April 1, 2012
The youth group at the Winchester, Mass., Unitarian Society has developed a reputation for doing service work well and often. But it wasn’t always so. In the early ’90s it was rare to see teenagers at church at Winchester on Sunday morning.
After one particular Youth Sunday service in which many youth declined to participate, one member of the congregation, Sandy Fries, stood in the pulpit and delivered a call to action, compelling the congregation to respond to this issue. Shortly thereafter the society hired two staff members who created a program of youth ministry. The rest is history.
In the past 15 years the Winchester Unitarian Society Youth Group, known as “WUSYG,” has organized more than 25 service trips, many of them a week long, to places including New Orleans; Appalachia; Paterson, N.J.; New Mexico; and Roxbury, Mass. Participants have put in long days building houses in inner cities, farming on Native American reservations, cleaning up after natural disasters, and organizing and staffing urban day camps for kids whose parents can’t be with them over school breaks. In total, more than 300 youth and 50 adults have participated in the trips—many more than once.
And each week now, upwards of 40 youth come to church weekly, meeting with those initial staff members, Jessica Rubenstein, who is now director of Youth Ministries, Assistant Director Sean O’Brien, and other youth leaders. In addition to service trips, the youth experience other aspects of a balanced youth program, including worship. WUSYG meets for two hours each Sunday afternoon.
This past spring the congregation’s Youth Advisory Committee commissioned a book to celebrate WUSYG’s service work as well as Rubenstein’s fifteen years (and O’Brien’s nine years) of service. The committee also hopes that the story of WUSYG’s trips might inspire other congregations to engage youth in service work. The 60-page book includes stories from past and present trip participants, parents, and staff members about how the trips have transformed youth, adults, and the congregation itself.
The book, titled What We Do Matters: Reflections of a UU Congregation on 15 years of Service Work, is available from the UUA Bookstore for $20. The book is also available from the youth group.
Rubenstein writes in the book, “More than anything else, firsthand encounters with those in need are the experiences that lead young people to ask important questions about economic and racial disparities in this country and the world—and about their own responsibility for changing them.”
John Barber participated in four service trips as a youth. Now out of college, he spends much of his time in Ghana working with volunteers he has recruited to build schools and do other projects. He writes, “Without having experienced the WUSYG service trips in high school...I would never have ended up here.”
Barbara Seymour said her four WUSYG service trips more than a decade ago helped her develop convictions about her ability to work for change: “For me, deep transformation came with the fulfilling proof that a community of people working together could do something of substantial value. When I was 14, doing something to break the cycle of poverty, like building houses, was over-the-moon empowering.”
Adults in the congregation have also had transformational experiences on WUSYG trips. Rubenstein notes that on trips last year there was one adult for every four youth. “We work as equals. It’s a cross-generational experience and one of the greatest ways we’ve found to forge connections among our generations in the congregation.”
One of those adults, Joe Eiler, watched his three children, Alex, Madeline, and Elizabeth, go on trips and come home changed. So he went himself, as an adult sponsor, then became a founding member of Gulf Coast Volunteers for the Long Haul, a nonprofit group founded at the society to help hurricane-ravaged areas. He has made more than 15 trips to the Gulf Coast. He wrote in the book, “The lives we have touched and the friendships made will last more than a lifetime. I truly believe that this gift of service, to which I was led...has given me back more than I have ever given.”
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Last updated on Wednesday, April 11, 2012.
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