Some have recently graduated from college, and are ready to immerse themselves in work that can make a difference in people’s lives. Some are considering a call to ministry, and want time to explore whether that’s the right path. Some are looking for a new adventure — ready to be surprised by what comes next.
This is a season of growth for the Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) program of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). In August, the PC(USA) sent more than 55 new volunteers out into service — working in five countries internationally (Guatemala, Kenya, Northern Ireland, Peru and South Korea) and at 11 sites in the United States. Those numbers likely will increase, as the denomination’s mission work plan cuts in half the fundraising requirements volunteers must meet, and includes a challenge to grow the program.
Previously, international volunteers needed to raise $8,000 each to help cover their costs; now they’re expected to provide $4,000 each. National volunteers will each need to raise $3,000; previously, the amount varied depending on the location.
The program also has new leadership. Shannon Langley, who has served as coordinator of the Young Adult Volunteer program since 2006, finished her service at the end of September. Richard Williams, a teaching elder who has worked as a PC(USA) mission co-worker in Colombia since 2009, took over as the new coordinator Oct. 1.
Williams is a former young adult volunteer himself, and a living example of the transformative impact the program can have. “It gives you a chance to look around — look around with your eyes wide open,” he said.
Williams joined the program with no idea at all of becoming a minister. “I had grown up in the Presbyterian church, but never thought I’d do anything but attend Sunday services,” he said. “I thought I was going to medical school.”
Williams volunteered in the Philippines in 1999 and 2000, assigned to a community health organization and working with indigenous communities in rural areas. The health organization was an outreach of a Presbyterian mission hospital established more than a century ago. Many of those from the villages needed medical services, but “those people would never be able to go to that hospital” — the distance was too great, Williams said.
So the health organization worked to enable people to establish clinics in their own communities. It brought the medical care closer to home, and in the process taught Williams what ministry outside the walls of a church could look like.
“My boss always said, ‘I go to church for six days and on the seventh day I take a break,’ ” he said. “I saw a much wider view of church,” and decided that “if the church is like this, alive and vibrant in all parts of people’s lives, particularly in meeting their needs, then sign me up … It was a fabulous experience, deeply transforming.”
Williams followed up his year in the Philippines with a second year serving as a national volunteer in Nashville, Tenn., then enrolled in the Master of Divinity program at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago.
That sequence is not uncommon. About a third of the young adult volunteers attend seminary — either before or after their service. Many of those who don’t become teaching elders find work that’s related to helping others or improving the world.
Examples include becoming a nurse, a community organizer or a professor of environmental science. One former volunteer enrolled in medical school and now is a doctor working in rural health care. Another became a lawyer working on behalf of immigrants.
Langley said the YAV program bears out its slogan: “A year of service. A lifetime of change.”
YAV is open to young adults ages 19 to 30. About 75 percent are recent college graduates, many of whom come from either PC(USA)-related colleges or places with a strong collegiate ministry program. Most but not all are Presbyterian; in 2011, there were volunteers from seven denominations.
In an effort to encourage more young adults to consider serving, the PC(USA) has lowered the amount of money each volunteer is expected to raise. Williams said conversations with volunteers showed asking them to raise $3,000 to $4,000 apiece “seemed to be a sweet spot” — neither too great nor too light a financial burden.
Volunteers themselves have said they find the fundraising to be sometimes daunting, but also find value in talking with prospective donors about the work they’ll be doing.
“This experience of going out and asking people to support you is critical in any ministry work,” Williams said, calling it good training for the future.
The volunteers also show creativity in their fundraising endeavors. They sometimes involve their home congregation as well as their campus ministry connections. They may also apply for grants or reach out to friends and family, asking supporters to give $10 a month for a year.
There’s a sense that “it’s an entire community or a congregation that accompanies you,” Langley said. “Ministry to the broader world starts there.”
While analysis of the impact and challenges of the Young Adult Volunteer program has been based partly on anecdotal accounts, the leadership also has recently completed a research project intended to add data to the personal stories. Impediments to participation, they discovered, include family obligations, plans to attend graduate school or pursue other career paths and the need to earn money to repay student loans.
What kind of people make good young adult volunteers?
“Someone who is flexible,” and has a desire to learn as well as to serve, Langley said. Someone who wants to grow spiritually and is open to new experiences. Someone with a dash of humility, rather than “people who feel like they’re going to save the world.”
Flexibility is important, because “the program is difficult — very, very challenging,” Langley said. The volunteers often live with other volunteers — strangers at the beginning — in simple quarters and in an intentional Christian community. They often work in an unfamiliar, culturally different setting and must navigate complex interpersonal relations, learn new job skills and cope with health and security concerns.
Often, there’s significant spiritual growth. When volunteers list the biggest things they learned, one is often that “I lived in honest, open Christian community” — not an easy thing to do, Williams said.
Re-entry can be difficult — especially replicating that sense of community. “You’ve had this huge experience, but you don’t always sense that people want to know — to really know” what it was like, Langley said.
“People ask ‘How was your trip, your mission trip?’ — then want a 20-second answer, Williams said. What you want to say to them is that “you’re a different person.”
Alumni of the program can play an important role in creating that sense of community — connecting through social media, at PC(USA) gatherings such as Big Tent. When the volunteers return — as more than 1,400 have done so far — “our church gets this influx of people who have gone out in the world and seen how God is moving and working,” Williams said. They bring a message of what’s possible “to a church that desperately needs that word.”
One volunteer’s year in the barrio
One young adult volunteer, Kelsey Penn, chose to extend her service to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) — to stay for a second year in San Antonio.
On her blog, Kelsey provided a long list of highlights from her first-year experiences. Among them:
» Lived on $90 a month.
» Learned to be family with strangers.
» Was a minority for the first time.
» Spoke a lot of Spanish.
» Gardened out of necessity.
» Watched seven kids graduate from high school who were told they’d never live to be 18.
» Fought for immigrant rights.
» Got a puppy.
» Lived in the barrio.
» Saw drug deals.
» Killed lots of cockroaches.
» Found social justice to be my passion.
» Learned to meditate.
» Read more of the Bible than ever before.
» Found God outside the four walls.
» Finally heard my calling.
Important Young Adult Volunteer Dates:
YAV service is on an academic year, typically from late August to July. Application deadlines for 2013-2014:
» International Service: January 20, 2013 » National Service: Rolling acceptance, typically from December to July
» Placement Event: March 14-17, 2013 » Start of Service and Orientation: August 19-26, 2013