Mills, director of the Acteens missions education group at First Baptist Church in Henderson, Texas, took a group of six girls and several of their mothers to the weeklong Woman's Missionary Union-sponsored outreach in Natchez, Miss., in July.
Mills was impressed at how the girls grew closer as friends through FamilyFEST to a level that isn't possible in their regular Acteens meetings on Wednesday nights.
The group spent part of their week at a shelter that gives refuge to teen girls who have been turned out to the streets by their families.
"I think it made our girls more grateful for their families, even though they think they're too strict sometimes," Mills said.
The group also worked at Kyle's House, a daycare that specialized in helping children with special needs in Natchez.
FamilyFEST, Mills concluded, "is so beneficial to helping families easily find a place to plug into the missions field."
More than 250 volunteers from nine states traveled to Natchez for the WMU FamilyFEST in the historic city along the Mississippi River, while another 100-plus volunteers from seven states traveled to Wisconsin for a concurrent FamilyFEST at Wisconsin Dells, where water parks and other attractions are among the state's leading tourist destinations.
A third WMU missions venture, the student-oriented Collide, drew nearly 170 participants from 10 states to Savannah, Ga., for outreach and ministry, also in July,
In Natchez, volunteers ages 6 to senior adults worked at some 50 ministry sites, tackling light construction projects, cleaning schools, leading Vacation Bible Schools and performing Bible-oriented puppet shows. Nurses in the group, meanwhile, delivered cookies during visits with staff members at the area hospital, offered blood pressure checks at the local mall and worked at a local nursing home.
In Wisconsin Dells, ministry among nearly 4,000 international students was among the FamilyFEST initiatives. From more than 20 countries, the students fill much of the tourism staffing needs each summer in the Dells while getting a taste of American life.
"The students were predominantly Muslim, but very open to Christian ideas," said Dennis Tanner, student minister at Shades Crest Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., whose wife and three children also were part of FamilyFEST.
"The highlight of this experience for me was having meaningful conversations with everyone around us. God uses each of us exactly where we are in our walk," said Tanner, who was impressed that his 13-year-old also could relate to the international students.
HO CHUNK NATION OUTREACH
Neil and Debbie Carey and their children, ages 10 and 7, were among several volunteers who spent their week with children of the Ho Chunk Nation. More than 2,000 of the Native Americans live in the area, according to Kristy Carr, national WMU ministry consultant; most of the Ho Chunk have maintained some of their cultural and spiritual beliefs for centuries.
The Careys led backyard Bible clubs for Ho Chunk children, with Debbie Carey sensing that most of them knew stories about Jesus but did not have personal faith in Him.
"One of the best experiences of the week was when two little boys came up to the fence of the backyard Bible club," Carey recounted. "One little boy wanted to go home, but the other convinced him to stay. It's encouraging to see that this meant enough to him to want to stay."
The Careys, members of Calvary Baptist Church in Somerset, Ky., viewed the week in the Dells as a family vacation with an important purpose.
"FamilyFEST was a perfect opportunity for us to enjoy some vacation time as a family and do missions activities together as well," Neil Carey said. "This was the most meaningful vacation we've taken, and we are looking forward to participating again next year."
Through FamilyFEST, the Careys said they hoped their children would learn to "share God's love with no strings attached" as well as "experience some of the barriers missionaries encounter daily."
The Careys learned about FamilyFEST through Children in Action, WMU's missions education for children in grades 1-6. They said their children gathered supplies and prepared materials for the backyard Bible club outreach among the Ho Chunk and helped make crafts for residents of a local assisted living facility.
Other missions projects in the Wisconsin town included working at local churches by repairing drywall, painting and repairing roofs and hosting six block parties in five days. Also during the week, more than 3,000 cookies were made from scratch and delivered to firefighters and police officers as well as the international students in the Dells.
COLLIDE IN SAVANNAH
Kasey Chapman, 17, said her experience with Collide in Savannah left her thinking: "I had no idea that a simple weeklong missions trip would have such a profound impact on my life....
"Collide places students from all over America in an unfamiliar place with one common goal -- to show Christ's love through humble service and willing sacrifice," said Chapman, of First Baptist Church in Elmore City, Okla. "It is an incredible opportunity to grow spiritually as well as experience God with other students your age."
