AKRON, Pa. – Erica Cuellar spent part of her summer encountering misery and injustice. She chose to do so.
Cuellar, 22, of Sanger, Calif., has a passion to address the global and local problem of human trafficking, in which men, women and children are exploited for prostitution, forced labor and slavery-like practices.
As West Coast Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) increasingly serves victims of human trafficking and related violence in the Central Valley area of California and expands its advocacy efforts and awareness-raising, Cuellar compiled resources for churches and prepared a presentation to increase awareness of the problem.
Cuellar, whose assignment was coordinated through Fresno (Calif.) Pacific University, did this and more in MCC U.S.’ Summer Service program, designed for young adults, ages 18-30. The short-term, leadership-development initiative is for active participants in MCC’s supporting churches who are from diverse ethnic backgrounds.
These six- to 10-week assignments take place in the worker’s home church or community. Together, MCC U.S. and local congregations provide financial support to participants during their assignments. This summer, 10 men and 23 women took part.
According to Kim Dyer, Summer Service program coordinator, the experience provides young adults with the opportunity to use their skills and passions while serving in their home communities. “Our hope is that this hands-on learning experience helps to prepare them for a future of service in the church and broader society,” she said.
Cherisse Harris was a 2011 Summer Service worker at Infinity Mennonite Church (IMC) in Manhattan, in New York City. Like Cuellar, Harris, who lives in the Bronx, New York, is committed to making a difference in her world.
A student at Nyack (N.Y.) College, Harris, 28, majors in childhood education, with a minor in Bible ministry, and is due to graduate in May 2012. Her Summer Service assignment fit right in with these interests.
Harris helped lead a summer English program for children and assisted in the development of its curriculum. She said that interacting with the children and supervising the lead teacher (an English major with no formal education training) significantly enhanced her leadership skills.
Harris also launched IMC’s Kids’ Club, which includes programming for children during the adults’ weekly Bible study and worship service. Helping children form a faith foundation is important to Harris. “We want to get them before the world grabs their attention,” she said. “That’s why we do a wide range of activities that appeal to all ages – IMC’s Friday Night at the Movies, trips, games and lots of interactive Bible teaching.”
Harris hopes that her life increasingly embodies Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:16: “In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
Like Harris, Rachel Stoltzfus, 20, of Elkhart, Ind., spent her Summer Service assignment doing things she loves. Stoltzfus served as assistant coordinator for Historic Roosevelt Summer Academy in Elkhart. Her home congregation, Prairie Street Mennonite Church, helps to support the academy financially. Some of the academy’s volunteer teachers attend Prairie Street.
The academy offers six weeks of free classes for community children, ages 6-16. Stoltzfus helped to coordinate registration and to prepare and send out press releases about the academy. She was a leader of its volunteer orientation and a coordinator for this year’s culminating celebration.
“I like working with kids,” Stoltzfus said. “I get to see the kids interact with one another in the classes, which is a lot of fun.”
Madeline Williams, Stoltzfus’ supervisor at the academy, characterizes her as one of life’s “go-to people [who] takes care of anything and everything.”
Stoltzfus, who just completed an associate degree at Hesston (Kan.) College and is headed to Goshen (Ind.) College this fall, described how this opportunity has shaped her. “I’m definitely more observant of the outer community and the area where our church is located,” she said. “Hearing the stories from different kids makes me more aware and thoughtful about how blessed I am in my life.”
Spending time with a variety of children would sound familiar to Kessler Hibbler, 20, of Macon, Miss. Hibbler’s Summer Service assignment was as a site monitor for a summer meal and recreation program at Emmanuel Ministry and Service Center, affiliated with her congregation, Emmanuel Baptist Church, Macon. She was sponsored in her assignment by Mashulaville (Miss.) Mennonite Fellowship.
Hibbler’s duties included teaching classes, monitoring participants ages 4-18, completing administrative paperwork, and making sure necessary materials were present to enable the program to run smoothly. In the process, Hibbler learned some things about her own community.
“This assignment has changed my perception of food security and opened my eyes to the problem of food security,” she said. “Watching the kids as we feed them, it becomes painfully clear who is and who is not receiving a nutritious meal at home. The amount of appreciation they show for the food we feed them is almost unreal.”
Hibbler appreciates the bonding that took place between her and the participants as the summer went on. “The children began to hug me in the morning and talk to me and tell me about their daily experiences after they left the center,” she said. “It was amazing to me to realize that I had become part of their world.”
A student at Tougaloo College, Jackson, Miss., Hibbler is working toward attending medical school. She assumed she would spend her summer doing scientific research, but, she said, “God had other plans.” Learning to depend on God was a positive impact of the summer on her life.
As for Cuellar, she will likely take part in a leadership and community development internship over the next number of months. She has plans for master’s degree studies afterward. Cuellar sees her Summer Service opportunity as divine affirmation that working with issues of injustice is a next step in her own walk with God.
“This word ‘injustice’ is key to my purpose, to my relationship with God,” she said. “It’s my turn to dig deeper into what has already been sown by pastors or professors. I feel it would be wrong to let what I’ve learned just sit there. I want to define for myself what I’ll do with it.”
For more information on MCC U.S.’ Summer Service program, visit mcc.org/usprogramservices/summerservice.