In the summer of 2012, 375 Minnesota high school students, accompanied by 100 adult supervisors and two organizers from the Northeastern Minnesota Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, traveled to the hurricane-ravaged shores of Gulfport and Biloxi, Mississippi, to aid residents whose homes had been damaged or destroyed and to clean hurricane debris from the area’s beaches, inland waterways, and forests.
The three-day “servant event” was actually a detour on a longer bus trip to New Orleans, where the students took part in the 2012 ELCA Youth Gathering.
“The Youth Gathering is held every three years in a different city,” says Marty Hancer, senior pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Princeton, MN, and a co-organizer of the trip. “In Northeastern Minnesota, we decided many years ago that the we would build a community service element into each trip to the Youth Gathering. We call it the NMS Journey, and this year we chose the Gulf Coast of Mississippi as our ‘servant event’ destination.
Volunteers arrived to discover that many of the coastal residents they met, who were already cash-strapped from the damage to their property, were facing further charges from the government unless they removed debris from their property or made essential—and expensive—repairs to what remained of their homes. Both the students and adult coordinators rushed into action to help whomever they could.
“The students truly humbled me,” says Hancer. “So often kids get a bad rap. These kids wanted to help, and they were determined. They scraped muck with their hands, hammered open walls that were infested with cockroaches, and none of it seemed to even bother them because they knew the work had to be done.”
Hancer adds that outside groups were invaluable in helping plan the ‘servant event.’
“Holly Gibbs of HandsOn Mississippi did an absolutely amazing job of identifying critical work that each of our students could take part in,” he says. “The Audubon society and other conservation groups also helped us identify beach and inland areas that were still badly polluted with debris.”
Co-organizer Catherine Anderson, who is coordinator of the NMS Youth Ministry, says she believes the student volunteers take home valuable life lessons from “servant events.”
“They give, but what they bring home is just as great,” says Anderson. “Many of our students have never traveled outside their home counties before. An NMS Journey connects them with the larger world in life-changing ways. They come home seeing everything differently. They see problems in their own neighborhoods for the first time. And the want to keep serving—back in their own backyards.”