REEDLEY, California (Mennonite Mission Network) –For three weeks, the campus of First Mennonite Church and Primera Iglesia Menonita
in Reedley, Calif., became a summer camp for local children.
In past summers, pastor Juan Montes and his wife, Carmen, have opened their home as a safe space for kids to gather while their parents are away. But this summer, the number of kids outgrew their home and the church decided to offer formal programming in June and July with the help of four Youth Venture program volunteers.
For several years, the Reedley congregation, which includes both Spanish and English language services, has worked to connect to their neighborhood through block parties, regular worship services and youth gatherings. Each summer, they’ve hosted a week-long vacation Bible school program for kids from their neighborhood, but this summer, they wanted to offer more.
Reedley is a city that has experienced high rates of gang activity, and the church is working to provide kids with an alternative outlet and community.
“We know we have a lot of at-risk kids who attend church here,” said Barbara Ewy, children’s minister at First Mennonite and the coordinator for the summer learning experience. “We thought a lot about what we could do to help kids get a good foundation and to provide a place for them to be while their parents are at work.”
After conversations with Mennonite Mission Network staff at the Mennonite Church USA convention in Columbus, Ohio, last year, the church had the idea to partner with the Youth Venture program to host young adult volunteers who would help run the camp.
Youth Venture, one of Mennonite Mission Network’s Christian service programs, offers people ages 14-22 the opportunity to join teams for one-to-four weeks of service in June, July or August.
In mid-June, Youth Venture volunteers Rosy Coronado of North Clinton Mennonite Church in Wauseon, Ohio, Megan Leary of Bethel College Mennonite Church in Newton, Kan., Calla Stinson of Western Mennonite Church in Salem, Ore., and team leader Jill Schmidt of Zion Mennonite Church in Elbing, Kan., traveled to Reedley. The team, along with young adults from the church and Ministry Inquiry program participant, Sarah Pohl, led worship, taught classes, served snacks, planned activities and worked with Ewy to plan curriculum and input.
Each weekday from June 28 through July 16, church and community members helped transport children to the church. During the first week, children and volunteers met in the evening for vacation Bible school activities. During the two weeks following, from 1-5 p.m., 25-35 elementary- and junior-high-aged children would fill the church’s classrooms for worship, singing, conversation, arts and craft projects, outdoor recreation, and other activities led by church and Youth Venture volunteers.
For these volunteers, working alongside First Mennonite in ministry was a highlight of their time in California.
“This congregation is so laid back. They didn’t charge the kids anything for these three weeks,” said Leary. “And they didn’t always even know who was going to be there ahead of time, but whoever would come, they would welcome them and take them in.”
For Stinson, although running a summer camp can be demanding, it was clear that God was at work in Reedley.
“I’ve learned that God is present even in the small stuff,” said Stinson. “One day we’d be really worn down by the challenges these kids were facing, but the next day, there would be peace or I’d have a great interaction with one of these kids.”
Some of this interaction took place during field trips to the beach, a water balloon playtime and show and tell times where kids brought in pets from home, primarily turtles.
For all the Youth Venture participants, the experience in Reedley has inspired them to think more intentionally about service in their home communities.
“Service is something that you don’t have to go that far to do,” said Leary. “We did travel pretty far to do this, but this is something we can do close to home as well and in our own churches.”
And for First Mennonite Church, this program represented another step towards their community.
“This congregation has a long history of supporting children,” said Ewy. “This summer, we had an idea, took it, fleshed it out, and were able to take a huge step forward.”