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Children engaging in volunteer work

By Michael DeBorja

"How are we going to teach the next generation, who live amidst so much affluence, about their responsibility" for their fellow human beings?[1]

Most United Methodist Volunteers in Mission construction projects in the US, and many UMVIM teams in general, don't want children because of security or liability issues. There are not so many projects for children under junior high.

childrenvim-grandma&kidsStill, there are UMVIM teams which have included young children. Lorna Jost, North Central Jurisdiction UMVIM Coordinator, and her husband, Rick, brought their children along on VIM trips. Walt and Betty Whitehurst, former Southeastern Jurisdiction UMVIM and Individual Volunteer Coordinators, also brought their children on VIM trips to Mexico, and it worked very well.

And a number of UMVIM sites do accept families. For example, some United Methodist camps have family-type volunteer opportunities. The Nebraska Conference has "had family groups work at [their] church camps very successfully. There is plenty to do there for all ages." Omaha First UMC has weekend family teams, which "work well for young children. Children are great at sorting things, cleaning items in tubs of water, reading to younger children, working with the physically disabled, and doing multiple tasks that can be accomplished in small time frames."[2]

Children's program and activities

In the North Texas Conference, they are supporting a hands-on children's program entirely based on mission activities called Mission Possible Kids. It is for elementary-aged children 6 to 12 years old. Mission activities include "collecting goods for food banks, cooking meals for homeless shelters, making gifts for hospitalized children"[3], and raising money for Heifer International to end world hunger, which is also an educational opportunity to talk about poverty around the world, milk production, and economics.

When the Dallas food pantry of Wilkinson Center was in crisis, Mission Possible Kids "collected enough food to not only get it through [the] holidays, but stocked [it] all winter long.... They have helped feed thousands of people."[4] Denver Urban Ministries works with a variety of inner city issues, packs food bags for families in need of food, and has a clothing bank and house renovation projects. The Youth opportunities list in umvim.info has other examples.

childrenvim-popsiclestickcrossesMission activities for children, according to Susan Hellums, Border Area Mission Coordinator of the Methodist Border Friendship Commission in McAllen, Texas, could include "families that adopt other families in need in their community," e.g., children who have a family member in prison; gleaning "from fields after they have been harvested," which is "a great opportunity to learn about what migrant farm workers do and the biblical story of gleaning"; "setting up a church wide collection and then packaging health kits, flood buckets, and backpacks with school supplies, and they could also learn about UMCOR this way and what it does around the world."

Susan "had a group that took a backpack list of items to Reynosa, Mexico, and bought the items to fill 50 backpacks from money collected at their VBS and a special Communion Rail at church. They filled the backpacks and then took them out to a small Methodist Church in Mexico.... This was a wonderful cultural experience while being in mission." Mission activities include "collecting pennies and nickels for ministries that are connectional and learning about the ministry. This could also be used to help support missionaries of the UMC, learn about the missionaries, and write letters to support their work."[5] There is a Families volunteer opportunities list in http://umvim.info, not just for those with young children, but multi-generational.

childrenvim-3smallkidsEven very young children help VIM teams. People usually love children wherever you go. Children are an opening to the community, who see that you are willing to take your children there. There are a number of family-oriented VIM teams with parents and children, some as young as 3 to 4 years old who play with the children in the local community and help build relationships. In international trips, children can relate to children there even when they don't know the language. They use sign language really well. They help to identify with people and become a bridge.

Need to be creative

We need to be creative if we want to involve children in mission and go outside the usual VIM as construction. Families can participate in local volunteer trips that are close by. The annual summer SEJ UMVIM Rally in Lake Junaluska, North Carolina, has a YUMVIM event, or Young United Methodist Volunteers in Mission, for kids ages 5 to 12 which parallels the adult event, where kids "gain hands-on experience in mission, including assembling UMCOR disaster relief kits, doing community service, performing a drama for the adults and other activities," as well as participate in an inter-generational worship service. [6]

In local church settings, groups with children can go to a nursing home and entertain and talk to the residents. A local church takes a meal to street people in the inner city of Norfolk, Virginia, once every two months, and children go with their parents to help serve food and greet people. Children can go and participate in a Christmas program in a local Hispanic community, or an Easter-themed Bible School. Children in a local church, say in Mississippi, can start email contact with children in another country, such as South Africa.

