Mark and Tammy Deitrick had no mortgage payments, no debt and no reservations.
The two Jersey Shore, Pa., residents are not planning to retire any time soon—Mark is 52 and Tammy is 49—but after hearing a call from God, they decided last year to leave their jobs at a local grocery store and dedicate three years to voluntary service.
Part of that service includes a 15-month SOOP assignment at the Navajo Brethren in Christ Mission center in Bloomfield, N.M., where the couple lives in an adobe house and does everything from maintenance to office work while forming friendships with Navajo people who visit the center.
“We felt God calling us to come to New Mexico,” Mark explained. “Some people have questioned our decision to serve before retirement, but it feels like the right time.”
It turns out the Deitricks are in good company. SOOP, a Mennonite Mission Network service opportunity for adults and families, is one of Mission Network’s fastest-growing volunteer programs, increasing from 41 participants in 2007 to 149 in 2011. With 140 people already signed up in 2012, the program appears to be in for another record-breaking year.
Though SOOP typically attracts older adults and retirees—the average age of participants is 66—the program has become increasingly popular among middle-aged adults and families, too. Arloa Bontrager, SOOP director, says the program is a good fit for any adult who has skills to share and time to spare—not just retired people.
“Part of the growth in SOOP is due to the broadening circle of people who fit the general criteria of having valuable life skills and windows of time to offer to various ministries sponsored by faith communities,” Bontrager said. “Young adults, empty-nest adults and families are among the expanding circle.”
That circle now includes Michael and Jana Oesch, who signed up their family for two weeks of service at the Fraser Valley Gleaners
warehouse in Abbotsford, British Columbia, this July. The Caldwell, Idaho, couple and their four kids will slice and dice fruits and vegetables to be dried, mixed and distributed to people in developing countries.
Jana, 43, explained that she and Michael, 41, were looking for a short-term service assignment in Canada that would also include their children, whose ages range from 9 to 16. With flexible assignments and 77 service locations throughout the United States and Canada to choose from, SOOP seemed to fit the bill.
“We’ve always wanted to do this,” Jana said. “Now is a good time because all the kids are still here but are not too young to participate. This is a great chance to give everyone in the family a taste of service.”
The Oesch family, from Caldwell, Idaho, served for two weeks at Fraser Valley Gleaners in Abbotsford, British Columbia. Bottom, from left: Jana and Michael. (Top, from left): Lorren (16), Sadie (9), Curtis (14) and Caleb (11). Download full-resolution image.
Like the Oesch family, some “SOOPers” choose to complete one-time, short-term projects. Others, like Norm and LeAnne Gross of Oneida, Ill., enjoyed their original assignment so much that they returned the following year—and the next, and the next.
Norm, 68, and LeAnne, 69, first joined the Glendale, Ariz., SOOP unit four years ago as a way to “give back” and reconnect with their Mennonite roots after living in a non-Mennonite community for more than 40 years. Their daily assignments, which included food distribution, home repair and quilting projects, often put to use Norm’s construction expertise and LeAnne’s sewing skills.
Though they only intended to stay for two months, the retired couple quickly fell in love with the people, the service projects and the local congregation, Trinity Mennonite Church. They have returned every January and February ever since.
The couple has had such a wonderful experience, in fact, that they recruited LeAnne’s brother and sister-in-law, who now join them in Glendale each year, as well as her cousin, her cousin's husband and her cousin’s sister.
“Our enthusiasm is just contagious, I guess,” LeAnne said with a laugh. “But we really believe this is a great way to enrich your retirement years.”
Word of mouth is one of the primary ways people hear about SOOP, according to Bontrager.
“When people have good experiences, they share with friends and family,” Bontrager said. “Most new applicants say they heard about it from a friend.”
SOOP volunteers who have positive service experiences often send updates to their home congregations and small groups so they can keep track of their activities and offer prayer support. The Deitricks, for example, have been blogging about SOOP
since their assignment began in May.
The couple especially enjoys sharing about the friendships they have formed with people they have met at the mission center and in the area. Mark, who has learned a few Navajo words, said the best part of SOOP has been building relationships with Navajo people, particularly a local 94-year-old Navajo man.
“It’s been eye-opening,” Deitrick said. “God is opening doors and breaking down walls.”
### For immediate release.
Mennonite Mission Network, the mission agency of Mennonite Church USA, leads, mobilizes and equips the church to participate in holistic witness to Jesus Christ in a broken world. Media may contact Andrew Clouse at email@example.com, 574-523-3024 or 866-866-2872, ext. 23024.