What happens when you mix a servant of God, a Lake Geneva Christian camp in need of a lot of remodeling and Walworth County Jail prisoners?
United Methodist Men from the Elgin District found out at their Advent Service in Schaumburg’s Our Saviors United Methodist Church Sept. 17th.
Seventeen years ago retired Williams Bay restaurateur Jeff Fry got tired of his early retirement and began volunteering at the Northern Illinois Conference’s Wesley Woods Conference Center.
The camp, located on 17.5 acres of pricey Lake Geneva lakefront was in decline.
Fry easily found ways to fill his twenty hour weekly commitment.
In time he was working full-time.
Then, the maintenance position opened and Fry took the job. He figured he was doing much of the job anyway.
There was way too much to do, so Fry solicited Methodist Men to help out.
But he happened upon a more consistent source of manpower.
The Walworth County Jail allowed local companies, such as the pier installation firms, to use prisoners, paying them minimum wage.
When Fry went to the Sheriff’s Department to inquire, he was told that his camps not-for-profit status would allow him to get free labor from those sentenced to community service. Other prisoners were rewarded a day off their sentences for every 24 hours worked.
When Fry showed interest, the Sergeant asked, “How many do you want?” He had sixty he was trying to place.
For starters, Fry took on five men. That’s the number, which would fit in the van.
He picked the inmates up for their ten-hour stint, fed them lunch and dinner, and even gave them an hour off at the end of the day to do as they wished.
Wesley Woods soon became a destination of choice.
“You wouldn’t believe what they feed us?” one commented as he reflected quire favorably on the meals served up by the former restaurant owner and his staff.
The men did dry walling, carpentry, removal of 19-truck loads of old leaves near the water’s edge and much more.
One day Fry asked what the men did before they went to jail.
One was a diesel mechanic.
Fry asked if he could fix a donated boat.
An hour later, the man handed Fry a motor part and said the boat would run, if he could get a replacement.
Another had come north from a Texas oil pipeline-welding job to attend a concert and run afoul of the law.
In less than two days he turned a log-splitting machine from one that would only fracture huge trunks horizontally to one which could be fed vertically, eliminating the log having to be picked up off the ground…much easier to use.
As men were released from prison, Fry told them they had to recommend their replacements.
That came from his experience of running his rib-pizza house. There, when a dishwasher told him he would like to become a pizza cook, for instance, Fry told him, “Sure, but you have to find your replacement.”
The replacement wanted to please the guy who got him the job.
The system has worked well.
Older men train younger ones the proper way to apply drywall mud.
“It’s doesn’t take five gallons to cover a room. Four quarts will do.”
The older men show the younger ones how to do the job efficiently.
Now Camp Director, Fry figures that Wesley Woods gets about $100,000 a year in free labor in the now-Labor Day to Memorial Day schedule.
He does need money to ferry the men from the jail to the camp and back, plus money to prepare the two meals a day.
He excitedly reported receiving $1,500 from a First United Methodist Church of Crystal Lake’s monthly loose coin collection, the proceeds of which go to different missions each month.
Part of the Gospel reading preceding Fry’s talk was the following from Matthew 25:
34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 3
35 ‘For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
37 “Then the righteous will answer him,
‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ “
Perhaps other not-for-profit ministries could copy the Wesley Woods’ model: getting good work while doing good works.
Fry concluded his talk by observing that a job is never just about the money.
“A job is 50% liking what you a doing, 25% feeling good about yourself and your productivity at day’s end and 25% making enough money to pay your bills.”