A look at youth mission trip purpose from a perspective of three decades of youth ministry.
Kurt Jostes, Camp Restore – New Orleans: Please introduce yourself and give us a rundown of how you came to lead a youth mission trip to New Orleans.
Rev. Emily Kellar: My name is Rev. Emily Kellar and I am a congregational minister in New England. Our church is a member of the United Church of Christ denomination. I’ve been involved in youth ministry since 1988; this is my 32nd year.
Eight years ago I did some research in looking into Camp Restore. I knew another church that had come here from our town, an Episcopal church which had come to Camp Restore for the first time.
The experience the first year was great and we have come back ever since, even though in the eight-year period I have changed churches (two years ago.)
Jostes: How do you describe your trip?
Kellar: We call it a youth mission trip: it is for 9th through 12th-graders; sometimes we make exceptions and bring youth after their freshman year of college. We raise the money throughout the year to make the trip. We fly since we come from so far away, rent vans and I bring chaperones. We have a safe-church policy, so I have a certain ratio of adults per youth to be able to travel with the kids. I always bring the chair of our religious-education committee and the moderator of the church with me, and I always try to have someone good with construction come with me. It helps to have teachers, too… I found Pastor Manning’s is a great place to have teachers come along as chaperones.
“We come to be the hands and feet of Christ, and we come to serve where you need us, and I never guarantee what kind of work we’ll be doing. We come with open hands and hearts.”
Jostes: So there are a variety of types of work y’all have done over the years. What are some experiences you’ve had so far?
Kellar: I think one of the great appeals, still, with these sorts of trips, is to do housing rehab work. It seems to be very gratifying for people. This week we did two different house projects, and today the satisfaction and immense gratitude from the homeowner, and our ability to look at something with completion and know that we made a difference in the physical lodging in someone’s home… it’s been a big draw in these trips. We’ve also enjoyed working at another youth place, APEX, through the years. We’ve worked with Pastor Greg at Broadmoor Community Church. Those also have a large appeal. There’s always a percentage of youth that are good with children, and I think that’s a great way to volunteer. We’ve also volunteered here with the Boys and Girls Club.
I tell the kids every year that when we come, we come to be the hands and feet of Christ, and we come to serve where you need us, and I never guarantee what kind of work we’ll be doing. We come with open hands and hearts.
Jostes: How many of your youth on the trips had previous opportunities to learn things about construction?
Kellar: I think the appeal is it’s something new, a task that is perceived to be usually reserved for adults. I think it empowers the youth and they enjoy being taught in that kind of a hands-on learning situation. Very different from sitting in the classroom.
“Everything is done through the media, and very rarely do these kids get to live in community with other people for a week. It’s a truly rare experience.”
Jostes: What are other learning opportunities have you observed?
Kellar: I think they’ve learned to live as a community. They learned that because there are two fans in a room and they’re used to having a fan at home, at the foot of their bed; now you’re sharing a room with 23 people… do you get the one fan at the end of your bed? You become more mindful of the whole body as apposed to just mindful of self. When you’re a high-school student, being mindful of a large group is something that these kids don’t get to experience a lot. Rooming with, sharing space with, waiting for others. They all say that they don’t sit down to eat [as a family], and here they’ve sat together for all three meals. That’s a huge thing.
Jostes: What have been your impressions of meeting other volunteers from around the country?
Kellar: Jonathan from the German group, we swapped email addresses; I’ve stayed in contact with folks with other groups we’ve met on previous summers. For these kids, to be able to meet people from other parts of the United States, or from outside the States, like the group from Germany, that’s invaluable, that’s such a rare thing these days. Everything is done through the media, and very rarely do these kids get to live in community with other people for a week. It’s a truly rare experience.
Jostes: Building on that, do you see any future opportunities?
Kellar: I do; I also wonder though… it’s never really occurred to me to bring just adults here, and I have adults that want to come and serve. It’s made me think about how we could come and even give back to Camp Restore, doing a project here that needs to be done. And, bringing adults to come do a mission trip.
“A lesson for the kids for why we keep returning here is scripturally-based: it’s important to be faithful. It’s important to keep showing up, over and over, long after people have quit coming. It’s very important that you return – being faithful to the call.”
Jostes: If someone is an educator or an adult leader like yourself who has never led a trip like this, what advice would you give them?
Kellar: I always start every year by investigating the cost – what it would cost per person – and I keep in mind, too, that it’s great to do fundraisers throughout the year to raise money for the trip and invest people in your journey.
Camp Restore offers something to me that no other place I’ve gone, and I’ve gone other places; the hospitality here and Mrs. Lorraine – the food is definitely a plus. The facility is great because the kids can spread out and aren’t on top of each other. Everyone raves about the [Tempur-Pedic] mattresses here: and they are what everybody says – you never sleep better than you do at Camp Restore. And, I think the staff at Camp Restore… it’s another reason why we return.
A lesson for the kids for why we keep returning here is scripturally-based: it’s important to be faithful. It’s important to keep showing up, over and over, long after people have quit coming. It’s very important that you return – being faithful to the call.
Jostes: Thank you for your continued partnership! Do you have any final thoughts?
Kellar: If you’re looking to do a youth mission trip, and if you’re doing it for the first time or maybe it’s something new for you, the staff at Camp Restore are very willing to help you walk through it together. It’s a fabulous place to bring youth!