Youth groups across the country plan mission trips every year, both international and domestic. Serving locally is cost-effective and provides valuable learning experiences. Teens and youth leaders are exposed to needs in their community and can work together to serve and empower others. Below are 30 mission-minded local service ideas and tips for researching needs and framing your trip.
Plan Your Local Mission Trip
Consider calling mission trips “service trips,” so youth go into a trip with a servant-hearted mindset versus a savior mindset. Plan ahead to allow time for partnerships and schedules to align.
- Research - Do your research beforehand and see what others have done in the past. Ask past trip leaders about what has worked and what hasn’t. If it’s a specific neighborhood or school, do your research on the history of the school and the area. Talk to local leaders and social workers and ask for insight into what would be most beneficial to the community.
- Read - Before launching into a service project, encourage leaders to prayerfully consider what outreach ideas are helpful for a community and what good intentioned ideas actually do more harm than good. When Helping Hurts is a fantastic book to read on this topic.
- Youth Perspective - Ask the students what needs they see in their schools and neighborhoods and talk about how your group may be able to meet those needs. Involve them in the process of designing the service project. This is an opportunity for them to learn empathy as they think about the needs of others as opposed to their own.
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Provide Transportation for Others
For elderly and low-income populations, it can be difficult to find transportation to doctors’ appointments, interviews and even the grocery store. Additionally, if they do have a car, it can be hard to maintain a vehicle. Consider the following ways to serve.
- Car Work - Host a mechanic service afternoon and provide simple oil changes, check tires, replace windshield wiper fluid and do other simple tasks. There may be a few high school students who know how to do this but expect to also recruit church members and other contacts to help. Everyone can participate — whether it is by processing paperwork, serving refreshments or washing cars after they are checked.
- Medical Shuttles - Organize shuttles to the hospital and to doctors’ appointments with online sign ups. Work with people at your church or a local nursing home to see if they need help getting to their appointments or visiting loved ones at the hospital.
- Train Tickets - Buy train or bus tickets to send people home for the holidays. Sometimes a homeless person just needs a way to get home, but don’t have the means to travel. Talk to your local homeless shelter or half-way house to see who might benefit from a ticket.
- Grocery Shuttles - Consistent transportation options to get to a grocery store to buy fresh food, especially fruits and vegetables can be an issue. Have your youth group organize shuttles on a regular basis to a nearby grocery store with affordable, fresh produce. Internet can be a problem in low-income neighborhoods or with the elderly, but if possible, provide them a way to easily sign up for a ride.
Never underestimate the power of manual labor to help others and to build humility in the process.
- Community Garden - Seek help and input from the local community, and then volunteer to work in a community garden. Youth can volunteer to weed, water and plant.
- Yard Work - Provide yard work for the elderly, single moms or busy working families. This can be for church members as well as others in the community. Ask youth group members and others if they know of someone who needs extra help, and then youth can rake, weed, pick up debris and other tasks as needed.
- Clean Homes - Provide house cleaning for those who don’t have the capacity to do it themselves or lack the money to pay someone to do it. This is something youth can easily do together on a regular basis or once a year as a part of a bigger service project.
- Detail Cars - Clean out cars for those in need by vacuuming, washing windows, scrubbing and waxing.
Give your youth a sneak peek at what it is like to teach others by offering practical courses.
- Art Classes - Offer creative classes to a low-income neighborhood or partner with a school or Boys and Girls Club to provide art, dance, crafting or other areas in which your group is skilled. Low-income populations often don't have access to arts classes, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have amazing skills waiting to be honed. For example, the famous dancer Misty Copeland was introduced to ballet through a Boys and Girls Club, and she went on to become the first African American female principal dancer for the American Ballet Theatre.
- Nutrition Classes - Host a nutritionist to discuss healthy eating habits and demonstrate how to cook simple recipes. Have several basic recipes printed and available for participants utilizing readily available ingredients that can be purchased with food stamps and coupons. Students can help prepare example dishes ahead of time, organize ingredients, or deliver donated groceries to participants.
- Chess Classes - Provide a chess camp over the summer or teach classes after school or on the weekends to at-risk boys and girls. If you have seen the movie or read the book The Queen of Katwe, you know the power of chess in teaching critical thinking and strategy.
