Part of my travels this summer included a week-long high school mission trip with my daughter and the rest of her church youth group. For the past three years, I've accompanied her on these trips, which are sort of organized by the Presbyterian church we attend. I say "sort of" because all we do is show up. Then, a larger organization takes over. This year, we went to The Pittsburgh Project, which describes itself as follows:
The Pittsburgh Project is a nonprofit community development organization with a 25-year track record of developing leaders and serving the city’s most vulnerable residents. Our year-round staff of 51 operates a progressive series of afterschool and summer programs for 450 urban young people, deploys over 2800 people annually to perform free home repairs for Pittsburgh’s elderly homeowners, and spearheads economic development and job training efforts in our Pittsburgh neighborhood.
We were part of the 2800. The Project, which is a permanent, year-round installation, offers "service camps" for youth groups, where students and their chaperones (me) stay in dorm-like (un-airconditioned) bunks, eat sort of marginal food, and go each day to a worksite for a week. The adults do not observe; we lead work teams of 4-8 students made up from the 20 or so youth groups that show up all week. It is not easy on either the students or the adults, but the students love it. There is nondenominational programming in the morning and the evening, and a rec center for free time. (There's not much free time.)
In other years, we've done mission trips to Tennessee and the Quad Cities (Iowa) area through a different nonprofit, YouthWorks:
YouthWorks believes short term youth mission trips can bring life change to youth, a community and the Church. Within a relatively short period of time, your own life and a stranger’s life can be powerfully changed through the desire to give to a community. Your presence during a mission trip speaks more than a thousand words through your simple love and willingness to serve. YouthWorks believes in stories – in telling Jesus’ story, in listening to other’s life stories and in bringing our stories together to transform hearts; a mission trip is the perfect time to tell those stories.
One of the big differences is that Youthworks sets up in various cities throughout the U.S., sending college students there for the summer to organize a number of rotating projects, which usually include children's day camps, eldercare, and care of adults with special needs, along with physical labor projects. Unlike Pittsburgh Project, they do not have a professional staff of technicians, so most of the rehab projects are clean-up, painting, etc., not drywall, roofing, etc. I would also say that Youthworks emphasizes the religious component with greater success.
So, are these youth mission trips better than summer camp? Maybe. Though I loved church camp, I can see that camps minister to the youth, but service camps minister to the youth by empowering them to minister to others. However, before you get all weapy-eyed, note that these service camps are not cheap. The Pittsburgh Project trip ran $370 per person for a week, including adults, and you have to bring one (21+) adult per 5 students plus vehicles, which are used every day. And that does not count getting to/from Pittsburgh. Based on the accommodations (16 to a room, bring your own bedding), meals (fairly austere, with sack lunches each day, filled with what you didn't eat the day before), the tuition cost must subsidize the work.
I know I am new to this, and that these types of trips abound, from Habitat for Humanity youth trips to numerous, lesser-known organizations. A quick Google search tells me that organizations that host mission trips for youth both domestic and abroad are everywhere. And this phenomenon is not just limited to teens; Philanthro Travel or Voluntourism are big trends. In fact, there is a new book entitled The Voluntourist about a man who set off to save the world and himself "two weeks at a time."
I think youth and adults doing service work is great; I'm a little less sanguine about marketing "vacations with a purpose" as win-wins where you come back refreshed and help someone in the process.
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