Participants in the co-ed outreach hosted block parties and backyard Bible clubs with churches, along with Vacation Bible School at an international church. They also worked in a pregnancy crisis center, homeless shelters, the Second Harvest Food Bank and the Savannah Baptist Center; assisted in area schools; and prayerwalked.
Marianne Woodard, 14, of First Baptist Church in Duluth, Ga., along with her mother Grace and other volunteers worked several days at the Olde Savannah Mission's thrift shop and warehouse, sorting donated clothing and dusting, cleaning, vacuuming alongside some of the men who live at the mission.
"They shared their stories with us and we shared encouragement and kindness," Grace Woodard said. "I suspect the four girls I had with me would never have imagined they would be working in a hot warehouse sorting donated items with men -- mostly ex-convicts -- and not be afraid or intimidated. There was an instant bond between us -- it was Jesus."
It was exciting "to see the girls use their gifts and stretch themselves," Woodard said. "Several of them did things they didn't know they could do and ended up enjoying it. God affirmed that when we are walking in His way, He will truly supply all we need to do the things He has ordained for us to do."
Woodard added, "I don't know of a better venue for youth to use and grow their gifts for the Kingdom of God. There is something for everybody. No matter your spiritual giftedness, passion or abilities, there is somewhere for you to use them for Jesus."
Vicky Cornett, from Dudley Shoals Baptist Church in Granite Falls, N.C., reported that prayerwalking was a highlight for her group.
"It was a rainy day when we did our prayerwalking," Cornett recounted, "but there was a peacefulness as we walked around our block and read the Scriptures that were provided and prayed for the people of Savannah. In the midst of the darkness, the presence of the Holy Spirit was felt all around us."
Collide is especially good for groups who may be new to missions, Cornett said, because everything is planned out. "It is not only a time to serve others," she said, "but it is also a time for groups to become closer in our Lord Jesus Christ."
Rita Wood, a WMU Acteens leader from Locust Grove Missionary Baptist Church in Girdler, Ky., brought six girls to Collide. In addition to the daily ministry projects, Wood said the nightly devotions brought her girls closer to the Lord.
"This experience allowed each of our young women to look deep within regarding their close and personal relationship with God and to commit to making it even stronger," Wood said. "It clearly taught them that they are instruments for God and that His love crosses all barriers regardless of color, economic status, age.... He showed them that they can make a difference sharing love like that."
BACK IN NATCHEZ
Tammy Anderson, missions consultant for Mississippi WMU, said the most amazing part of the Natchez FamilyFEST was watching people step outside of their comfort zone and let God use them in different ways in the week's four categories of service projects: acts of kindness; repair and construction; kids ministries; and community outreach.
"It never ceases to amaze me how willing the volunteers are to do whatever it takes to make a difference," Anderson said. "FamilyFEST is one of the best tools we have as Southern Baptists to get out there, work together and make a difference."
A group of senior adult women, for example, picked up paint brushes for the first time and set out to paint the entire outside of a house. Those around them said they looked uneasy at the beginning but ultimately conquered the task and presented a woman they had met just days earlier with a newly painted house.
Through FamilyFEST, Anderson said, families and church groups were able to grow together, make memories serving the Lord and establish a legacy of service. The benefits to the recipients, meanwhile, were that they their needs met were met and new relationships were formed with Natchez-area church leaders and members.
For national WMU, the FamilyFest in Natchez involved a collaboration with Mississippi WMU, the Mississippi Baptist Convention's men's ministry department and the Adams Baptist Association; in Wisconsin Dells, Minnesota-Wisconsin WMU and Central Baptist Association; and Savannah, Georgia WMU and the Savannah Baptist Association.
Compiled by Baptist Press editor Art Toalston from reports by Woman's Missionary Union communications specialist Julie Walters, summer intern Jessie Gable and freelance writer Melissa Hall. FamilyFEST opportunities for 2010 include Cincinnati, June 19-25, and Wichita, Kan., July 10-16. MissionsFEST, for volunteers 18 and older, will be offered in Puerto Rico/Virgin Islands, July 17-23, while Collide will be June 19-25 in Albuquerque, N.M. Visit www.wmu.com for more information as it become available.
Copyright (c) 2009 Southern Baptist Convention, Baptist Press www.BPNews.net