As each summer came and went, Kathy Essex Au saw her home falling further into disrepair.
Facing several disabilities, the Hope woman realized she wasn’t physically capable of doing the work herself.
“I prayed ‘Oh, Lord, please send somebody. I just can’t do it,’” Au said.
Fifteen somebodies who call themselves the Road Warriors answered Au’s prayers last Saturday.
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Ranging in age from 13 to 28, the volunteers lined up outside her Main Street home in Hope, armed with paint brushes, rollers and yard tools.
They painted the exterior of the home, cleaned up her yard and cleared out the backyard storage shed.
These young people are not affiliated with any church group or school project. They receive no pay or merit badge for their hard work.
“We don’t get anything but warm hugs and smiles,” said Breyhana Pennington, 13. “But you know, that’s what we’re here for.”
The project at Au’s home, where the volunteers broke into teams and worked for three consecutive mornings, was the Road Warriors’ ninth in a little over a month.
While their name originates from a 1981 entry in the “Mad Max” film series, the Road Warriors get most of their inspiration from the 2000 drama “Pay It Forward,” said Abe Fuller, 13, of Edinburgh.
The Road Warriors began when group creator and organizer Lory Pennington’s children began bringing home friends after school or on weekends who were facing some kind of family crises, she said.
Sometimes, parents themselves would ask the United Way accountant to temporarily look after a child while they worked through personal matters, Pennington said.
She came up with ways to channel their youthful energy and help others in the process, such as taking her young wards to visit residents in local nursing homes. When the holidays arrived, they made cards and treats that were delivered to law enforcement offices and fire stations, Pennington said.
Both examples fit the pay-it-forward approach to public service.
“We’ve all had trouble, and we’ve been able to recover through the help of others,” Fuller said. “So we’re going to go help people, and hopefully they can go help others.”
The Road Warriors’ organized efforts accelerated about the same time her employer was organizing the annual Bartholomew County Day of Caring in early May.
While about 90 percent of the Road Warriors have sought refuge in Pennington’s house, not every member has faced disadvantages and hardships at home, she said.
“I do have a few who were handed the silver spoon,” Pennington said. “The other kids often remind them: ‘Hey, it’s not just about you. It’s about helping the community as well.’”
For Alyssa Sexton, 16, the Warriors’ efforts are a chance to raise awareness.
“We’re trying to get other people to realize not everybody has what most of us take for granted,” Sexton said. “Some can’t even walk outside. It’s just hard on them, and they do need help.”
Sexton’s empathy reflects the fact that most of the Road Warriors have faced difficult struggles or suffered the consequences of previous bad decisions — either their own or poor decisions made by authority figures in their lives.
Some of the Road Warriors have lost one or both of their parents to drugs, alcohol, murder, suicide, illness or abandonment.
Some people have trouble understanding the motivation behind the group’s public service, said Jonathan Gassaway, 28, a college student and the group’s oldest member.
Gassaway said he’s often told by friends and co-workers that it’s gracious of him to help his community, but he dismisses the special attention.
“Everybody at some point has done some form of volunteer work,” Gassaway said.
Chase Conner, 19, said he was raised to respect the Golden Rule.
Since the University of Southern Indiana student is helping others at this stage in his life, Conner said he suspects he won’t not mind receiving help when he’s much older.
“Most of my friends say they want to try it,” said Ali Fuller, 13, Edinburgh, of the community service. “They say it sounds really fun to help someone who is in need.”
For Triston David, 17, being a Road Warrior gives him an opportunity to project a positive image of his generation.
“It shows people that not all teenagers are immature, can’t take responsibility or don’t care about the community,” David said.
Adults are seeing that first-hand.
“They are courageous,” said Au, the beneficiary of the group’s generosity this past week. “These kids are breaking molds that could never otherwise be broken.”
Their organizer agrees.
“God has put them on crazy and strange paths,” Pennington said. “They want to show they are warriors.”
For parents who wish their children were more like the Road Warriors, United Way Volunteer Action Center director Angie Huebel offers this advice.
“Show them what to do instead of telling them what to do,” Huebel said. “Let them feel the reward of doing something good for someone who can’t do things for themselves.”
Many young people have the desire to be the best they can be, and just need opportunities from adults who have faith in them, Huebel said.
Here are five benefits of volunteering as suggested by the United Way of America.
Gaining new skills: With each new volunteer activity comes training. These skills may seem trivial at first, but may provide building blocks for future success.
Adding to your resume: Volunteer work shows that a teen is willing to work for something without monetary compensation — much like a college internship, apprenticeship or job shadow experience.
Giving Time: Teens who are busy with after-school extracurricular activities or work to help support their families can still make time to volunteer on evenings or weekends, demonstrating their character and resolve to make a difference.
Showing Responsibility: Teens who want to demonstrate their reliability should get involved in volunteer programs relating to their hobbies to naturally build responsibility.
Earning Credits: Many volunteer opportunities can translate to high school or college credits. It is important to discuss these opportunities with guidance counselors and administrators before beginning volunteer work.