ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED BY THE POUGHKEEPSIE JOURNAL
Poughkeepsie, N.Y. – Jeff Hart went on his first mission trip eight years ago to Philadelphia and discovered a world of isolation.
He met people who didn’t have many relationships and were struggling to get by each day.
Hart said he was so profoundly impacted by his experience that he was determined to bring more service opportunities to the local area.
In 2010, Hart helped found a volunteer organization called Bridge Builders, a nondenominational Christian youth camp based at the Taconic Retreat and Conference Center in Milan.
Hart said colleague Bob Ciraulo was “the driving force for the camp.” He also creditsJohn Hicks, Pat Meaney and Lisa Ruvo as being instrumental to the creation of the group.
In addition to these founding members, “it really was a collaboration of PoughkeepsieUnited Methodist Church, Hopewell Reformed Church and New Hackensack Reformed Church,” Hart said.
“The mission of Bridge Builders is to create an environment for young people to know God and to demonstrate His love through serving and ministering to the needs of our local community,” according to its website.
Each year, the camp brings students in from local junior and senior high schools for one week to experience service work in Dutchess and Ulster counties.
Shannon Forman, a 14-year-old Town of Poughkeepsie resident, said in an email she participated in the mission camp last year.
“I love serving my community, knowing that I am making a difference, but most importantly, seeing God’s love shine through everyone at the camp. I enjoy meeting new people at the camp every year that are not only from my community, but share the same love that I have for serving God,” Forman said.
She and other students will continue to serve at this year’s mission retreat, which will take place at select sites in the Hudson Valley this week.
“What we try to do is connect these kids to the environment around them that has the most need,” said Hart, a camp planning committee member. “We’ve come in touch with many of the nonprofit agencies in Dutchess County to bring some hope to the residents and the people we see, whether it be at a homeless shelter or women’s battered shelter, and allow the kids to experience relationships that they never would have if they just lived their lives not knowing these people around here.”
About 90 students are expected to participate this month, compared to the 18 kids who jump-started the organization’s volunteer work in 2010. Each year, Bridge Builders partners with different church groups in order to lend a hand to local nonprofit groups.
It has three mission tracks for which students can register: games and recreation with children; social work with nursing homes, schools and shelters; and physical work that entails painting benches, building gardens and clearing trail brush.
In 2013, Bridge Builders visited Kingston Cares, a subsidiary of the Family ofWoodstock and multiservice organization in Ulster County.
Their objective is “to provide confidential and fully accessible crisis intervention, information, prevention, and support services to address the needs of individuals and families,” according to their website.
“Last year, they came for a few days to play with our kids and be part of our programming, like basketball and arts and crafts,” said Megan Weiss, coalition director at Kingston Cares.
“In this economy, there’s not enough funding for these programs to sustain without the support of the community, so for us it is invaluable and so important to have people within our community who are willing to dedicate their time to support,” she said.
Groups like Bridge Builders do more than provide temporary assistance and companionship for those in need, Hart said.
The program also gives the volunteers a new way to look at the world around them.
“It is an eye-opener,” said Hart. “Our first year, these students observed some clothes hanging on a fence and a cardboard box and it took them a little bit, but it dawned on them that someone was homeless.”