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 “firsts:” First visit to the host church. First grocery
trip. First day at service placements.
In 10 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 program was created by Mennonite Board of
Missions, otherwise known as MBM (a predecessor agency of Mennonite Mission
Network), to serve as a voluntary service opportunity specifically tailored to young
adults who had just graduated from high school. Up to that point, 17- to 18-year-olds
volunteering with MBM had been placed in service units alongside volunteers in
their mid-20s or older.
Nancy Thiessen helped conceptualize Service
Adventurre and served as the 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 Adventure today.
“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 volunteers.”
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
“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
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 Virginia.
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
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 participant.
“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 leader.
“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 today.
“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 Adventure.”
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 service program of
Mennonite Mission Network. To learn more about Service Adventure, visit MennoniteMission.net/ServiceAdventure.