NEWTON, Kansas (Mennonite Mission Network) –In the last few days of August, Service Adventure
units once again welcomed young adults into communities across the United
States. Unit houses rang with the bustle and nervous excitement of young adults
unpacking bags and suitcases. Unit leaders introduced the shared
responsibilities, cooking duties, and living spaces in an overwhelming haze of
visit to the host church. First grocery trip. First day at service placements.
months, the suitcases and bags will reappear at the unit houses, but the
nervousness and unfamiliarity will be absent, replaced by gentle camaraderie
and hard goodbyes.
For 30 years, Service Adventure has given young adults the opportunity to
live in community with peers, serve with local nonprofits, and form close
connections with host churches and unit leaders. Since its formation in 1989,
the program has welcomed nearly 800 participants—and more than 300 unit
leaders—into 16 locations across North America. Current unit locations include
Albuquerque, New Mexico; Anchorage, Alaska; Colorado Springs, Colorado;
Jackson, Mississippi; and Johnstown, Pennsylvania.
The impetus for the program came from Norm Kauffman and Ron Stutzman in 1987.
Kauffman, Dean of Students at Goshen College (Indiana), and Stutzman, a
professor of sociology at the college, proposed the program to the Mennonite
Board of Missions (MBM) as a voluntary service opportunity specifically
tailored to young adults who had just graduated high school.
“This program fostered development toward adulthood,” Kauffman recalled. “It
helped [young adults] find themselves and their place in the world.”
Before the creation of Service Adventure, 17- to 19-year-olds volunteering
with MBM were placed in service units alongside volunteers in their mid-20s or
older, creating a dynamic that could sometimes lead to tension.
Nancy Thiessen helped develop Service Adventure and served as the
program's first director from 1989-1997. She was well aware of the challenges that arose in
those living situations from her four and a half years as a volunteer living at
the unit house in Elkhart, Indiana.
“Living in a household with 17- to 18-year-olds was sometimes a
challenge,” she recalled. “This was usually the first time away from home for
high-school grads. Cooking and housekeeping skills, budgeting, grocery
shopping, yard maintenance, etc., weren’t typically a part of their lived
experience up to that point.”
Thiessen met regularly with an advisory council made up of MBM staff over
several months to create the central goals of a volunteer program that catered
specifically to post-high-school-aged young adults. When first unveiled, the
tenets that defined the program included service placements that would help
test career interests, weekly learning components and worship nights, close
relations (and required attendance) to a local congregation, and a shortened,
10½-month service term. These continue to be the core components of Service
“I remember that first year as a growing year for everyone as we learned
together, tested all of the ideas, and made changes along the way,” Thiessen
said. “I remember how much fun I had watching the units and the program unfold,
seeing the excitement and positive energy of local congregations, leaders and
The program’s first year opened with 17 participants spread between units in
Sarasota, Florida; Champaign, Illinois; and Philippi, West Virginia.
Lester Lind, a member of Philippi Mennonite Church, worked with Thiessen to
help make Philippi one of the initial Service Adventure unit sites.
“It was just a natural fit for [Philippi Mennonite] to gear ourselves for
the Service Adventure program,” Lind said. “We have a very strong
commitment to local ministry, and it seemed a wonderful fit to have these young
adults come into the area and be the hands and feet of our mission program.”
Philippi Mennonite members worked to foster service placements at local
nonprofits they connected with. These members sometimes worked alongside the
Service Adventure participants at social-service agencies, school programs,
hospitals and offices. Many of the placements gave middle-class participants a
perspective very different from the communities in which they grew up, as
Philippi is located in one of the most economically stressed counties in West
These changes in perspective, explained Lind, were what helped define
participants’ experiences with Service Adventure.
“[The placements] had a profound effect on these young adults,” he said.
“That is equal in importance to us—to the local ministry that we were doing—it
was really a two-pronged ministry from the get-go.”
One unique aspect of Service Adventure that has set it apart from other
volunteer programs over the years is a focus on unit leaders who share the same
living space as the participants.
While part of the job of a unit leader is to set household routines for the
participants, their role is more pastoral than parental. Unit leaders practice
conflict mediation, serve as mentors, and have individual check-ins with each
“The leaders were just crucial,” said Phil Waite, director of Service
Adventure from 1994-1999. “If you have good leaders, who can handle the
complexities and dynamics of young people living together, often away from
their homes for the first time … that’s really key.”
Lauren Eash Hershberger served as a Service Adventure participant in
Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and later returned to the program, along with her
husband, Mark, as unit leaders for the Albany, Oregon, unit. She credited her
transformative year as a participant as the motivation to come back as a unit
“There is simply something exceptional about living alongside others who are
just beginning to figure out who they want to be,” wrote
Eash Hershberger. “The joy of observing someone discovering themselves, and
in turn becoming empowered, is unmatched.”
Susan Nisly, current director of Service Adventure, believes that the
program’s emphasis on relationships has helped the program become what it is
“It’s the living in community, the mentoring, the engagement with the local
congregation – all of those things complete what Service Adventure is,” she
said. “Demonstrating what it means to live in community, not just with your
peers, but with whoever comes your way … that’s part of the beauty of Service
Alumni events celebrating Service Adventure’s 30th anniversary are being
planned throughout the rest of 2019 and into 2020. Local gatherings are
scheduled for Pennsylvania (end of October), Oregon (early December), Indiana
(early February), and Virginia (spring 2020), as well as a webinar on Feb. 4.
For more information about these events, visit MennoniteMission.net/alumni
or follow Mennonite Mission Network on social media.
Service Adventure is a program of Mennonite Mission Network. To learn more
about Service Adventure, visit MennoniteMission.net/ServiceAdventure.