by Richard Webb, South Carolina staffer 1997 (and 1998)

Under the leadership of staff veteran Marvin Mastin, a fledgling VISIONS summer volunteer program for high school students took flight in South Carolina’s Sea Islands in the summer of 1997. It was a remarkable experience for everyone involved.

The teen summer program promised to be unique from the start as VISIONS participants and staff delved into planning a whole new house for an elderly couple. This was an unexpected departure from our original goal to renovate the existing home and add a new roof.

Significant termite damage to the old house made renovation useless. VISIONS participants, who had developed strong feelings for the couple, debated the responsibilities of undertaking a larger scale project and the pros and cons of building a whole new home.

With 11th hour help from Steve Koenig, a successful local developer with a generous heart, the VISIONS group succeeded beyond our wildest expectations in constructing the new house. We finished with an incredible sense of perseverance and accomplishment, having struggled through some hard days on the work site. Most inspiring of all was to see James and Mary standing in the doorway of their new house, and Ida, who lives next door, rocking comfortably on the new porch we built her, surrounded by the fresh fruit and vegetables she had picked for us.

Spirits soared as we began to participate in more and more community activities and to form relationships with the people of Johns Island. At the Sisters of Mercy Outreach Center we met the dedicated team of Sister Mary Joseph and Sister Carol. Through them we worked with young children from both the outreach center and at the Headstart program for the children of migrant worker families who come to Johns Island annually for picking the harvests.

Jakki Jefferson, a Gullah speaker, took us to the Angel Oak (a massive, centuries-old living oak tree) to celebrate Gullah traditions with drumming and dancing. We spent an enchanting evening with Sharon Murray who shared Gullah folklore and stories; stories that were fascinating and fun but not haunting like the ones we heard on our tour of historic graveyards in Charleston.

Some afternoons we browsed Charleston’s cobblestone streets appreciating the antebellum architecture and the hanging Spanish moss. It was under a rich Spanish moss canopy at the end of an old country road that we stopped one Sunday morning to visit a gospel service.

Despite our unannounced arrival, we were greeted at the door with uncommon warmth. When the singing began, the hair on our arms stood on end; we were awash in the power of the worshippers’ faith. That morning we gained a burgeoning understanding of how the Gullah community has preserved powerful ties to its past while overcoming profound adversity.

Other days we headed to the ocean to see the damage inflicted upon Fort Sumter by the Union explosives and cannonballs. We took in a minor league baseball game, cooled off and splashed down in a nearby water park.

A standout highlight of our stay was the sea kayaking trip off Sullivan’s Island. After a muddy start in the small channels, the tide drew us out into turquoise coastal waters. Dolphins swam beside us and an incredible array of sea birds swooped, perched, and paddled around us. We kayaked across the inlet to our destination, a deserted beach of pristine white sand. We ate lunch on the bellies of our kayaks.

A simple lunch of pasta salad and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches has never tasted so good. We walked off lunch by wading in the tide pools and learning about Marine biology from our guides. The sun set over our shoulders and a stillness seized the air as we paddled back. There was a warm feeling of satisfaction as we packed up and headed back to our summer home in Charleston.

This summer VISIONS returns to St. Joseph’s Community Center and to work on Johns Island. We plan to build a playground structure in the migrant workers camp, perform vital house repairs for our new friends, create and landscape a nature preserve in a stunning area. Though this is only our second summer, it already feels like home. Dem Dun Binya (they have been there before…they are older, wiser).

VISIONS in The New York Times