More than 250 middle and high school students from Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas spent more than 730 hours learning about and assisting community organizations in Haywood County as part of Lake Junaluska’s Winter Youth Retreats.
Participants assisted with service projects at organizations including Autumn Care of Waynesville, Canton Community Kitchen, Haywood Christian Ministries, Haywood Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, Haywood Pathways Center, Maggie Valley United Methodist Church, Open Door Ministries and Lake Junaluska.
The Rev. Mitzi Johnson, director of programming at Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center, said the opportunity to participate in local mission projects offers a way to live out the retreat theme, “Be Fearless,” by seeking to reach across economic, cultural, racial and age barriers.
“It’s so tempting to spend time only with those people who act and think just like us,” said Johnson. “Knitting together the fabric of community takes learning about those who, on the surface, seem not like us.”
Anne Sutton, youth director with Prospect United Methodist Church in Monroe, North Carolina, said the members of their group valued the opportunity to help out at Canton Community Kitchen for the second year in a row.
“As the youth leader, I want the kids to have fun, but I also want them to be the hands and feet of Christ,” said Sutton. “Our group is a younger group and I was worried at first if they would be able to handle the (mission) project, but for the second year in a row, they have done nothing short of amaze me.”
“I think sometimes we, as adults, underestimate the ability of our young people,” said Sutton. “We just have to sit back and let God take over.”
Allison Jennings, executive director at Canton Community Kitchen, said she was grateful that the group from Prospect UMC and others assisted with cleaning, demolition work, arranging building materials, and sorting, marking and organizing food.
“It is very touching and rewarding to see youth come do mission work and help out the community that we live in,” said Jennings. “With two different locations, sometimes sorting and putting food up can get overwhelming, and it is very, very beneficial that they come and help.”
The Rev. Tom Owens, executive director of Open Door Ministries, said volunteer service such as the tasks the youth volunteers did are extremely helpful to the organization, which provides about 70,000 pounds of food each year and serves 13 hot meals each week.
“When folks volunteer by cleaning, organizing food or helping us with remodeling, they are assisting a staff and a community that really benefits from the physical labor,” said Owens. “Because we are a mission-based nonprofit, we work really hard to keep our staffing budget low so that we can invest in our outreach. Volunteers help us keep our organization running and mean so much to our mission.”
Wilson Booth, youth ministry specialist at Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center, said the mission projects were meaningful to participants too. Those who visited senior centers told him they were interested in hearing the residents’ stories and had a hard time leaving, he said.
What Booth said he found particularly moving was seeing how participants were affected by the messages at the retreat sessions along with the stories they heard at mission projects, and the connections forged with the community.
“Each person who completes a project has become a part of the story of Haywood County,” he said.
Participation in optional local mission projects more than doubled from last year, when Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center re-introduced mission projects to Winter Youth Retreats.
For Lake Junaluska’s Summer Youth Events, youth groups can choose to do mission work with Asheville Youth Mission, which operates in both Buncombe and Haywood counties. Registration for Summer Youth Events is now open.
Lake Junaluska is a conference and retreat center and residential community that surrounds a 200-acre mountain lake in Western North Carolina. Lake Junaluska’s mission is to serve as a place of Christian hospitality where lives are transformed through renewal of soul, mind and body. For more information, visit www.lakejunaluska.com.