Youth Unlimited is a Christian organization that “provides week-long SERVE summer mission trips for teens.” They partner with churches throughout Canada and the USA to host and send teenagers on these service-focused ventures, but not this year. On April 9, Youth Unlimited announced their plan to do SERVE@Home, explaining that during the COVID-19 pandemic they are prioritizing safety.
Each summer Youth Unlimited expects to see about 100 churches participate in SERVE; about 50 are participating in SERVE@home. It's an adapted program that encourages the youth group to stay home and to find local places to be of service so as not to risk the potential spread of the coronavirus with travel between cities. The social and learning aspects of a typical SERVE trip were packaged in SERVE@Home kits featuring T-shirts, booklets, and pre-recorded teaching and worship sessions.
Forty teens from Bethel Christian Reformed Church in Edgerton, Minn., had originally registered for three different SERVE trips. With the change to SERVE@Home, 10 registered but only six ended up participating. Heidi Uilk, Bethel's youth director, appreciated having a local alternative, despite the drop-off in participation. “We need to focus more on serving the community with our youth, so SERVE@Home felt like a natural transition,” she said.
The first two days of Bethel’s SERVE@Home experience were spent with worship and using the lessons that were provided from Youth Unlimited. Then three of the Bethel teens, Uilk, and another leader took the service part of the week to neighboring communities, working from Inspiration Hills camp in Inwood, Iowa, as a home base. The group painted a shed, made and delivered over a dozen meals, removed a tree, chopped firewood, sorted donations for a nonprofit organization, and helped at an organization that packs and distributes boxes of food.
“It was commented many times both by adults and kids that eyes were opened to ways that we could serve our own church community in more ways than we had been doing," Uilk said.
The group ended their SERVE@Home experience with a prayer and a time of asking, “Now what?” to take the community service further.
At Stephenville (Tex.) CRC, even the adapted SERVE@Home plan had to be changed. After their SERVE trip to Colorado was canceled, the church had intended to host a three-day experience for more than a dozen local teenagers.
Roeland Stoker, a member at Stephenville CRC, said, “I had volunteers and worksites setup. Then, towards the end of June, the numbers for COVID-19 spiked in our county.” The council made a decision that it would be unwise to host teenagers at the church and canceled SERVE@Home to prevent any unnecessary risk.
“I really commend Youth Unlimited on taking the initiative in canceling SERVE when it was just starting so that people could prepare logistics. … It was sad we had to cancel—I love having SERVE—so making the decision really hurt my heart, but it was the best decision,” Stoker said.
Rick Zomer, executive director for Youth Unlimited, said as the organization’s mission is to collaborate with the local church in their youth ministry efforts, SERVE@Home was their answer to so much being canceled because of COVID-19. “If we’re going to be collaborators with churches, and young people are going to be at home without opportunity, then SERVE@home is what we (were) supposed to do.”