Here’s Your Guide to Giving Back

By Melissa Sersland, January 7, 2019

For the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, incorporating a service-learning opportunity into its triennial youth gathering has been a natural fit.

“More and more often, kids are living and growing in faith through service,” says Molly Beck Dean, director of the ELCA Youth Gathering. “It’s an entry point for kids into the church.”

As a result, during the ELCA’s gathering this summer, more than 30,000 participants were assigned to hundreds of projects throughout Houston over three days. However, without months (or in the ELCA’S case, years) of planning and building relationships with the community, Beck Dean cautions that organizing large-scale service projects can be unsustainable or counterproductive. “We listen to our partners to learn what they really need,” Beck Dean says. “It’s not just dropping into a city doing what we think needs to be done. We spend years walking with partners in a city and then figure out how a busload of kids can contribute to their mission and their city.”

Do No Harm

Organizing a service project during a meeting or event seems like a win-win for planners, attendees and the host community. Participants feel good completing a project they believe helps others; groups get a chance to engage with the community; and everyone can share the good work of the organization and its participants on social media.

But, Beck Dean says, without proper planning, dialogue and conversations with the community, some service projects can do more harm than good. “People think ‘service’ and think we’re going to paint a fence or build a wall,” she says. “Sometimes, what our partners need is people to listen to someone’s stories and focus more on the learning part of service learning than the work part of it.”

When incorporating service-learning opportunities, planners and nonprofits are advised “to do their homework, get information and identify the need,” says Teresa Alfaro, CMP, senior meetings manager for Volunteers of America, a faith-based nonprofit.

Alfaro recently planned two service projects for a national conference for staff members of Volunteers of America. She worked with the area office to coordinate projects, which included assembling 2,500 hygiene kits and taking part in community beautification—both were projects the community already wanted to complete but lacked manpower to do so.

For organizations that do not already have local contacts, Alfaro recommends contacting the city’s CVB for guidance. To find service-learning opportunities for the ELCA’s 30,000 participants, Beck Dean’s team hired a native Houstonian as a full-time service-learning project manager two years before the event. For the ELCA, working with someone on the ground in its upcoming host city has been a critical facet to its service-learning planning.

“The entire first year of his contract was poking around and seeing who’s doing what as far as social services,” Beck Dean says. “He would go and listen to their stories and hear what they were doing in their communities. He would then share about the Youth Gathering, what our mission is and what we hope to do in the city.”

By the time of the event, the service-learning project manager was on a first-name basis with all of the ELCA’s service-learning partners, Beck Dean says. After the event, he continued his work by gathering feedback from the community partners on their experience.

Think Long Term

Too often, though, groups approach work as the expert, not as the extra manpower to help a community. Brian Heerwagen, CEO of the nonprofit Standards of Excellence in Short-Term Mission, has worked with short-term missions since 1980. He says he has witnessed many participants approach their work like a trip to Disneyland.

“They parachute in, feel good doing what they think is right, come home and brag about it,” Heerwagen says. Many times, that bragging comes in the form of a Facebook or Instagram post. Heerwagen has seen groups create a plaque celebrating their accomplishments.

After seeing the detriment of short-term mission practitioners, Heerwagen became part of a national movement to establish Standards of Excellence. The nonprofit provides a code of best practices. Though these standards are intended for longer-term mission opportunities, Heerwagen says the principles of these standards can also apply to service projects done over hours or a few days.

For Linda Reiter, volunteer resource manager at The Salvation Army in Chicago, using storytelling is an important tool. Reiter routinely works with groups visiting Chicago to develop service projects, either at the meeting site or in the city. A popular activity she coordinates is making fleece-tie blankets that are donated to homeless individuals.

Reiter has found personal stories have a powerful impact on everyone participating in the activity, especially on those who come into the activity seeming disengaged. “People may come in totally disinterested, but if I can put a personal touch on how they’re going to make a difference, people tend to pay more attention to that,” Reiter says.

In addition to preparing participants for their service-learning experience, it’s important to help participants process the experience during and after the work is completed.

Before the ELCA’s service-learning activities began during this year’s Youth Gathering, participants attended an orientation about the philosophy of accompaniment and set expectations for the event. On the bus to the project, each group was led by a serving companion that prompted the group with questions to start processing the experience. When the groups returned from their service, they participated in a celebration of service, and were given opportunities to reflect on their experience and become involved in further advocacy work.

As the ELCA Youth Gathering team reflects on this year’s events, Beck Dean says her team enjoys hearing about the experiences of both attendees and community partners. “To hear [our partners’] stories about how our kids’ presence affected individuals and organizations, we have tears in our eyes,” she says.

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