SOS brings home-repair hope to urban communities

In its 30th year, Service Over Self has given new hope to countless homeowners across Memphis through its ministry of home repairs concentrated in Binghampton and Orange Mound.
A former Buick dealership along Poplar Avenue on the edge of Binghampton is filled with nearly 200 students, waking from their early-morning slumber. Joints are stiff and muscles are tired at this way-too-early hour, but there is work to be done.
 
Yes, it’s summer break for these middle school and high school students, but they’re in Memphis for a week to work on houses in Binghampton, most in need of a new roof but others in need of more desperate repairs.
 
During the summer months, churches and other organizations send students from points across the country to Memphis to Service Over Self, a Christian ministry that through its camps and other efforts helps renovate houses in Binghampton and Orange Mound.
 
Service Over Self began in 1986 at Christ United Methodist Church. The church realized that while it sent its youth group all over the U.S. for mission work, Memphis had plenty of its own needs. Along with a church from Mississippi, the two congregations began doing house repairs in the community.
 
Over the next decade the organization grew to the point the church decided it should be launched as its own nonprofit organization, so in 1999 Service Over Self was born.
 
“We look probably similar to short-term mission trips churches might take,” said Philip Walkley, Executive Director of SOS. “Our focus is home repairs. As a demonstration of the gospel we want to make sure homeowners live in communities that are warm, safe and dry.”
 
That’s accomplished primarily through the summer camps. Groups show up on Sunday and work through the week as part of small groups from their church. The groups concentrate on a house, mostly replacing roofs.
 
Over the course of a year 2,000 middle school and high school students repair about 40 homes.
 
A look at a Shelby County map in Service Over Self’s offices at 2505 Poplar Ave. show dots scattered around the city where houses have been repaired through the years. But a closer look shows dense clusters in Binghampton and Orange Mound.
 
“When we launched to become our own nonprofit in those early days we began to realize we’d be more effective and strategic if we focus on one specific area,” Walkley said.
 
In 2000 the focus was centered only on Binghampton. Then in 2009, through relationships in Orange Mound, the work expanded to include that community.
 
Binghampton was chosen as the first focus neighborhood because the SOS leadership recognized a real need there. Once the work began, the search for the facility to house operations proceeded. The former Buick dealership most recently had been used as a jewelry warehouse.
 
The expansion into Orange Mound came about because the work in Binghampton was at capacity. SOS was turning away volunteers, so after getting to know people in the Orange Mound community over a year the decision was made to add a focus there.
 
The Binghampton summer camps have a maximum of 180 students a week along with about 40 college students who are on staff for the summer. Those students are housed in dorms on the second floor of the Poplar building.
 
The Orange Mound service is run out of St. Matthew’s United Methodist Church on Prescott Street where about 60 campers per week are housed along with 10 college student staffers.
 
While there are ties to the Methodist church – Christ United Methodist started the organization and the Orange Mound work is housed out of St. Matthew’s – Service Over Self is an independent nonprofit organization.
 
Christ United Methodist still supports the organization, but so does other churches such as Second Presbyterian. Summer students are from many denominations – Methodists, Baptist, Catholic and Quaker. They are part of church groups and school groups.
 
The organization generally attracts students from communities east of the Rocky Mountains, although there have been groups from Montana and Washington state. On average there are 20 states represented in a given year.
 
When Walkley started volunteering with SOS while a student at the University of Mississippi, he came to Memphis to do weekend projects. His first exposure was painting a house.
 
Those weekend projects have been replaced by more critical home repair needs that can take weeks and need the constant flow of students that are in the city to work during the summer. There also is a scaled-back alternative spring break for college students in the spring.
 
Roofing is the staple project for SOS.
 
“So many of the houses we see have so many problems that are the result of a leaky roof,” Walkley said. “We can’t fix other problems unless the house is dried in. Roofing is a relatively volunteer-friendly process. It’s a labor-intensive process but we have lots of labor. We are able to do other work from time to time but the goal is warmer, safer, drier so we’re not putting up crown molding or painting trim. We want to make sure there is a functioning bathroom and kitchen, make sure there is a handrail on stairs.”
 
Homeowners are chosen through an application process. The main criteria is the applicant own the home and that it’s in one of the two focus neighborhoods. The construction director then analyzes the application and does a home assessment in the fall. Houses are placed in order of greatest need that SOS can address.
 
SOS doesn’t have a problem getting enough applicants. In fact, the organization really doesn’t have to market to homeowners. Usually someone sees their neighbor get a new roof and it goes from there.
 
There are some houses SOS can’t do the work because they’re in such bad shape. Other times the crews begin working and don’t realize how bad it is until they rip off a roof and discover rotten framing.
 
The work often is an eye-opening experience for the students. But that’s not really the point.
 
“A lot of the kids realize how much privilege they come from but the goal is not for you to come observe that some people’s lives are rougher and for you to be thankful for what you have,” Walkley said. “It should fuel you to use the gifts God has given you and use that for the good of others.”
 
Service Over Self has given homeowners better living conditions across the city. It’s also provided the city’s nonprofit organizations countless leaders. Walkley said many of Memphis organizations are staffed in part by SOS alumni.
 
Walkley first volunteered at SOS 18 years ago. After college and while a youth minister at a small church in Mississippi he continued to bring students to Memphis every summer for the camps. So through the years he’s seen a lot of houses in great need. But there is one that stands out in how a new bathroom changed how this family lived.
 
“One of the first houses here we were working for a family in a home that didn’t have a functioning bathroom,” he said. “They used a five-gallon bucket they just threw out in the yard. We put a roof on their house and made sure their bathroom was functional. … So many of these homeowners we partner with, it truly is an answer to prayer for so many of them. 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.”
 
Several Memphis churches support Service Over Self’s mission financially as well as send groups to work. There are ways anyone in the community can help.
 
Financial donations are important. All of the home repairs are free to the homeowners, but shingles and tools still cost money. Local churches also adopt a week of camp to send volunteers who clean the building, serve meals, do laundry and any other assistance that’s needed.
 
Service Over Self also provides scholarships for students to participate, and financial contributions go a long way in making those a reality. The last two summers Streets Ministries has brought students to serve and SOS provides scholarships for all of them.
 
SOS also hires high school students from Binghampton and Orange Mound to spend the summer working alongside the college staffers.
 
The organization also is in its third year of SOS Builds, an after-school construction training program for youth in Binghampton. Ten to 15 middle school students come once a week to learn a variety of construction skills. Projects completed have included a clubhouse at Carpenter Art Garden and a shade pavilion at The Hamp football field on Tillman Street.
 
“We’re trying to create a wider funnel for students in the communities we serve in the hope that some of them will become summer staff and be leaders in these communities,” Walkley said. 

Read more articles by Lance Wiedower.

Lance is a veteran journalist with more than 16 years of experience in newsrooms in the Memphis area as a reporter and editor, including most recently as managing editor of The Daily News. He regularly contributes to The Daily News, including a biweekly travel column, The Daily Traveler. 
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