Older children

Older children can do a documentary, like NEJ UMVIM Coordinator Greg Forrester's 13-year old daughter who joined a Gulf Coast recovery team and interviewed the owners of homes they were working on. They can learn to fiberglass-insulate walls, pull new wiring, do general clean-up, plan meals for the team like other team members, and lead devotions. They can participate as well in soup kitchens and crop walks. With no skills at the beginning, a group of 9 to 15 year old kids from Ohio in a mission trip to upstate New York on their first day learned tool safety and how to work the tools, and then built 10 handicapped ramps in a week's time.

childrenvim-mixingcementThere are a number of VIM programs geared toward older youth from 14 or 16 years and up, like the Appalachian Service Project, Red Bird Mission, Henderson Settlement, and Habitat for Humanity, with a lot of hands-on stuff. In flood recovery work in Waltham, NY, a number of youth teams of 11 to 15 year olds cleaned out tons of mud and power washed basements. They can then speak on their work in churches and with their youth groups, do reports and assignments for their school, and present documentaries at school assemblies.

There is a drama for the local church on Advance Special # 982009 for Malaria Control, written by Kathy Smith of the Illinois Great Rivers Conference, in http://healthcarevolunteers.org, where a person eloquently reads a text on the effects of malaria on a child's life in sub-Saharan Africa while as many youth as available from the congregation stand up front, a low-octave hand-bell, piano or organ key tolls every 30 seconds, and a youth exits the front with each tolling of the bell.

A lot of teams can easily take children as long as a parent or adult relative accompanies them and helps supervise and takes responsibility for them. When taking them out of the country, legally they have to be with a parent, and if the parents are divorced, have the written permission of the other parent.

childrenvim-classmategiftsEven children not going on a VIM trip can be involved. When Greg took his daughter and another 13-year old to the Gulf Coast, before they left they had a birthday party where people brought gifts for kids to bring to the Gulf Coast where they passed out the gifts. When packing Vacation Bible School supplies in church, include young children who will not be going on trip so they can get a sense of what their parent is doing. Children in Sunday School can draw pictures, write letters and tape a simple song a team can take to children in the place where they are going, who in turn can also do so for children in the church.

How children and families benefit

By being involved in VIM, children realize that they can make a positive difference in the world. With young people leading other young people, the kids will not forget these things. Rick and Lorna Jost's children didn't get into the mode of "I've got to have everything and now," tend to think about others more, and go to church faithfully. The effect is similar to that on an adult on a mission trip - they realize how fortunate they are, that there are people in world who need their friendship and help - and they start from a young age being servants for Christ. It is a very powerful witness for a 12 year old to stand up in front of a congregation and say I made new friends in Haiti.

childrenvim-capwindowVIM trips turn out to be a way for families to reconnect with themselves in a meaningful way and multi-generational families, grandparents and grandchildren, to be in service for others. Two families in the Individual Volunteer program went to Ghana and to Fiji, and what mission meant to each of the children was a major part of that experience. They are more appreciative of what they have when they see what children do not have in some other countries. Serving as a family exposes the children to another culture, and it is a learning experience for everybody.

Someone went with a VIM team to Cuba; the following year, he went with his 12 year old son in a mission trip to the Caribbean. It brought them closer together, and they have a wonderful relationship. The trip provided his son with insight into what it means to serve others starting at an early age, instilling desire to do it again and to grow up sharing his faith through service.

childrenvim-blowingbubblesBonnie Albert, who led three North Indiana Spring Break teams to work in an orphanage in Costa Rica, said that "as we returned to the United States to resume our lives, we returned with a different heart: One person made all the arrangements to be a Big Brother in his area. Another resigned from her Office Administrator's position to help with an expected first grandchild and to mentor an elementary student at a nearby school. One teenager is hoping to be accepted as a volunteer for a small home for young children. In May all three teams gathered to share photos and stories. They shared dreams that continue to come in the night as they wonder about the children who touched their hearts. They want to return to hold 'their' kids again and yet pray that these children will find a new home before they arrive. Twenty-seven missioners from 12 churches made a difference for the children in this orphanage but just as important was the difference that was made within these missioners."[7] VIM together with children is good for children, but also for adults. At a recent Children's Ministry Luncheon of the North Texas Conference, "a spontaneous sharing of stories of children involved in mission energized the room."[8]

childrenvim-grandma&blazeVIM Coordinators have been getting phone calls from folks who want to take their families for a meaningful vacation, instead of taking them only to Disneyland or a cruise. They want their children to experience something with more of a servant quality to it. They want their kids to learn about other parts of American society because in our little world, they don't see what's out there.

UM General agencies can write articles about children being in mission. They can come up with story books about children in a servant ministry, learning about another culture, working in, say, a native American reservation, and show how we're different and yet similar. In 1993, the Whitehursts took one of the first groups from the US to Russia from their local church, and their group said about the Russians: look how they love their children. Later, a group of Russians came to the US, and they said: look how they love their children. Neither group took children with them, but each group was able to recognize that in the other culture.

childrenvim-toddlersThe general agencies can provide devotional materials to be used with young people while they are in mission, geared specifically toward the mission experience. They can create programs or lessons for children to use internationally. They can visit some of the mission sites, find out what happens there, and come back and tell the story. They can design seminar programs for youth on service in inner cities and on immigration and other issues. Children's ministries can introduce and tell the VIM program to the general church. Those involved with children's curriculum can create one that involves stories of children being in mission.

