AKRON, Pa. – For years Keshia Kay Littlebear of Billings, Mont., was certain where her path would take her when she was older and the summers rolled around. She was going to be an MCC U.S. Summer Service worker.

From 2002 to 2005 she was just that – spending 10 weeks of her summers serving at White River Cheyenne Mennonite Church in Busby, Mont. She worked with recreational activities and as youth ministry coordinator.

Eventually she supervised the church’s Summer Service program while honing leadership skills that, she said, she uses to this day as a board member of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Central States and other service in her church and denomination.

The Summer Service program is a short-term MCC U.S. initiative that supports young people of color in their development of leadership skills through working with their local churches or communities. The program partners with churches that are members of MCC U.S.’ supporting denominations and related organizations. Since the program’s 1982 inception, 1,387 people have participated.

A 2013 review of the Summer Service program led by MCC U.S. Anti-oppression Coordinator Ewuare Osayande elicited feedback from participant churches, former and current Summer Service workers, and MCC staff and board members.

Survey participants consistently affirmed the program for providing service and leadership development opportunities for youth of color. As a result, the U.S. board increased funding for the program and expanded the position of national coordinator to half time. Danilo Sanchez of Sassamansville, Pa., will start in that position in late February.

Sarah Thompson was a Summer Service worker for nearly three months in 2004 at Prairie Street Mennonite Church, Elkhart, Ind., where she is a member. She worked with children’s programs and as a community organizer.

“I had just taken a community organizing course at Spelman College,” said Thompson. “Meanwhile, MCC Summer Service was about developing leadership in home communities. So it was a perfect fit.

“Prairie Street created my Summer Service position because of a pressing need in the community to organize to resist city hall’s decision to destroy a local school building rather than renovate it,” said Thompson. Since the decision was made without the input of local residents, Thompson’s job empowered her to canvass the neighborhood and discover what the community wanted. At the end of the summer the community reported the findings to city hall, which “initially halted the wrecking ball,” she said.

The work catalyzed the next few years of community organizing that made it possible for the building to be saved; it is now on the state historical register. In addition, the project brought together members of the community from diverse backgrounds to work collaboratively, she said. Today the building serves as housing and an active community center.

As a college student, working with her home church and community in the summer helped her to stay grounded even during the school year, she said. That connection continues today for Thompson, who has stayed involved with MCC in numerous ways since Summer Service and was recently appointed executive director of Christian Peacemaker Teams. She lives in Chicago.

Last year, Hannah Nursalim, of Los Angeles, served with her church, Maranatha Christian Fellowship, in Northridge, Calif., and with Christian Legal Aid of Los Angeles (CLA-LA), based in Inglewood. At church, she performed support tasks related to worship and a fundraising event. Nursalim studies at University of Washington in Seattle.

Seeing CLA-LA colleagues assist people needing legal advice on immigration, crime-related matters and more “definitely made me want to pursue a career in helping people,” she said.

Lani Prunés was a Summer Service worker for three summers at Oxford Circle Christian Community Development Association (OCCCDA) in Philadelphia, a ministry of Oxford Circle Mennonite Church, her home congregation. Prunés is a senior at Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Va.

Prunés was co-director in 2009 and 2010 and sole director in 2011 of OCCCDA’s Summer Art and Enrichment Program, a day camp for children. She supervised campers and counselors, assisted in hiring and facilitated conflict resolution among campers. In addition, she contacted parents when necessary, helped set curriculum and schedules and created pamphlets.

“I think being in Summer Service showed me ways to use the gifts God gave me – even before I realized I had them,” she said. Prunés added that she can see how God used her to do good, but also used others to provide spiritual guidance to her that set her along her current paths.

“Summer Service was … crucial to the summer camp’s development,” she said. “The camp really needed leaders who could put the time into all the work that it takes, and being a service worker meant being able to commit fully and entirely to projects and more importantly, to the campers.”

Churches too benefit from Summer Service, said Kim Dyer of MCC East Coast, former national coordinator of the program. “Through the grant support of MCC, churches are able to further their dreams for ministry and outreach by utilizing the skills and gifts of a young adult from their congregation.”

Prunés recommended the Summer Service program, with one helpful hint. “Absolutely,” said Prunés when asked, “but only to those who are willing to be vulnerable and commit themselves to the people they encounter and the mission they hope to fulfill.”

Nursalim agreed. “In the summer months, it’s easy to be home, hanging out with friends, but Summer Service allows you to do something meaningful with your time.”