Middle School Students Choosing to Serve Their Neighbors This Summer
By Lindsay Peyton
Dayspring UMC’s annual iServe summer camp proves that middle school students can make a difference. The camp provides them with the skills they need to complete service projects in the greater Tyler area – whether that’s building a wheelchair ramp, mowing a lawn or working at the food bank. Organizers were able to take precautions against COVID-19 and keep iServe going this summer – which was good news to excited campers.
As everything shut down for the coronavirus pandemic, 15-year old Emma Sparks began to worry about her summer plans, specifically at the camp iServe where she planned to volunteer. She attended the camp for the past four years and wanted to return to help other students have the same experience.
“I was sad when there was a possibility of it not happening,” she said. “But then I was very happy when I saw people were starting to register.”
Her father Jeff Sparks created the camp in 2013, inspired by experiences at U. M. ARMY, or United Methodist Action Reach-out Mission by Youth. He also serves as director of student ministries at Dayspring UMC in Tyler.
“It’s a church camp with an emphasis on mission,” Jeff said. “We serve in the community and keep it close to home.”
The camp basically serves as a stepping stone for mission trips and U. M. ARMY. Designed for middle schoolers, the session starts on Wednesday, July 29 and ends back at church on Sunday for worship. iServe is located at Camp Tyler, which is near Dayspring.
Service projects include jobs like painting, mowing and home repair projects for neighbors in need. “Sometimes it’s something as simple as sitting and listening to someone who is normally all by themselves,” Jeff said.
Before camp begins, Jeff reaches out to the community to ascertain needs. Sometimes a senior citizen wants help with their yard or a home is in need of a wheelchair ramp. Each year, students also take turns serving at the local food bank
On the first day, students learn the basics, including how to handle a drill and a saw. They spend half of the day working, and afternoons and evenings are dedicated to swimming, hanging with friends, prayer and singing along to the sounds of a live worship band. High school students and parents volunteer as guides – and often join along for service and fun.
After middle school summers at iServe, Jeff said students are ready for longer days of service and further away trips. They also are able to start youth group back at church.
In 2013, there were about a dozen students who attended for the first camp. Each year, more church members have signed up. Last year, attendance grew to 70 middle schoolers.
This summer, high school students were also invited to camp, since their mission trips were canceled because of the pandemic. Because iServe is small, and only serves Dayspring, Jeff was able to incorporate COVID-19 safety guidelines, including reducing the capacity of sleeping arrangements and purchasing several hand sanitizer stations.
iServe reflects Dayspring UMC’s mission of being a church without walls, Jeff explained. “This is a great age for students,” he said. “They’re excited, and they want to serve. They go home feeling that they learned a lot and knowing that they can make a difference.”
Plus, they’re not making a positive impact in a far-away place. They are working right down the street. “It’s someplace they might drive by every day,” Jeff said. “It’s some place they can take their parents to show them what they did.”
Jeff said that middle schoolers also have the opportunity to connect with other middle school students – and meet their high school counselors.
His daughter Emma said that she learned a lot from her years at iServe. “It was hard getting up early and pushing myself to be out in the heat,” she said. “But it was a good experience, just to prove to myself that I could do it and that I was mentally strong.”
Emma also believes she grew spiritually during her summers at camp. “You’re just surrounded by Jesus and prayer, and it really helps you,” she said. “It’s really fun. You spend time with your friends and meet new people. You also get to help your community, and you grow closer to God.”
Alyssa Anthony, 15, also plans to attend iServe this summer – for her fifth year. “I really like iServe, because it helps me get closer with my church family,” she said.
Alyssa also enjoys having important conversations with adult volunteers and the good deeds they can accomplish together. “I liked how we got the opportunity to help others in need and get to know them and their stories,” she said.
Camp is also an ideal way to get excited about church and youth group, Alyssa added. She said the experience helped build her relationship with God.
“You definitely see Jesus working through people,” she said. “When we’re singing and worshipping, people get emotional and you can see them wanting to change and get better.”
Her twin 13-year old sisters, Reese and Carleigh, are also returning to camp this year.
“I like to make new friends and be closer to God,” Reese said.
Carleigh said that iServe was her favorite part of last summer. “I got to hang out with all of my friends from church and learn more about our Lord, Jesus Christ,” she said. “I love all the activities and how we get to help people in need.”
One of the days of service, she built an entire wheel chair ramp. The iServe experience has been empowering for all of the girls, their mother Kristin Anthony explained.
She has volunteered for the past four years and will return this summer as well. At first, she thought that helping out with camp would be work. “I ended up having the time of my life,” she said with a laugh.
Kristin said that often the first-year students are nervous to be away from home. “It’s their first time to bond with the kids from church, but you’re still local,” she said. “You’re just 10-minutes away.”
And the campers stay busy. “You’re in service, and then you’re having fun back at camp,” Krisitn said. “It’s a perfect balance.”
Middle school can be full of uncertainty. Going to iServe in the summer is a grounding experience for the campers, Kristin added. They sing together, worship, take communion and pray.
“We have Bible study, and there are a lot of conversation starters,” she said. “When we come home from it, we’re talking about it for days. The worship music is especially great. We jam out and listen to it for weeks after. It’s the perfect way to start the school year.”
Eddie Erwin, Director of Youth and Young Adults for the TAC, explained that churches are trying to navigate forward with their ministries this summer, after so much has been disrupted the past couple of months.
“What Dayspring UMC has developed is something that their church, staff, volunteers, parents, and most importantly students, feel comfortable with 100 percent, but still allows them to be the hands and feet of Christ,” Erwin said. “One thing the break from physical-distancing ministry has afforded us is the opportunity to reflect, rethink, and reimagine how we can best make disciples of Christ.”
He looks forward to seeing how God will continue to use the iServe program to make a positive impact in the community, in building relationships at the church and at empowering youth to make a difference.
“Any opportunity we have to allow our young people to serve in the Kingdom is incredible,” he said. “Middle school is a great time to build on the foundation they developed as children and to explore new opportunities, develop new gifts and discover new passions in their faith journey.”
For more information, visit dayspringumc.com.