North Indiana Conference experience

Bonnie Albert says that when the North Indiana Conference "VIM Resource Team first thought about providing an international mission experience for families at Spring Break, we selected Costa Rica because it offers a safe environment," and it is a beautiful country where the work to build a pre-school classroom in an orphanage "was going to be with and for children." The orphans' call "Hola" were "the first voices we heard as we arrived for work each day. Smiling faces and hands reaching out drew us into their world. We understood clearly why we were called to this place."[9]

An "important aspect of taking the children on a mission trip is to prepare them before going," with the team leader communicating with the young people through e-mail. She had "sets of questions to research about the place where we were going so they got a bit of social studies lesson." There were "questions regarding what it means to be an orphan" and "how would that life [would] be different from theirs." Parents were encouraged "to join in these conversations at mealtime prior to going." She "encouraged learning at least a few words and phases in Spanish," which the kids loved doing.

childrenvim-nicole-bricklaying"Another important aspect of taking children on a mission trip [is that] they must be fully part of the team." One of the teens who had several years of Spanish became a critical part of the team by being an interpreter. "All of our children signed up and presented a devotion for our evening gatherings. Sometimes it was done with a parent; two boys about 11 years old did theirs together. Teens fussed a bit but didn't want to be left out, so all participated."

The teams "included grandparents and grandchildren, a single mom and son, teens with a pastor, and a teen with another adult in the church." The young people's ages were from 10 to 17. All were outstanding workers. The VIMs' tasks were "defined by Charlie Strong, an Individual Volunteer through UMVIM. He encouraged and facilitated interaction with the staff (housing unit mothers) and the children." The "teams built brick window walls and all that entails, put in the electrical wiring, hung drywall, and more."

"The children involved in these mission trip also involved their classmates back home. Several of the 11 year olds each brought a suitcase with things that had been collected by class members. So not only was this an excellent experience for these 11 year olds but they were able to witness to their classmates as well."

childrenvim-classroomOne could "see the children and project progress over the three weeks. The [Costa Rican] children always greeted our bus each day and as the teams changed you could hear the children say the names of their friends from the week before as they searched with their eyes for their old friends. Making new friends would begin immediately with the young people from the next team. It wasn't necessary for our young people to speak Spanish or for the children to speak English. Love is an international language and there was no interpretation needed."

"Most of the grade school and middle school kids were to share something with their classes when they returned." They "helped or made presentations to their local congregations." The team leader made a CD of photos for their use.

childrenvim-nicole&babiesThe North Indiana Conference VIM are returning again this year with a larger team. One 11 year old is returning with his grandparents. A family of 10 ranging with children 7 to 18 in age is also going. "There is so much more interest today in sharing these experiences with children. Parents really do want to show their children what a privileged life they lead."

The volunteers "understood the building of the pre-school classroom was very important but never more important than a child's hug, helping the 'mamas' feed the toddlers, comforting a crying child, using the mountain breeze to send bubbles into the air, or playing a bit of soccer. The children provided the motivation for all we did."

This presentation to a United Methodist inter-agency meeting on children in New York on Dec. 15, 2006 was culled from conversations with Lorna Jost, Greg Forrester, Barbara Stone, Nick Elliott, and Jan Kaiser, United Methodist Volunteers in Mission Coordinators for the North Central, Northeastern, South Central, Southeastern and Western Jurisdictions respectively, and Jeanie Blankenbaker, Walt Whitehurst and Betty Whitehurst, current and former Individual Volunteer Program Coordinators respectively, and the email and articles quoted below.


[1] Don Underwood, Senior Minister, Christ United Methodist Church, quoted in Kathy Meadows email, Dec. 12, 2006
[2] Nancy Kaye-Skinner email, December 12, 2006
[3] http://www.missionpossiblekids.org
[4] Kathy Meadows, North Texas United Methodist Reporter, Oct. 27, 2006
[5] Susan Hellums email, Dec. 12, 2006
[6] http://www.umvim.org/yumvim.htm
[7] Bonnie Albert email, Dec. 5, 2006
[8] Kathy Meadows, ibid., Oct. 27, 2006
[9] Bonnie Albert email, Dec. 5, 2006, for these and the following quotes

Posted January 23, 2007

Three Part Series: Volunteers in Mission and Children