They scrubbed thick layers of dirt off basement floors, moved mountains of debris into trash bins, and leveled giant piles of mud with nothing but shovels. Yet, throughout the weeklong service trip, the Rev. Jason Cooper said he never heard the youths complain.
Cooper, 14 youths from Eagle Grove Evangelical Lutheran Church, two from St. Olaf Lutheran in Bode, and six adults drove two days each way to reach Schoharie County, New York, where they spent four days helping with the cleanup from last year's devastating floods.
Cooper is the pastor of the Eagle Grove Evangelical Lutheran Church, but he grew up in Schoharie. It's a small rural area, he said, at the base of a large dam. In August 2011, rainfall from Hurricane Irene overwhelmed the dam and flooded the Schoharie Valley, putting many homes underwater.
Connor Tomke, left, and Caleb Johnston drag debris into a trash bin from their first work site, an old commercial building. The local organizers told them to pack the trash bin as full as it could go, because they pay for every load. The building had to be completely gutted.
"It quickly became a forgotten story, even though it was a major hurricane, because after that there was Joplin, Missouri, and then tornadoes in Alabama," he said. "Since it's in such a rural area, such a small population, we figured there wouldn't be as many groups going there to help, which turned out to be true."
For at least half of the youths, this was their first service trip ever.
"It was really getting us out of our element," said Rachel Meyer, age 17. "I mean, that was a big step for a lot of us."
When they arrived, they saw a lot of empty houses, and many empty lots where houses used to be.
Meyer described the scene: "Debris piles, cracked concrete over the yards, uneven ground, a lot of trailers where people had to live, after their houses were swept up. It was really dirty and moldy inside the houses. ... It was a real eye-opener."
"They had made a lot of progress, but there was still a lot to be done," said Susan Maier, one of the adults on the trip.
The group stayed at St. Mark's Lutheran Church in Middleburg, which only recently finished its own flood repairs. The youths went to a different work site each day, guided by local volunteers.
"We were picking up debris, throwing it in dumpsters," said Connor Tomke, 18. "We had to clean out a basement. It was 6 inches thick of wet mud down in the entire basement, we had to shovel that out."
One group went to help a woman who had lost her home.
"But she didn't want help," said BayLee Konecne, 15, "So, pastor took a group of us to weed her garden."
"It wasn't her garden," said Cooper. "It was where the foundation of her house was."
"We did that as a small thing to show her there's people who want to help," Konecne said.
Another time Konecne's group found a glass dolphin buried in a pile of dirt, along with toothbrushes, toothpaste, high-heeled shoes, and siding. Though she wished she could keep the figurine, Konecne asked the homeowner if she recognized it.
"Her eyes got wide, because she thought she lost everything," Konecne said.
On one ruined porch the group found some old photo albums.
"One was a baby book, one was of her childhood, one was her wedding," said BayLee Konecne's twin sister Hailey. "Some you could tell what they used to be, and some you could see a face, but the rest were ruined."
"That was probably the saddest thing," said Steph Olmstead, 15.
That experience seemed to make an impression on her.
"Be happy with what you've got," Olmstead said. "Pictures can be ruined; you need to have memories and not just the items."
"I learned to cherish what I have and not just say 'I want I want I want' - just get what I need," said Hailey Konecne.
Tomke agreed - and gained a deeper understanding of God.
"We have it a lot better off than we say sometimes," he said. "And it's about us being there helping everyone; we were being the body of Christ. I don't know. I feel closer to God after being there."
"My faith just grew," Meyer said.
Cooper said the group took at day and a half to do some sightseeing, and visited New York City. Plus there were funny moments from every day, such as after the group lined up for a photo in the river.
"We were all in the water, and I turned around and saw this ginormous snake in the water that had just wrapped around my ankle, so I jumped and yelled 'Snake!'" said Olmstead. "The snake was going towards Hailey (Konecne), so she jumped and landed on sharp rocks and she fell into the river, so she had to ride on the floor on the way back to the church."
Tomke and Caleb Johnston, 18, decided to partake in a pizza-eating challenge, involving a seven-pound pizza with 24 pieces. They became only the second team ever to complete the challenge, and got into the local paper.
Tomke and Johnston explained why there was so little complaining during the less fun parts.
"One day me and him were talking," said Johnston, "and he said something about if this happened to me, I would want someone to work really hard for me too, so there was not really a mindset of 'I don't want to do this.'"