WORTHINGTON — With hundreds of 14- to 18-year-old kids in town this week as part of the Worthington Group Work Camp sponsored by Group Mission Trips of Fort Collins, Colo., it’s to be expected that a few dozen adults would be along for the ride as supervisors and chaperones.
But while it’s easy to see what might appeal to adaptable teenagers about a work mission project, what makes certain adults eager to sign up for several days that involve nights of sleep on cold hard floors?
The opportunity to be of service while guiding young people’s spiritual and personal growth, that’s what.
“I just love it,” said Todd Henry, the camp’s spiritual director and program emcee. “I love the mission aspect and I love kids, and this is a unique way to help them experience Jesus and others away from the comfort zones of their homes.”
Henry, 47, hails from Lincoln, Ill. Formerly called as an ordained youth pastor, he switched careers a few years ago and is now a special education teacher for third- through fifth-graders with emotional disabilities. In the summer, though, he’s on a mission — more specifically, he serves as the spiritual director for two to three youth mission work camps at various sites around the United States.
“I’ve worked with teens for 20 years in a lot of different types of mission experiences,” said Henry. He appreciates the interdenominational approach fostered by this particular mission model.
“When I first started this 21 years ago, I thought it was crazy and wondered how we’d be able to keep everyone from fighting (about religious differences),” Henry said. “But we keep the focus on Christ, we keep things very ecumenical in the programs and we don’t get into doctrinal-type things.”
With this week’s theme of “Relentless,” Henry is spearheading the teenagers’ exploration of how “Jesus is relentless pursuing us to get us into a personal relationship with him, and asking us to be relentless in our response as we follow him and learn who he created us to be,” Henry said.
That’s accomplished not only through the daily work projects the teens undertake but also via two programs — one first thing in the morning and one in the evening.
“We call it a ‘program’ but it’s really very interactive and different from a normal church service,” said Henry. “There’s video, drama, worship singing, interactive discussions in small groups or pairs, humor — and some spiritual questions are posed.”
Working with Henry in Worthington among the approximately 360 people from eight different states is Herb Schoenberg, 59, the camp director. Schoenberg, of Maryland by way of Detroit, Mich., may be a novice at all things Minnesotan, but it’s not his first youth work camp rodeo.
“This is my 20th anniversary,” said Schoenberg, who in his “day job” is a financial adviser with Thrivent Financial. “For the first 12 years, I was an actual camper, leading youth from my home church on these trips, and eight years ago I became involved on the management side of things.
“I do it because I love it, and I’ve enjoyed it each and every year,” he added. “It’s such a great opportunity to recharge my own batteries by giving back a little, because getting to see the camp put so many teenagers on fire for Jesus is a powerful experience and makes for a great week — and that makes it a good year for me, because as soon as one camp ends, I’m already looking forward to where I’ll be going and what I’ll be doing next year.”
Schoenberg is happy to spend two weeks of his personal vacation time to coordinate youth group work camps like this one.
“I lead one per summer because it’s a minimum of a two-week commitment — and I only get so much vacation,” he laughed. Last summer, he was the camp director for a mission in Montezuma Creek, Utah. He’s also coordinated camps in Buffalo, N.Y., a few sites in Pennsylvania, and in West Virginia and North Carolina, among other places. This is his first visit to the North Star state.
“I know now why everyone talks about Minnesota Nice,” he affirmed. “Everyone here has been very, very kind to us and so wonderful. Even though, with all the open miles of farmland around here, it doesn’t look like my home, Worthington is a cute little town that almost feels like home because of the great way we’ve been treated here.”
Schoenberg said there are 58 crews in this week’s contingent, with each crew comprised of six individuals. “The goal is for no two people from the same group or organization to be on the same crew,” said Schoenberg. “On Sunday night, everyone meets their fellow crew members and learns what their project will be, and on Monday morning they show up at a resident’s doorstep, introduce themselves and get to work.”
Schoenberg claims the relationships forged among people who start out as perfect strangers on Sunday night are remarkable.
“You should see the tears falling at the end of the week,” he said. “They’re exchanging email addresses and cell phone numbers, and I can tell you that the power of the crew is an interesting dynamic.
“The ability to achieve as a team something they could never do individually creates a bond that can last a lifetime.”
Schoenberg believes that’s because the youth are mutually focused on a common goal while working cooperatively in service to others.
“It’s almost a shame more people can’t see the good these kids are doing because they are doing a lot, and I couldn’t be more proud of them if I tried,” Schoenberg said.
Besides the few hundred youths and adults in Worthington this week, Group Mission Trips is coordinating six other camps simultaneously.
“In all, there will be over 15,000 youths participating in these types of work camps across the country this summer,” said Schoenberg.
He and Henry offer special thanks to Worthington’s American Lutheran Church for its efforts in bringing the mission here.
“And the Worthington High School staff and administration are wonderful for allowing us to stay in the school,” Schoenberg said. “Their openness to us being here has been a true blessing, and they couldn’t be more accommodating; we’re really grateful for their hospitality.”
Henry, who says he has a “passion for working with youth,” feels blessed to be here, too, sharing the gifts he believes God has given him with a new generation.
“This never gets old for me,” he said of the youth mission work. “I’ll do it as long as they let me.”
Added Schoenberg, “It’s a win-win; when you serve others, you grow personally and spiritually.
“But what these kids will also learn this week is that just when you think you’re the one giving, you find out you’re the one receiving. The outpouring you get back is bigger than what you’re pouring out.”