Coming Together to Serve: How to Create a Volunteer Service Experience with Friends

I’ve just returned from an Alternative Spring Break trip in the Appalachian Mountains in Eastern Kentucky. This is my eighth year serving as a mentor for college students attending Christian Appalachian Project’s college Workfest. This program invites students from all over the country to spend their spring break volunteering on home rehabilitation projects for local residents who cannot do so on their own due to financial, physical, or other reasons. It’s a week of Christian service, prayer, and ridiculously good times. But for our group of Catholic Spartans from Michigan State University, it’s also a week of traditions – swimming in nearly frozen lakes, performing Catholic parodies of pop songs, and so many others.

The eight students who I accompanied this year may have thought they were just signing up for a weeklong commitment, but as far as I’m concerned, they earned themselves a lifelong invitation to this crazy adventure.

RELATED: Virtual Retreat for Reflecting on Volunteer Service

I’ve been mentoring, chaperoning, and leading various service initiatives like this with high school students, college students, and young professionals — some 150 young people in all — since 2002. These days, most have careers of their own; many have spouses and kids too. As for me, I keep inviting them back to serve. Their energy, enthusiasm, and hope is contagious. I’m spiritually recharged every time I have the opportunity to serve beside them. So last summer, my wife Lisa and I invited all of the friends we’ve made through these trips to spend time serving side-by-side with one another. Twenty of us went back down to Eastern Kentucky and volunteered a week of our time, sweat, and prayer. Some of us look a little older, and we all have more responsibilities than we used to, but it felt just like old times.

Participating in group service projects with our friends has made living out our faith so much more tangible than before, and the Gospel message proclaimed at Mass takes on a whole new relevance. When we hear Jesus tell us to take care of our brothers and sisters, those are not abstract suggestions; he is referring to people we have met. We know their names and faces. When Jesus says, “Where two or more are gathered in my name,” Lisa and I see our friends brought together in the spirit of Christian service. We have shared often the sentiment that we get far more out of these efforts than we put in – and you can do it too. Here are some tips you can use as a framework for getting something like this started in your own life:

Start small

Lisa and I didn’t come straight out of the gate coordinating a cross-country, week-long service trip. Our trial runs started in our own community. Coordinate a morning to volunteer with your friends at a soup kitchen, invite a group over to your place for “Catholic Movie Night” with discussion and dessert, or gather a handful of people to participate in a local charity walk.

Be welcoming

I think it’s human nature to look for disqualifications that keep us from including others. Oh, We shouldn’t invite him along anymore because I saw on Facebook he got into… Or We’ve invited her for the last few years, and she never comes. We’re all busy, and schedules cannot accommodate every opportunity presented to us, but it’s not our place to judge who is “holy enough” to be invited to participate. Besides, being invited to volunteer or join in a service project might be the stimulus someone needs to turn things back around. I remember one young man signing up to join me on Alternative Spring Break with the apprehensive question of “John, I’m not very religious — Is it okay if I still come?” To his surprise, not only did he find God on that trip, but the experience changed the course of his life.

Don’t compartmentalize

Many young people have a tendency to keep different spheres of their life separate. Those walls, though, tend to only be in our own minds. The approach my wife and I take is to lump everybody together. It’s an awesome experience to watch how quickly the new additions can get wrapped into the fold of the existing group.  For that matter, allow your immediate circle of friends to bring along their spouse, their new best friend, or their sibling, cousin, aunt, etc.

Keep your eyes on the prize

Never lose sight of what your group’s true purpose is – to reach out to God’s children in Christ-like service. For every activity, pray before you begin, pray when you are done, and reflect as a group on the things you were able to accomplish in doing God’s work.  Some of our discussion questions might be: How did you see Jesus in the people that we served this week? How do the residents who we are serving live out their faith in the midst of their struggles?

Parting thoughts

Life so often has a way of wearing us down – work piles up, bills pile up, and then little annoyances like a broken dishwasher and a dead car battery jump on top of the heap too. For me, spending a week away from my normal responsibilities and focusing on serving others has a cathartic effect. It’s amazing how easy it is to forget about your own problems when you’re focused on helping somebody else. Every year, I come back re-energized, with a closer relationship to God. I also return with a new group of friends that I plan to serve beside for the rest of my life.

John Oliva

John Oliva has been surrounded by college students for most of his adult life. He spent the first half of his career as a university professor and now works as a licensed, professional engineer in the private sector. Along with his wife Lisa and their daughter, the Oliva’s are active in campus ministry and other service initiatives through their home parish of St John's Church and Student Center at Michigan State University. An aspirant deacon, John is in his first year of diaconate formation with hopes of being ordained for the Diocese of Lansing.