We recently concluded a series of service projects for adults, high school and middle school students this summer. We focus on making sure that each service project benefits our street youth in some tangible way as well as making subjective benefits available. Tangible benefits include receiving food, clothing, cold water, refillable water bottles and other supplies. Supplies are passed out by service project volunteers and even partially provided by the service project organizers. In-kind donors supply a majority the supplies distributed. Subjective benefits to the street youth include having fun talking with the volunteers, seeing volunteers care for the neighborhood by picking up trash, and prayer.
We also put a great deal of energy into making sure each of our volunteer participants is challenged to change during the service project. We provide age appropriate education about homelessness and, in particular, about our targeted street youth. We aim to see the volunteers change their viewpoint from knowing very little except popular homeless media information to seeing the group as similar to themselves in many way. And then we seek to complete the transformation by helping our participants to see the street youth as wonderful individuals with cool strengths and gifts of their own. We answer questions in terms they can understand, relating the subject to their own experiences and lives.
This summer, we provided 193 hours of community education to groups of volunteers in our service projects. This is an almost overwhelming undertaking, but we know it is important. Each participant gets a chance to answer questions about what they liked and what they learned. The quotes are very rewarding:
- I found out that homeless street youth are really neat people.
- I don't like that they have to live this way but they are really cool people.
- I will be less judgmental in future. I now know there are no easy answers for these people.
And the street youth are changed too. They often modify their behavior when guests arrive. They tone down their language and discussion topics to PG when appropriate. And we don't ask them for this. It's purely voluntary on their part. The sense of rising self-expectation is a good one for them. The consider the contrast between the Christian volunteers serving them and the church as they imagine it or even have experienced it in the past. It leads to a more open mind for the street youth.
One street youth came to me after a visit by middle schoolers (8th graders accompanied by many sponsors and pastor). He was very interested in protecting their innocence. He said, "Really? Do their parents know what they are learning? What they may see? I can't control everyone down here, you know. Their innocence at this age is a precious thing." I replied, "Thank you for your concern for them. Yes, we explain what they may be in for. And we don't explain every detail of everything they see and hear. We give age appropriate answer." And I explained that the main goal is to help all our volunteers understand more about their own compassion. I continued, "We aren't running a zoo. You're aren't on display. A big part of this is about them really. Giving them an opportunity to grow so that they can change the world for the better. So they can discover who they are."
At one service project, I told the middle school volunteers about the above conversation. They were very touched and told me to explain to the youth, "We want to be here. We want to see our faith become more real. We are going home different people."
I understand the street youth's concern. And SYM struggles hard with the balance of ministry, education, and service. We take "helping without hurting" seriously. We wrestle constantly to make sure we aren't enable our clients, trying to fix them, or simply trying to become rescuers to make ourselves better. We affirm that we want to have one and only one aim… to know, love and serve our street youth clients so they may come to know Christ. Jesus will fix. Jesus is the rescuer. And he has given each of our clients wonderful gifts and strengths, and waits faithfully until the day street youth can turn to Him and begin to use those God-given talents and abilities to further His Kingdom.