Proverbs 22:6 reads: “Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it.”
Florida United Methodists know this to be true and embraces young people by giving them unique opportunities to participate in area youth missions to better themselves and their communities.
It’s a chance to work beyond the walls of church sanctuaries. At Christ UMC in Lehigh Acres, this translated to kids working at a soup kitchen.
|Youth at Christ UMC in Lehigh Acres volunteer monthly at an Immokalee soup kitchen. It's one of many vital youth missions throughout the conference offering unique opportunities to participate.|
“Each month on the third Thursday we have a crew that goes to the Immokalee Soup Kitchen to volunteer,” said Church Administrator Charlene Golden, who has been with the church for 18 years. “That has been going on longer than I have been here,” she added.
On average there are about 10 youth and several adults who volunteer there. The work begins at 10 a.m. and ends around 1 p.m., depending on how many people the soup kitchen serves that day. Volunteers help set up the dining room, serve food and beverages, wash dishes and clean up.
Christ UMC Rev. Lia Willetts said it not only helps them see what missions are about, but also to witness first-hand how these programs can help others.
“The youth see how others live and the needs that are out there,” added Golden. “They appreciate what they have and the opportunities available to them.”
Golden also noted how special it is when kids choose to be involved with the church in this day and age of seemingly endless choices in terms of how to spend their time.
“With all of the extracurricular activities, sports and school programs available to youth, it is heartwarming when they want to be at church and keep inviting more of their friends to come with them,” she said.
Some youth programs are more intensive, such as the week-long mission that brought 64 teens from Jacksonville’s Mandarin UMC to Vero Beach last summer. Held in conjunction with Epic Missions, the trip consisted of days packed with activities from holding two Vacation Bible Schools to working at Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore.
The young people here also volunteered at community gardens and Hibiscus Children’s Center, an organization dedicated to ending child abuse.
“It’s easy to say you are helping or to throw money at a problem,” said Chad Deetz, director of youth ministries at Mandarin UMC. “It’s a whole different thing to actually come into contact with people first hand and serve,” he added.
|There are hundreds of youth mission trips each year presenting true "boots on the ground" opportunities to experience community service first-hand. Photo by FUMC Winter Park.|
Michael LeBlanc, director of student ministries at First United Methodist Winter Park said, “Without taking students on missions, we aren’t doing our full job of raising them in a Christ-centered environment. Without cultivating empathy for people who are different from them, we are not cultivating full faith in our students.”
This belief was reported to have laid the groundwork for the church’s “SOUL” mission. SOUL is an acronym for ‘serving Orlando with unconditional love.’
“That’s what we wanted our students to do,” LeBlanc said. “SOUL was born out of a desire to connect our students to people who live very close to them geographically, but have lived different lives. The mission was to help our students learn from the people they were serving.”
The SOUL mission took place last summer at South Street Ministries, a Methodist mission in Orlando, and had 40 to 50 participants in grades 6 to 12. The main goal, according to LeBlanc, was to put on a summer camp for children with educational and fun activities that ultimately pointed them to Jesus.
“Taking students on missions gives them a chance to understand their role in the grand scheme of service to others,” explained LeBlanc, who has been the director of student ministries at Winter Park for more than a year.
“If we can show a sixth-grade boy that he can positively impact the world around him when he is 12, how much more likely is he to believe that he can make change when he is 30?
“By showing teenagers tangible results from their commitment to neighbors,” LeBlanc added, “they are preparing the way for the church of tomorrow to be oriented towards the world outside church walls.”
--Jessica Chapman is a free lance writer based in Lakeland.