Photo: The 1989-1990 Philippi, West Virginia, Service Adventure unit. Back row, from left: Barb Schlabach, Diane Bowman, Richard Mishler and Linda and Richard Huber Mininger (unit leaders). Front row, from left: Cathy Oswald and Donna Leonard. Photo provided by 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 (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 Adventure and served as the director from 1989-1997. She was 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 recalls. “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 the ideas, and made changes along the way,” Thiessen says. “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 among 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 says. “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 Virginia.
These changes in perspective, explains Lind, were what helped define participants’ experiences with Service Adventure.
“[The placements] had a profound effect on these young adults,” he says. “That is equal in importance to us—to the local ministry 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 participant.
“The leaders were just crucial,” says 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 credits 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,” writes Eash Hershberger. “The joy of observing someone discovering themselves, and in turn becoming empowered, is unmatched.”
Susan Nisly, current director of Service Adventure, believes 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 those things complete what Service Adventure is,” she says. “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 through 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, 2020. 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.