When a crew of teenagers gathered to paint Georgia Bredesen's south Minneapolis home last week, she didn't realize that they were part of a stealth army of 25,000 volunteers.

No, they didn't sneak up to the house in the middle of the night.

The undercover part of the operation is that Bredesen didn't know who was behind it all.

That layer of mystery is a major reason why the program is so successful, organizers say. It's one of a family of assistance programs run by the Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches, which oversees everything from food banks to helping people plant their gardens.

"At least two-thirds of [the recipients of the volunteer work] have never heard of us," said the Rev. Gary Reierson, the council's president. Before the year is over, the volunteer corps will have helped more than 350,000 people.

At first glance, that anonymity seems surprising. With an $8 million budget and 700 member congregations, it not only is the nation's biggest local council of churches, but it's bigger than most state councils. But Reierson is convinced that the council's low profile is a key to its success.

"Taking credit is not what this is all about," he said. "There are some organizations where getting credit is more important than what they do. That's not the way we work. We want our partners to get the credit."

The council acts as a matchmaking service for volunteers: It finds the people who need help and pairs them with the people who are offering it. In many cases, the council even provides the necessary supplies, which, in the case of painting, includes everything from paint to ladders.

But once that's done, the council steps out of the picture and lets the volunteers get all the accolades.

Everybody wins, Reierson said: The homeowners are happy because they get much-needed help. The volunteers are happy because they create goodwill. And the council is happy because everybody else is happy.

It's a new kind of math. "When you work together, 1 plus 1 can equal 3," he said.

The teens painting Bredesen's home were part of the Catholic HEART Work Camp. They were all college-freshmen-to-be from the Chicago area. Cory Evans, who will be attending the University of Iowa this fall, has been spending one week a summer in the program since he was in eighth grade.

"It's such a little thing to do, but it means so much to them," he said of homeowners he's helped.

There was instant mutual admiration between Bredesen, 81, who is blind, and the painters. The volunteers were happy to offer their help in the first place, but when they heard her life story, they were even more excited about the opportunity.

"She's an amazing person," said Leslie Stopka, the crew's adult supervisor. "She was teaching fourth grade when she went blind [at 40]. She went back to school, got a master's degree and then spent the rest of her career teaching the blind."

As for Bredesen, she couldn't say enough about her helpers. "The kids from HEART have been great," she said. "I've been told that they're doing a good job; I know that they're doing a good job. And they're making it possible for me to stay in my home which, when you're totally blind, is important because you know where everything is."

She never mentioned the Minneapolis Council of Churches, but Reierson hardly considers that a snub.

"That's the way we are," he said. "We don't need the words 'Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches' in large letters on everything we do."

Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392