Aug 17, 2009

How I use volunteers in Street Youth Ministry

It is wonderful that so many people want to volunteer these days! Community service seems to cross all boundaries today, age, gender, religion, race. It's a wonderful opportunity to do something outside of your career or normal routine. I currently use several volunteers per week, and I am constantly thinking and planning to expand volunteerism.

First let me say that my ministry is a very hands on ministry and some training is required to interact with the homeless folks on a regular basis in counselling and Christian ministry. I haven't yet invited volunteers into this part of the ministry directly. I plan to one day but I'm just not equipped yet to be able to do that. Volunteers interested in doing hands on work should be insatiably curious, very non-judgmental, and have a gift of mission--that is, the ability to cross cultural barriers easily. I continue to prepare for the day that I am equipped to supervise volunteers directly in the field. In the meantime, I can refer interested parties to places you can volunteer in similar service.

So how do I use volunteers today? I ask volunteers to help provide most of the direct service items that go to help street youth. I ask for socks, I ask for bus passes and other items, and I ask for sandwiches and snacks. This might not sound rewarding at first and might get passed up by some volunteers. However, I work very hard to personalize the experience for each and every volunteer.

First, I provide education and awareness training. I will explain what is needed and why. This invites the volunteer into a world that they haven't probably encountered. The volunteer will learn what the street youth need and why.

Second, I tell stories to the youth about the volunteers. I don't reveal anything personal but I explain how the volunteer lives, what they do, and why they chose to be involved. This really helps the youth to get out of their own skins and think about other people in new ways. And it causes them to think about why the volunteer cares. This helps me get through to the youth in both my social ministry and my Christian ministry.

Finally, when I can do so with permission, I take a photo of a youth receiving the services of the volunteer. Then I send the volunteer the photo along with a detailed description of what was accomplished on the day I used their item. They get a pretty vivid picture of how their volunteerism made a difference today. And they get a accurate picture of one of the people who received their services. This helps the volunteer to understand and recognize who their neighbors are. I think it is difficult to love your neighbor if you don't know them, and it is hard not to love your neighbor once you do know them.

So far this year, the ministry has received in-kind donations and volunteerism from 77 people. That's a lot of activism. That's a lot of stories told to the youth about the people who share Austin with them. And that's a lot of photos and thank you notes explaining how each volunteer made a difference. It's not really about value, but the estimated value of all these in-kind donations totals about $6,500 this year! And that means great help to me in being good stewardship of the limited cash donations for the ministry as well.

Below is an excerpt from a volunteer newsletter I sent out recently that gives a snapshot of how one day last week went:

You already know about Street Youth Ministry, and I thank you so much for your involvement and donations! I had such a blessed day last Friday that I wanted to share some of it it with you so you would know just what a role all these sandwiches, socks, and other stuff play in the ministry.

I carried 20 sandwiches, apples, and cold water bottles down to the front steps of University Baptist Church. They intentionally allow the kids to sit there as part of their ministry to the local homeless, knowing that sitting on the sidewalk almost everywhere else results in a ticket and fine. When I arrived, there was an unlikely pairing between a almost 60 year old man who has had many homeless episodes on the drag which started when he was a teenager and a 18 year old young man who is on his third day of homelessness. The young man was getting the older man a cup of water from a local restaurant that is willing to give water to the homeless. I was able to add sandwiches and snacks to the break they were sharing together.

As soon as I got there, a troubled young heroine user and another young client came running up. They were all abuzz because one of their friends had overdosed just now. The ambulance and firetrucks were on the scene. I had passed them driving in without knowing what was going on. They were so worried for their friend. I took the moment to lead them in prayer. They joined me in praying for miraculous intervention for their friend and wisdom and patience for the caregivers looking after him. After this, I served them sandwiches, snacks, and water on the steps -- all from volunteers, of course!

Other street dependent young people came and joined us. We had great fellowship. We talked about the volunteer who made the sandwiches and snacks (no personal details are shared about you... just why you serve, that you have families and kids and friends, and how you show you care through your generous actions). The youth commended this week's volunteer for their innovation of putting hummus on the sandwiches instead of mayonnaise. The most liked item was the water flavoring found in each bag. They explained, "Hot tepid water gets old so the flavoring really rocks!" As is my custom, I took a photo of one of the youth receiving this meal to share with the volunteer. Someone asked why I do that, so I explained that this is my way of humanizing the effort. The volunteer gets to see what a homeless street youth looks like and often says something like, "Wow! I've seen people like that before but not know what to do. But today, I made a difference for this one!" Now they are more likely to see homeless people in the future as they go about their day.

We relaxed together and talked on the steps as some asked for seconds. I also had some Girl Scout cookies to share and some snacks donated by a church, left over from a training seminar. One of the kids who is new to me asked, "Do you really quit your job to do this?" I said, "Yes. I used to be an engineering for 25 hear, designing parts and computers. My motivation is to share Christ with you, and you guys are not an easy group to do that with. Whenever I can, I also want to ease your life with food, socks, and other goodies (all of which come from volunteers, a different one every day usually), but my main goal is to meet you where you are and to share Christ." They accepted this.

About this time, the person we had prayed for earlier came walking up! This was a huge surprise! He was angry and hostile over how he had been treated in the ambulance and hospital but OK. I sat with him and listened to his story. I counselled him on safer drug use and together we committed to stay in touch and see what happens next.

It was a great day! With your support and donated materials, I made a difference. We all made a difference together. People were seen, listened to, fed, clothed, loved, cared for, and prayed for. This is definitely why I serve!

If you want to become a volunteer, please click "Volunteer" on this web site ( If you don't get excited about what you find there, please contact me and let me know ideas that might stretch and grow the volunteer program of Street Youth Ministry. We care for about 70 youth every week, making about 120 contacts per week with 60 old friends and about 10 new friends. You are invited to be involved in this ministry. I think it will be personally rewarding and I know it makes a difference.