Interview with Curt Bitterman

The following is an interview with Curt Bitterman, Sr. Weighing Consultant and Scale Service Technician at Bitterman Scales LLC, Lancaster, PA. Almost every year since 1972, Curt has volunteered his time to help an organization called Teen Missions International (TMI), in Merrit Island, Florida. Bill Neff, Bitterman Scales’ Director of Client Services, pulled Curt aside for a brief interview to ask him about his involvement with TMI.

Note: Pictured top-right is Curt (blue shirt, standing) teaching a concrete block laying class at TMI.

What is Teen Missions International?

Bill: Curt, every summer you spend some time at Teen Missions International (TMI) in Merritt Island, Florida— not to be confused with the TMI (Three Mile Island) here in Pennsylvania. First off, what exactly is TMI?

Curt: TMI is an organization that is interested in partnering with participants to move them along in their spiritual walk. And they do that through the venue of activities that are outside the norm for the person and frequently in another setting or culture that removes all of the comforts we normally lean on.

Bill: “Teen” is in the name, so I take it that it is focused mainly on teenagers?

Curt: It focuses mainly on teenagers, but they have programs that go down to 5-6 year olds, and they have programs that go up to any aged adult.

Bill: “Missions” is also part of the name.

Curt: Yes, they focus on any and all of the [missions] kinds of things: evangelism, construction, relief work, disaster relief, orphan work, etc.

Bill: The boot camp you go to is in Florida, but TMI is an international ministry, correct?

Curt: Correct. The trainees in the United States are going all over the world. The trainees in other countries—and they have some 30 other training sites all over the world—- those trainees don’t go as far away from their homeland normally. For some it’s a sheer matter of expense; they don’t have the money to travel far, so they may do a project an hour away from where they live.

Bill: Every year—- or almost every year– you’ve been going to Florida to volunteer your time. How long have you been doing that?

Curt: Since 1972.

Bill: So, you‘ve been doing this for over 40 years. And have you ever missed a year?

Curt: I missed going down the one summer when my house burned down, so I was pretty much preoccupied that year.

Bill: Where’s your commitment?

Curt: I did a couple of minor things during that year for them, but they were not the top of my focus that year.

Bill: Each year when you go to Florida, you make 2 trips– one week in late May and the other is a three-week stay in mid June through early July. Why the two trips?

Curt: The May visit is the annual Board Meeting when the Board comes in– some of them from other countries around the world– and we have a half-week of meetings where we make major decisions for the international part of the ministry. But then the other three weeks in June and July are the training camp when the teens, leaders and other adults are coming in to be trained to be sent out [on their assignments].

What Happens During Teen Missions Summer Boot Camps?

Bill: I think we kind of know what happens at board meetings, but what exactly happens during the student-focused boot camps– from the time a teen arrives, until the time he or she leaves on his or her summer assignment?

Curt: Well, the experience is as different, in some ways, as kids are different. Some kids thrive on “unusual” and “difficult.” Other kids shrink back from it, and are horrified, and can’t wait to get away from it. Some kids come from big families where they’re used to the activity and trauma of “anything unusual at anytime,” and some are single kids that come from quiet, reserved [homes]. And, so, all of them walk into boot camp where there are hundreds of other kids like themselves, and it’s pretty traumatizing– not only because of all the activity and intensity of what’s going on, but also because of the setting. It’s not quite like the Everglades, but it’s pretty close to the Everglades. All of the comfortable amenities of life are removed. You have a tent out in the woods. Mosquitoes are there. Armadillos are scratching at your tent door during the night. Tree limbs are falling down during any time of day or night. You get little sleep because of the noise of the jungle. Wake up calls are at 5:30 am– or 5:00, if you’re on [kitchen] duty. And they get to bed at 9 or 10 at night– and that’s after a far more active day than most kids are exposed to in their normal routine. So, it’s pretty radical of a change. No cold water. No showers. You wash your own clothes in a bucket down by the creek where the alligators live. It’s just radically different.

Bill: And, in addition to the rustic living, they are being trained for something.

