“I owe so much of who I am to SSP. The program is perfectly designed to bring out the best in youth, serve communities in need, and explore God’s love.”
That’s how one teenager summed up her week at Sierra Service Project this summer. Those sentiments – expressing the joy of serving others in the example of Christ – are typical of the nearly 1,400 teenagers who spent a week at one of SSP’s project sites this summer.
From the deserts of Northern Nevada to the borderlands of Tijuana, Mexico, 2008 was a successful, record-breaking summer for the United Methodist-affiliated youth ministry organization. A record number of volunteers participated in SSP’s summer programs this year – nearly 1,800! A total of 601 youth and adult chaperons from 36 California-Nevada Annual Conference churches served on Indian reservations in California, Arizona, and Nevada, as well as at SSP’s project site in South Los Angeles and at its newest project in Tijuana. This number includes the five churches which participated in SSP’s successful pilot Junior High program in Nevada. Volunteers repaired a total of 127 homes over the course of the summer.
Sierra Service Project was established in 1975 as an agency of the (then) Pacific and Southwest Annual Conference and the California-Nevada Annual Conference. Today, SSP functions as a semi-independent nonprofit corporation with its own board of directors. It is funded primarily by the fees raised by hardworking volunteers and the churches that send them.
“Sierra Service Project is very much a cooperative venture between those churches that encourage their youth to participate, the youth who work hard and give up a week of their summers, our staff, and our board of directors,” according to Rick Eaton, SSP’s Executive Director.
This summer, SSP employed 45 young adults in summer-long positions at its eight project sites. Providing challenging employment in youth ministry is a sometimes overlooked aspect of SSP’s ministry. “In many ways, we are employing and developing the next generation of Christian leaders,” said Eaton.
SSP in Indian Valley
This summer Sierra Service Project began work in the small community of Indian Valley, located three hours northeast of Sacramento. SSP’s hosts for the summer included the Rev. Tana McDonald and members of Greenville United Methodist Church. They opened their entire church facility to seven SSP staff and 60 volunteers every week for the entire summer!
Because the United States Government has never ratified treaties signed by California Indian tribes, most Native Americans in the state are not members of a Federally recognized tribe. As a result, most of the Maidus living in the Indian Valley area are ineligible for Government assistance programs. The youth and adults attending SSP had the opportunity to make a real difference in the community. Volunteers completed a total of 28 home repair projects on 19 houses. Each week they learned about the history and heritage of the people they were serving through a cultural presentation, and had the opportunity to share a meal with their hosts.
According to the Indian Valley project director, Ben Poff, “The staff of the Indian Valley site was able to provide a rewarding, spiritual experience to hundreds of youth who completed dozens of repair projects for local Maidu Indians…[We] were wholeheartedly welcomed by the community and received assistance anywhere we looked for it!”
Sierra Service Project plans to return to Indian Valley next summer. California-Nevada churches are encouraged to attend this amazing experience that is less than a day’s drive away!
Tijuana, Mexico: SSP’s Border Experience
Because it is so important that youth develop an understanding of what is going on along the US-Mexico border, Sierra Service Project this year piloted a brand new, week-long service experience in Tijuana. The project combined SSP’s traditional home repair work with a focus on learning about Tijuana, the border, and all of the ways the border impacts the lives of ordinary people and families.
The project was hosted by the Templo Bethel Methodist Church, located a short distance from downtown Tijuana. Participants worked in Valle Verde, a working class colonia (neighborhood) on the industrial eastern side of Tijuana. Valle Verde is the location of a new Methodist congregation in Tijuana. With the help of church and community members, teams built an outdoor covered area that the community will use as a worship space.
In total, 39 volunteers participated in this exciting program. Speaking about the pilot program, Michelle Rehfield, SSP’s Tijuana program director, said, “We were blessed! We made it through the summer safe and injury free and we were able to witness the beautiful transformations that occur in the lives of all the people that SSP touches – youth, chaperons, community members and others.”
“We plan to return to Tijuana in 2009,” said Rick Eaton, SSP’s Executive Director. “We understand that there are risks in going to Tijuana, but we believe, together with our partners in the Methodist Church of Mexico, [that] we can manage the risks and put on a safe program.”
For more information on this and other programs of the Sierra Service Project, call the SSP office at 916-488-6441 or visit its website at www.sierraserviceproject.org.