- Chess Buddy - In a similar vein, have your youth become chess or checkers buddies with an elderly friend at a local nursing home. This is good for the older generation to keep their minds sharp, and it is good for the youth to learn from elders. This creates time and space for friendships and mutual learning and understanding. One idea is to have your youth group spend a year paired up with their buddy, and then plan a tournament at the end of the year.
- Skills Training Workshop - Vocational training is a tremendous need. People need employable skills, especially in areas with large refugee or low-income populations. Consider training others in areas such as: barista, mechanic, food prep, waitress, and customer service. Your youth group can do the necessary research, teach workshops themselves if they have food service or retail experience, or recruit outside experts as needed.
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Creative Service Ideas
Get creative with your ideas and teach youth to serve wherever they are.
- Basketball Tournament - Host a 3-on-3 basketball tournament. A basketball tournament is a simple way to get to know people and build relationships. You can either host this at your church, school or a local community park that is easy for your target population to reach.
- Meals on Wheels - Contact your local meal delivery service to see if your group can volunteer to help prepare or deliver meals. If you can’t find a nonprofit like this in your area, see if you can prepare nutritious, frozen meals for elderly citizens or single parents needing extra help.
- Babysitting - Offer babysitting for single or underserved parents. This is probably best done at your church for liability reasons. There you can offer adult supervision and make sure at least one adult volunteer is CPR certified.
- Thanking Community Heroes - Contact your local fire department, EMS or police station and find a time to drop off coffee and bagels or donuts simply to thank them for their service. You can also spend time as a group making cookies and delivering them whenever it works for your group. Sometimes spontaneous acts of kindness are the nicest.
- School Service - Contact an elementary school near your church and see what you can do to help the school out over the summer months. Their needs will vary from cleaning to sorting books and supplies and from yard work to helping teachers move classrooms. This can be the beginning of a long-term partnership to serve your local school and the community.
- Lending Library - Have youth work to make a local little free library to have available at your church, a local park, and neighborhoods that are not walking distance to libraries. These little libraries have become quite popular in recent years and are a great antidote to screen time for children. Collect books and build as many libraries as your group has the capacity to build. You can also create a sign up for church members to donate needed books to your libraries.
Providing everyday supplies for others is a fantastic way to incorporate serving into the lives of your youth.
- Toy and Toiletry Drive - Host a toy or toiletry drive for a local foster care home, domestic violence shelter or pregnancy center. Hospitals often get more toys than they need so you could see if they want to pass along extra donations.
- Toy Shop - Collect new or gently used toys and then organize a low-cost toy shop where parents and kids can shop for toys with dignity, at a low cost.
- Coat Drive - Collect coats and have them cleaned, and then go as a youth group (or send a representative depending on what the director thinks is best) to deliver to a local homeless shelter or a halfway house. Create a sign up to organize donations and volunteers.
- Blanket Drive - You can collect new or gently used blankets or craft together as a group to make fleece blankets. Fleece is reasonably priced at local craft stores, and all you need are large pieces of fleece and sharp scissors. Search the internet for easy-to-follow no-sew fleece blanket instructions! Find places that can use blankets: women’s shelter, homeless shelter, foster care facilities, nursing homes and many others.
- Sort Donations - Many nonprofits receive lots of donations, and they can often utilize volunteers’ help to sort through and organize the donations. Check with your local crisis pregnancy center, food bank, women’s or men’s shelter, or foster care home to see if they need help sorting donations.
Organize volunteers to restock inventory, enter data and more with a sign up. View an Example
When planning a service project for youth it is best to do the following:
- Be Unique - If another church or group is already doing something similar to what you wanted to do, don’t duplicate their work. Find a way to partner with them or if that’s not an option, find another way for your church to serve. There are plenty of needs, so don’t overrun one sector with volunteers and leave other areas lacking.
- Partner with Other Churches - One of the best ways you can set an example in the community is by partnering with another church and serving together. This shows that you care more about the act of service than any one church or person getting the credit. Before you start, talk to other churches to see if anyone is doing something similar or has done something similar in the past. You can either partner with them or learn from them.
- Listen - In all of the above ideas, the key is to listen to people and hear what they really need and then determine how your church can best help meet the need. Work together for a solution when possible.
Before you start serving, make the time to discuss the youth’s expectations and ideas, and after the service project take time to dialogue with the youth about their questions and debrief. This will help them stay engaged, and they will benefit as much as the people whom you serve. And finally, have fun!
Andrea Johnson is a native Texan now living in Charlotte, N.C., with her husband and two daughters. She enjoys running, photography and good chocolate.
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