Helping Hands

For teenagers whose parents serve in the military or have careers tied to the military, life is often about making sacrifices. It may not come as a surprise then, that each year since 1989, teenagers living throughout Europe who are involved with Young Life Military – Club Beyond volunteer to give of themselves through participating in a weeklong service project, which combines community service work with opportunities to deepen their faith.

This year's trip to Poland, however, would be unlike any other because it happened in the midst of major world news events — a plane crash and a volcanic eruption.

Just hours before groups arrived to begin working, Polish President Lech Kaczynski was killed in a plane crash, bringing the country to a standstill. "We waited, with respect for our Polish hosts, for information on how the country's mourning and services would affect our mission here," said Shannon Pitzer, whose husband Jim oversees Young Life Military in Alconbury, England. They traveled to Poland with 41 Alconbury kids, almost double the number that participated from their club the year before.

Thankfully, most of the week's plans would remain unchanged, and there were plenty of opportunities for 220 Young Life Military teens from around Europe to become part of Polish communities that needed to see and experience the light and love of God and His people.

And kids were eager to dive in.

"I think this generation of kids really wants to be doing something for people," Pitzer said. "They see value in that."

Getting to work

The first part of the week began with a bit of a history lesson. Kids and leaders toured the Auschwitz II – Birkenau Concentration Camp Memorial Site. "While it is not a 'fun' place, it served a purpose in showing what humans are capable of when they turn their backs on God," Pitzer said. "They also get a better sense of what their parents are fighting against. I think that encourages them."

Kids were then organized into four large work teams and bused to local sites. There they were put into smaller groups so they could do multiple projects within their communities — landscaping, cleaning neighborhoods, helping with gym class and after-school sports, hosting Vacation Bible School, building or remodeling playgrounds, renovating a Christian camp and even teaching English in a few of the local schools. Ashley, who was in the group working on the Christian camp, loved seeing the difference she and her peers were making as the week progressed.

"It's hard to imagine how long it would have taken for the people [at the camp] to get all the work done if we hadn't been there," she said.

And as she worked hard to improve the camp, God was doing some renovations of His own in her heart.

Ashley came to Poland with an optimistic and hopeful perspective on her relatively young faith, but as she listened to talks given by the speaker each night she had a revelation about God's love for her.

One reality that is familiar to Ashley and many of her peers is that the demands of military jobs often take parents away from their families for long periods of time. But as the speaker talked about God being a perfect, heavenly Father, Ashley was assured of God's consistent presence for the rest of her life. "I will always have God," she said.

Pitzer said she knows other students like Ashley who carry similar burdens as military teens. "Because their own fathers are gone a lot, they can view God as caring, but distant and far away," she said.

Active heart

There was a time for Andrew, another student from Alconbury, when God did not seem connected to his everyday life either.

"I went to church just about every Sunday, but then, it really didn't have a large impact on my life," Andrew said.

But being in Poland would mark the end of Andrew's days as a passive person in a pew. At the camp, Andrew worked at clearing old furniture and debris, scraping paint off the walls, and removing tree stumps outside to clear the way for new construction. All the toiling also made room in his mind for the messages the speaker would share with the kids each evening.

"The more I exerted myself physically, the more I felt prepared to hear the speaker," Andrew said. "The speaker opened my eyes to God and helped foster a stronger relationship with Him. Whenever I go to church now, every sermon has a meaning. Every word preached has a lesson to it."

And these days, Andrew has deeper friendships with peers who help him live out what he learned in Poland and at home.

"My friends see a different me and I've created a bond stronger than friendship with my roommates from Poland, it's more like we're brothers now," Andrew said.

Long road home

Just as the project began with unexpected news, so their journey home was altered by another major event — the eruption of a volcano in Iceland clouded most of Europe's airspace, grounding all flights. Like several of the other Young Life groups, the Alconbury team would need to get home another way. Thankfully, God is always in the detours.

The 24-hour wait for a bus meant time for one more club, which they held with kids and leaders from Lakenheath, England. It turned out to be one of the most meaningful nights of the trip, Pitzer said.

A bus finally arrived from Germany and the Alconbury group began a 25-hour ride across Europe. What would seem to be a burden, was an immense blessing, Pitzer said.

"Twenty-five hours on a bus gave us a lot of chances for conversations that wouldn't have happened," she said.

Memories of those conversations and other parts of this trip will be encouraging reminders to help these teenagers continue to grow in their faith at home.

"No matter what happens, God will never give up on me, because I am His treasure," Ashley said. "It's nice to remember sometimes."

For more information about Young Life Military, please contact Marty McCarty.