“It is such a blessing to have them there to do this, because it’s just a tremendous help for us,” said Kelli Clark, president and cofounder of Downing Clark HOPE Center and Academy. “It kind of all goes hand in hand. When we help each other, it always seems to come back twofold and this is absolutely one of those cases where that has happened.
“When the storm hit ... [we told Bartow Christian Disaster Recovery], ‘We don’t have any way to contribute [financially], but we do have a beautiful facility that’s got 72 beds in it that are made up.’ ... So we housed over 100 volunteers and then there were many families from the area that came and stayed at the facility and the churches would come feed them. They were able to come there and live and stay until the community was able to help them either fix their homes up or find a new place. ... For about five months, we gave them keys to the building and allowed the Bartow [Christian Disaster Recovery] team to use our facility in any way that they needed.”
Preparing to reopen its facility in the fall, the Downing Clark HOPE Center and Academy is revamping its focus to now offer an inclusive program for girls ages 6 to 17 who have been the victims of sex trafficking. Along with clinical and recreational therapy, the organization also will provide housing and an on-campus school.
“[The volunteers are] doing some general maintenance,” Clark said. “It may not sound that much to the average person, but when you have a facility that large [and] it’s been sitting vacant for a couple of years, [there has] just been a lot of things that have been neglected from the physical standpoint. So [SPLASH Bartow’s assistance] has been a huge advantage to us, because it’s not only helping us with the physical labor, but the cost that it would monetarily cost us to get these jobs done, they’re doing through the [SPLASH] organization.
“So we just feel so blessed to be a part of that simply because we all got connected through the tornado. So it’s kind of one of those situations where the tornado is a really bad thing but God had his intentions and it clearly was for all of us to work together as a community in a lot of different aspects.”
On Thursday, the 12 youth volunteering at Downing Clark HOPE Center and Academy were among more than 400 middle- and high-school students participating in SPLASH Bartow Tuesday through Friday. Along with backyard Bible clubs and sports camps, the in-county mission effort provided assistance, ranging from construction projects to yard maintenance at residences and nonprofits, such as Boys & Girls Clubs of Bartow County, Good Neighbor Homeless Shelter and Cartersville-Bartow Community Church Shop.
In its sixth year, SPLASH also featured more than 300 adult volunteers, drawing participants from about 45 churches of various sizes and denominations. With the female volunteers taking shelter at the Church at Liberty Square and Oakland Heights Baptist and the males staying at Grace Baptist and Tabernacle Baptist, the young participants also attended nightly worship services.
“This year, [the volunteer projects will] go from the southern end to the northern end, from Glade Road all the way to Adairsville ... [where they] will be cleaning up the last piles of [tornado] debris,” SPLASH Executive Director David Franklin said. “[In Adairsville], they are tearing down and removing structures that are inhabitable after the storm.
“... The first year, we had 158 students from 18 different churches, and we were taking sign-ups 30 minutes before SPLASH started. This year, as in the last several years, [students] have to sign up in March, and we had 450 kids sign up in 12 hours. So it has grown exponentially in a lot of ways — in organization, in vision and purpose and in impact, because the kids are doing more and more. ... Having lived in a number of communities, one thing that I think sets Bartow off from other places I’ve lived is this community’s cooperative spirit, [seeing] this many people from this many organizations work together.”
For Sierra Baldwin, an upcoming junior at Woodland High School, participating in SPLASH is an opportunity to serve others. During the week, her team provided assistance at Cartersville Heights Care and Rehabilitation Center, Friendship Kitchen, Harvest House and a special needs camp.
“I’ve learned that you can’t just go somewhere and pretend to be a Christian or pretend to be someone that you’re not,” Baldwin said. “I really came here to show God that I’m here to help people and love people and just show them that I care.
“[Participating in SPLASH] is a very good experience. You will learn a lot from it. You will go home and change [after SPLASH]. You will be a different person and look forward to next year.”
With many SPLASH participants continuing their volunteer work beyond the July offering, their commitment underlines the mission effort’s goal to mobilize teenagers to serve their community for a lifetime, Franklin said.
“Our theme is ‘I refuse to waste my life.’ We’re trying to get these kids to be serious about saying, ‘You know what, God’s given me time and purpose and I want to maximize that,” Franklin said. “There’s a whole group of the them right now that started at SPLASH and now they’ve come back and they’re the team leaders so they’re out serving. A bunch of them have gone all over the world, a lot of them have gone overseas and done mission [projects]. But the ones that [participated in the first SPLASH], we’re seeing the fruit of that. They’re 20, 21, 22 and to see those people serve is really, really neat.
“... [SPLASH] is more of a mindset, that says whatever you do, whatever your calling is in life. If you’re a nurse, if you’re a plumber, do stuff like this for a lifetime,” he said, referring to volunteer work. “It’s not about you. There’s something bigger than you and it’s called God, and he didn’t put you here to be lazy and be self-centered. ... We’re trying to help them understand — you know what — there’s more to life than you, and the real joy in life comes when you do things for other people. We’re hoping that at the end of SPLASH that every one of these kids has made a commitment that says, ‘You know what, I refuse to waste my life.’”