Curt: Yes, they’re being trained for what they’re going to go do, as far as the ministry [team] knows to that point. And some projects change [in mid course]. You may get over there [to build something] and the cement didn’t come to make concrete like it was supposed to; there was a landslide and the road’s closed. So, now you’re framing instead of pouring concrete. But, yes, they’re trained to do framing, build trusses, pour concrete, dig ditches, [perform] with puppets, do singing as a group. They may be sharing Scripture with someone who doesn’t even know what the Bible is. All kinds of things like that. They’re learning how to cook on an open fire for a team of 20 or 30 or 40 people. The leaders are under as much duress as the kids are because they are all of a sudden the pastor, the doctor, the psychologist, the parent, etc. to all of these kids that they have just gotten to know. So, all of that is happening.

Bill: Hundreds of teens camping out in a Jungle for three weeks sounds like a recipe for surprises outrageous happenings. Can you remember the most outrageous thing that has happened over your 40 years of doing this?

Curt: Well, the thing that comes to my mind is that outrageous to one person is commonplace to somebody else. How high is high? To people like myself, it’s fun! For others it may be unthinkable. You would never submit yourself to living in a jungle– working with no air conditioning and keeping armadillos out of your tent.
One year there was a tropical storm that blew the [large meeting] tent down. That tent was a big as a football field came crashing down right in the middle of training. There were limited numbers of people under it at the time, and the staff was in the process of getting everybody out, and nobody got dramatically hurt, but that’s pretty radical when the building you live in suddenly doesn’t exist, and it’s the main one in the middle of a jungle. Also, making pizza for a thousand people on a charcoal fire is pretty radical, but they do it, and it’s good pizza and they love it. Feeding everybody in an hour– the most people who have been there were 2,200 people in the late 80’s– and I was cooking hamburgers for a meal, I’d cook 2500 hamburgers. There’s no roof over your head, so, if it’s raining, you’re out there standing in the rain cooking hamburgers. Milk shakes. Tacos. They make all kinds of things in big unusual kinds of ways, because lots of people are there and they all want their share. They have a very nice facility for a kitchen, but we always make chicken barbeque out on the open grill for everybody for one meal. That’s the hard way to do it. And they make stew outside on wood fires because they want the team leaders to know how to do it. [When they’re out on their assignment], the leaders better know how to do that, because at the end of the day dinner better be ready because people are hungry. That’s kind of out of the box.

Bill: I sometimes hear you mentioning repairs that had to be made.

Curt: Oh… There are buses that breakdown half-way to the airport with 40 people [aboard]. It’s the middle of the night. You get out of bed, and you go down there and bail them out. You stay up all night and fix the one that broke, because in the morning it has to go out. That’s normal.

Why Does a Scale Service Technician Take Time to Volunteer for This Year after Year?

Bill: Finally, what would you say is the most rewarding part of working with TMI?

Curt: In two words— Life change. Kids that think their iPod is the most important thing in life learn that they can live six weeks or eight weeks without any electronic device in their hands. And they begin to realize that some people don’t have food– don’t even have one meal every day—- is far more important. And it just refocuses people in good ways– spiritually, emotionally, psychologically. Kids go back home and understand what a blessing it is to pull the drawer open and have clean underwear in there. Oh, yeah… all summer long I [washed] it in a bucket. And when I didn’t do it, I wore it dirty. Not having a cold soda all summer– that’s not important, and they begin to understand that. So, it’s that kind of life growth that you can’t measure, and yet kids come back and they not only understand that, but they choose that for the rest of their life, and many of them become missionaries, and want to go give their life to help other people rather than live their life for themselves. They’ll build a church for people who don’t have a church. They sit out in the dirt pile in the middle of Ethiopia– rain or shine– with no building. The may see refugees from the Sudan, and intellectually you can’t eat in front of a starving person and be the same ever again. So, whether it’s food or the emotional need of a refugee that ran for their lives as a ten year old, and now they’re 18 and their focus in life is to be a pastor and go back into that situation and be a help to their people; that’s the kind of life change that you see that you’re being a part of– or that’s actually happening in yourself– that makes a big difference. And that’s what it’s all about.

For more information about Teen Missions International, visit their Web site (click here).
For more information Bitterman Scales calibration and repair services, click here.