CHICAGO – “Captain Chris!” yells one child as the leader bounds to the front of the group. The kids clamor to their feet and follow “Captain Chris” as they dance and sing along to a music video blaring, “Can you feel the joy? Don’t it make you wanna jump, jump, jump?”
“Captain Chris” is Chris Collier, an energetic 20-year-old college student who organized and led the three-week Vacation Bible School at Living Water Community Church, a Mennonite Church USA congregation in Chicago. The VBS programming was based on the theme “High Seas Expedition”; hence, Captain Chris.
Collier did this work as a participant in Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) U.S.’ Summer Service Worker (SSW) program, a short-term, leadership development program for young adults from diverse ethnic backgrounds. Like many of this year’s 31 participants, Collier is working with his home congregation.
“It’s a lot of fun, but it’s tiring sometimes,” said Collier, referring to his interactions with the 45 kids, kindergarten through fifth grade, participating in the Bible School. Collier looks right at home, getting the kids excited and engaged in the interactive activities, while finding ways to calm them down when necessary.
It’s no wonder Collier looks like an experienced veteran – he is. Collier started volunteering with the Bible School six years ago. For the first four years he served as a group leader. Last year he was asked to assume the emcee role for some of the larger group activities, and this year he also took on the planning responsibilities.
“I’ve kind of grown into this leadership role,” said Collier. “I appreciate being a leader because it’s taught me how to deal with kids and how I work as a person.”
While planning and organizing the logistics of the daily activities, Collier’s responsibilities also included providing leadership to the other volunteers, many of whom are teenagers, just a few years younger than he is.
“One of the challenges is keeping younger leaders from getting distracted or overexerting their powers,” he said. “I went from friend to boss. When I was telling them to turn off their cell phones and that their first priority is the kids, I thought, ‘I’m growing up!’”
Peter Anderson, youth pastor at Living Water, serves as a mentor and supervisor for Collier in the SSW program. Anderson has seen Collier’s growth firsthand. “It’s been really fun to see him grow and take on new roles and responsibilities,” said Anderson. “He handles it well and knows this program well. He’s taken on a lot of leadership.”
Having mentors for the young leaders is a key part of the program, said Kim Dyer, coordinator of the SSW program. “It’s the role of the church to walk with the participants to help them achieve their leadership goals.
“This program prepares our young adults for the future. They are not only current leaders, but also future leaders in our churches and communities.”
In addition to Collier’s responsibilities with Bible School, he devoted the rest of his summer to working with junior high- and early high school-age kids in the neighborhood, building relationships with them and serving as a sort of role model and mentor.
“They’re already responding to me after a few weeks, which surprised me,” said Collier. “I wasn’t expecting that positive of a response so quickly.” Some of the activities he helps with include “Monday Man Nights” and Wednesday night potlucks.
Collier enjoyed his role with the church so much that he is continuing even after his SSW program term ends. This fall, as he begins his junior year as an education major at Northeastern Illinois University, he has transitioned into MCC’s Church Community Worker program. In this role, he will continue working half-time with the church and building on the relationships he formed this summer.
Two other young adults from the Great Lakes region also participated in the SSW program. Jessica Camacho split her time between Center for Healing and Hope and North Goshen Mennonite Church in Goshen, Ind. Antonio Ewell worked at Lee Heights Community Church in Cleveland, Ohio, where he attends church.