MERRITT ISLAND -- Teens challenge a jungle obstacle course, sweat as they haul concrete blocks and battle mosquitoes off Hall Road to prepare for Christian missionary work in primitive conditions around the world.
Teen Missions co-founder Bob Bland said his organization tries to prepare young people for the dangers they may face when they travel to other countries. Terrorists are a concern. But, he said, the risks are more likely to be from diseases or snakes.
That's why the teens wear construction boots and hard hats when they're out in the woods during their two weeks at boot camp. There, they mix concrete, lay concrete blocks or bricks and do carpentry work at Teen Missions International based on Merritt Island. Many then go overseas for six weeks and use the skills learned here to build churches, schools, airstrips, orphanages and youth camps.
"It's hard to just go and tell people about Jesus, about God when they have so many physical needs. So we try to meet the physical needs as well as their spiritual needs," said Chris Bell, 27, of Peoria, Ariz., who leads one of the Mission's youth groups.
The organization was founded in 1970. Since the camp opened on Hall Road 28 years ago, more than 30,000 teens have been through it. Its 49 teams serve in 32 countries. Bland said as young people see the pressing needs of the world, he hopes they also will see the need for training to help meet those needs more effectively.
"Boot camp is tough. They all live in tents. There's no concession stands. We have no ice because when we take kids to the jungles of New Guinea, there's no ice there," said Bland, 74.
Bell helped build a church in a Cambodian village in 2001. From that experience, he said he's learned "you're never too young to get involved in missions" and there's a huge need for missionaries in many countries. Ultimately, after he marries his fiancée Rachael Skelton, he said they'd both like to go to Cambodia with Teen Missions and start an orphanage.
"You can see the difference when you build a house for someone or build an orphanage. I don't have to wonder if I'm making a difference, I know I am," Bell said.
The Peanut Team also has made their mark in the world. Gloria Lingle, 9, of Savannah, Ga., looked up from her magenta hard hat that proclaimed "Shake the World" to talk about her stay at Teen Missions this year and last. She's visited nursing homes and helped make cookies for firefighters.
"It's a good experience. It's fun. I like to praise the Lord," Lingle said.
Megan Looney, 21, said this is her fifth trip to Teen Missions since she was 13. The Springdale, Ark., resident recommends the experience because of the positive changes she's seen in her life and in others who have taken part.
"When you go to another culture, you actually get to see and live in that culture. It's not a vacation," Looney said. "For me Teen Missions is a lot of taking off the blinders that a lot of Americans have on their eyes."
When they visit other countries, they discover that not everyone has air conditioning or hot water when they want. They live hard lives.
For the past three years, 17-year-old Brady Riedel of Johnson City, Tenn., has been a missionary. His parents are medical missionaries in Peru and he helps translate. When boot camp is done, Riedel will help build an addition onto a church in Poland and he'll be evangelizing.
He's saddened by those his age who think religion is not cool. Far from it, Riedel said he was thrilled with his experience at Teen Missions.
"I've made more friends this past week with people on my team and bonded with them and had deep relationships with them simply because we have a common purpose and a common goal," Riedel said. "That is to serve Jesus and to bring glory to His name. That's what brings us together."
By Albert H. Lee