The Rev. John Buehrens is a great believer in sending teenagers off to places they’ve never been and letting them work with their hands and their hearts. Places like New Orleans and Appalachia, for example.
Buehrens’s congregation, First Parish in Needham, Massachusetts, is one of the growing number of congregations that has discovered that service trips for youth, and adults, are a great way to help people in need and cultivate a lifelong awareness of the importance of serving others.
The youth group at First Parish did its first service trip in 2004, traveling to a town on the Tennessee-Kentucky border. About a dozen youth helped a local group build housing. Then in 2005, after Hurricane Katrina, the group volunteered in New Orleans. On a third trip, to Holyoke, one of the poorest cities in Massachusetts, they helped create community gardens. Then, they traveled a second time to New Orleans.
A group of twenty-five youth and six adults traveled most recently to Dorchester, Massachusetts. There they worked with an after-school center that focuses on youth and also helped refurbish the building and grounds of the First Parish Church, a small UU congregation.
In addition to helping others, such trips tend to knit the participants together, said Buehrens. The 275-member Needham congregation has a youth group of about thirty members. Buehrens credits its vitality to the service trips. “The bonding among the youth is tremendously deepened by going off and doing something together, sleeping on the floor, and working in small teams.”
Byron Doerfer, who will be a high school senior this fall, was on the Dorchester trip and the most recent trip to New Orleans. In New Orleans he helped construct a kitchen that serves people with HIV/AIDS and other conditions. In Dorchester he was part of a crew that renovated a nursery in the church. Now he’s committed, he said. “I plan on doing trips my whole life. Out of all my high school experiences, the most memorable ones have come out of these trips.”
Nobody does service trips more or better than the Winchester, Massachusetts, Unitarian Society and its youth group, WUSY-G. Jessica Rubenstein, director of youth ministries, said, “We’ve done service trips for twelve years now. The very first year I started at Winchester I asked the youth what they wanted to do in the group. ‘We want to build stuff,’ they said. So the next year we did our first Habitat for Humanity service trip. We went to Paterson, New Jersey, and dug a foundation for a house, and they loved it. After that they were hooked on service.”
Since Hurricane Katrina, the youth group has made at least one trip a year to the Gulf Coast. On one trip there were forty-three volunteers. These trips so inspired the adults in the congregation that they created their own organization, Gulf Coast Volunteers for the Long Haul, which has led sixteen intergenerational trips to the Gulf. (See “Finding Relief in the Storm,” an essay about Gulf Coast Volunteers for the Long Haul by one of its founders, the Rev. Mary J. Harrington, at uuworld.org.)
Many people think first of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee or Habitat for Humanity when they think of service trips. Since 1996, the UUSC has operated dozens of JustWorks camps in the United States. and around the world for more than 2,000 participants. Each year it offers weeklong projects to help participants work directly with people in local communities. These participants also receive an education in the root causes and effects of injustice and learn advocacy skills for addressing issues of poverty, discrimination, and racism in their own communities.
Anna Bartlett, senior administrative assistant in the UUSC programs department, said people sign up for UUSC camps “because they want a way to put their values into action in a real hands-on way, and they like doing it with a group of other people.”
Suzie DeBeers has participated in four UUSC service camps in Mississippi and New Orleans since Katrina. Retired and living in Appleton, Wisconsin, DeBeers is a member of the Fox Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. “What’s important to me is to go and walk in the shoes of other people,” she said, “people who have been affected by humanitarian crises, for example. It has deepened my desire to make a difference in other peoples’ lives—not only by doing the actual work on the trips, but when I come home I make calls and talk to people in an effort to actually change policies through political action.”
First Universalist Church in Minneapolis has offered a different type of service camp for the past eighteen years. Unity Summer places youth in summer internships with social justice organizations. Debra Rodgers, director of faith in action at First Universalist, said that more than 400 youth have participated in the program. “The goal is to create a new generation of change agents as well as a space for youth to come together and learn from and with each other,” she said.
In the summer of 2003 Tracy Mayer worked for the Resource Center of the Americas, a group that works for the rights of Latin American immigrants. Mayer helped educate elementary school children about clothing sweatshops. “It was really a wonderful experience,” she said. “I liked coming to work because I was doing something I believed in.” Now in college, she hopes to earn a law degree and work for nonprofit organizations. “That summer experience helped motivate me to consider a career in social justice work.”