casa worked at the home of a woman named Carmen, whose roof had been tarped since Hurricane Maria in 2017.

“Since the hurricane, the main part of her house — her bedroom and living area — had a cement roof that had been tarped since the storm,” Roche said. “Over her kitchen there was no roof at all. And around her bathroom, the walls were all gone and her shower wasn’t working.

Additionally, there was no electricity near the kitchen or bathroom. The toilet was basically outside, said Roche.

Until the NEWS group arrived, Carmen’s kitchen sink was a utility sink that drained into a bucket that had to be dumped outside.

Those were all addressed during the visit by NEWS.

Tom Speiser was part of the team assigned to Team Casa. The 19-year-old, who graduated from high school in June, has been working with local plumber Rob Rozz for a few months. Skills he has already learned from his employer were put to great use in Puerto Rico.

“I was able to put plumbing in for the toilet and shower, and a working kitchen sink,” he said. “We also added drainage for the kitchen sink.”

“I was hoping to do a little bit of plumbing work but then overall I was able to do a lot more than I was expecting,” said Speiser, who plans to make plumbing his vocation.

With Puerto Rico in the midst of a drought, water service is turned off for a few hours every day, Speiser said.

“It’s kept off until sometime each night, so we weren’t there the first time she turned on the water,” he said. “The next morning though, we were able to tell she’d used the toilet and took a shower the previous night.”

The workcampers did not understand what Carmen was saying — “She knew only a few words of English, so we had to use a translator through Praying Pelicans,” Speiser said — but it was clear that their morning homeowner was very happy and excited.

Team Casa also knocked down a portion of the concrete wall in the kitchen, and then added flooring from the knockout to the bathroom. A walkway between the kitchen and bathroom was built with plywood, so that it was enclosed, before roofing over the two rooms. Electricity was also put into the kitchen and bathroom areas.

Tousignant said seeing progress like that is important for workcampers.

“They can see the transformation and how impactful that is for homeowners,” she said.

Workcampers of all ages were on the receiving end of kindness all week, they said. Breakfast and dinner came from local churches.

Four local women provided lunch each day for those at Team Casa.

“These were the most generous, kind, giving communities we were in,” said Roche. “That was one of the things we were looking for, working with PPM.

“We got out as much as we gave to them,” she added.

Tom Speiser agrees.

Now that he has completed his high school career he has to wait four years, per NEWS protocol, before he can rejoin the program and serve as a chaperone. He’s looking forward to that time already, and has some advice now for young adults thinking about getting into the workcamp experience.

“You have to go into it with an open mind,” he said. “Remember that it’s not so much what workcamp can do for you. It’s about what you can do for people who are less fortunate than you.”

Abby McManus, who will be a senior at Newtown High School this year, was also on Team Casa earlier this summer. It was her first NEWS trip.

Her advice to those considering NEWS trips is to try one on their own.

“I didn’t go with any friends so I made so many new ones,” she said via email this week. “I loved meeting new people on the trip and having new experiences.”

She can “definitely” see herself doing another workcamp trip, she added, although she may be joined on her next trip by her brother and father, she mentioned.

The 17-year-old said she “loved making a difference in someone’s life and being a part of something great.”

Paying It Forward

When each of the previous two trips were canceled, NEWS was left with a significant amount of money that had been raised for travel and work expenses.

Fundraising began in 2019 for 2020, including NEWS’s big annual breakfast at Newtown Congregational Church.

“Then almost everything was shut down because of COVID,” Roche said. Funds raised were donated out, with $2,000 donated to the Appalachian Service Project, which the Newtown group has worked with in the past; $4,000 was donated to Praying Pelicans Mission; and $4,000 was donated to FAITH Food Pantry.

The $2,000 donation to ASP was matched, so the local group’s donation amounted to $4,000 worth of goodwill.

Fundraising began again in 2020, but on a much smaller scale. When it became clear that, for a second year, the pandemic would not disappear in time for NEWS to travel to Puerto Rico, funds were again donated to nonprofits.

Planning For 2023

Roche and Tousignant said last week that NEWS is already looking toward its 2023 mission trip.

The group will return to the Appalachian region next year, they said. An application will be submitted in September, with requested dates of June 24-July 2, 2023.

“We try to go before the Fourth of July,” Roche explained, “around the same week every year.”

Students who will be entering high school the following fall, through graduating seniors, are invited to contact Roche for additional information. While many students return for repeat trips, newcomers are always welcome.

“Typically we give kids different work each year,” Roche said.

Fundraising will begin well before the late June departure.

Chaperones with relevant skills, including contractors and parents, are also invited to contact NEWS. Board members are also needed, according to the women. Adults do not have to have a child involved in NEWS to join or continue the effort.

“Many times we’ll have someone on the board whose child is involved, but we also have a lot of people who stay on well after their children graduate out of the program,” Roche said.

For additional information and to begin receiving updates for the 2023 NEWS trip, contact Laura Roche at LRoche41@gmail.com. The group also has an active Facebook page at Newtown Ecumenical Workcamp Servants.

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Managing Editor Shannon Hicks can be reached at shannon@thebee.com.

The 2022 Newtown Ecumenical Workcamp Servants (NEWS) stand on the front steps of Newtown Congregational Church on June 25, the day they departed for a work trip to Puerto Rico. This year was the first time NEWS traveled outside the contiguous United States for its annual mission. —photo courtesy of Laura Roche

Tom Speiser and Laura Roche were two members of Team Casa, which spent its time in Puerto Rico rebuilding the home of a woman named Carmen. —photo courtesy Tom Speiser

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