Johns Island Senior Service Project Celebrates 30 Years

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

When the Class of 2017 traveled to Johns Island the weekend before graduation to spend three days performing much-needed repairs for elderly homeowners, they became the 30th Heathwood class to do so.

Over those 30 years, Heathwood students, faculty, and staff have provided assistance to hundreds of Johns Island residents. In the process, members of the senior class also have one last chance to spend time together in a meaningful way before graduating and going off in many different directions.

The Heathwood students’ work supports the efforts of Rural Mission, a Johns Island-based nonprofit that seeks to “foster, promote and administer to the spiritual, social, educational, medical and housing requirements of the rural people of the sea islands of coastal South Carolina.” Their three days of giving back represent a kind of capstone to the school’s emphasis on community service at all grade levels.

But the work doesn’t begin and end in May. Students fundraise for the trip throughout the year, raising money to purchase the supplies and equipment needed for their renovation projects. Then, every year in April, the senior class officers travel to Johns Island with Heathwood Director of Community Relations Willis Ware and alum and past parent David McCoy (’79), who, as an experienced contractor, has become an indispensible volunteer member of the Johns Island team. There, they meet with a Rural Mission contractor, who has identified that year’s work sites and developed a list of needed improvements. From there, the advance team meets with the homeowners if possible, divides the class into work teams, and begins to create supply lists.

Then, the Friday before graduation, the senior class travels to Johns Island, where they are joined by members of Heathwood’s faculty and staff who have also volunteered to pitch in and to chaperone. The group puts in three solid days of work repairing homes but also takes time out on Sunday to attend a local church service and spend the afternoon at the beach.

The experience is a valuable one for the students, says Willis Ware, because “they’re doing such tangible work. They have a clear mission and an opportunity to get to know the people they’re helping. And when they’re done, they can stand back and see the fruits of their labor and know that their service will have a lasting impact on families who are truly in need.”

The Johns Island project originated in 1987 with Heathwood English teacher and then-Upper School Head Lark Palma, who was from the Low Country and was familiar with the struggles of homeowners on Johns and Wadmalaw Islands, many of whom are elderly and impoverished. “Lark had a vision that spending a few days together helping people who were needy would be a great way for our seniors to engage in community service,” says Mr. Ware. “So she connected with Rural Mission and proposed a partnership where we’d help every year. And we have not missed a year since.”

In a recap of the Class of 1990’s Johns Island trip, the 1991 Heathwood yearbook reports, “Over the past few years, a new tradition has been added to the roster here at Heathwood. However, in the four years that the senior class has been traveling to poverty stricken Johns Island, South Carolina, it has quickly become a meaningful experience for all participants…. [The volunteers] wake up at dawn, work in the searing hundred degree sun all day and return to sleeping bags on the floor of a local church for the night. But students and teachers alike quickly forget about these petty concerns when faced with the lifestyle that plagues Johns Island residents and they plunge themselves wholeheartedly into improving the conditions by repainting homes, installing plumbing and septic systems, re-roofing schools and even erecting complete houses for homeless families. At the week’s end, everyone returns to their homes and loved ones, more aware than ever of how fortunate they are, but also with a deep sense of accomplishment and pride for having done so much for those who truly need it.”

In many respects, that description still captures the flavor of the experience, about which Mr. Ware sent the following summary to the Heathwood faculty:

As you know, our seniors completed Heathwood Hall’s 30th consecutive service trip on Johns Island last week. Thanks to the senior class officers’ leadership, the class of 2017 made a positive difference in the lives of several Johns’ Island families and the Rural Mission facility.  I just received a thank you note from the Rural Mission for another year of great service given by our seniors and adults. Collectively, our students have a made a huge difference.

Elliot Cox and team 1 did repairs at the Rural Mission facility, which was damaged by Hurricane Matthew in October. Their work included the installation of a new floor in two offices, painting the exterior of the Rural Mission, and painting two rooms in the facility. Team 2, led by Grayson Byrd, worked diligently and completed the installation of a new roof on Ms. Magwood’s home, putting the finishing touches on the project as they were heading back to Columbia on Tuesday afternoon!

Thanks to team 3, led by Roy Matthews, Ms. Girouard, a widow in her early 80s, has a new deck and a handicap ramp in the back of her house. This will make it easier for her to transport her son who is in a wheel chair. She also has new siding on her home and a fresh coat of paint.  And thanks to Jaylen Davis and her crew (team 4), a new floor was installed in both the laundry room and bedroom of Ms. Grant’s home.

While we are proud of the work of our seniors, we know that they could not accomplish the mission without the support, guidance, and oversight of our chaperones. Many thanks to the following colleagues for giving of their time and talents on Johns Island: Elise Hagstette, John Adams, Sara Burrows, Stan Wood, Lisa Norman, Raven Tarpley, Kelly Turbeville, Jay Spearman, Scotty Peek, Marcus Lattimore, Elisha Sircy, Mike Myer, Brice Spires, Tom Simpson, James Hane, and George Scouten. Additionally, the work and time given by Heathwood parents David McCoy and Keith Johnson was essential to the class of 2017’s  successful work on Johns Island. While our students are moving on, and soon the service delivered will seem like a distant memory, Ms. Girouard, Ms. Grant, Ms. Magwood, and the Rural Mission staff will be reminded daily of Heathwood Hall’s commitment to service.