It doesn't officially take the stage this year for another three months, but Greg and Shelly Hillman are already clustered with a group of 10–15 youth leaders, working on plans for their eighth Sidewalk Kids summer season. Similar to a traveling Vacation Bible School, Sidewalk Kids takes the program to the children, rather than the children to the program.
It's not as if the Hillmans need more to do. Greg travels and works long hours for an international technology company; Shelly is the Orchards Church (Vancouver, Washington) secretary. But as they have watched the impact of this special summer ministry grow since its inception in 2005, it's something they cannot afford to let go.
The Sidewalk Kids concept is not original. It has been used throughout the country, developing from its success in the ghettos of New York with Bill Wilson's non-denominational Metro Ministries. Several years ago the program caught the eye of Oregon Conference members Wynn Kaiser, Chuck Davidson, the Hillmans and others. After some local retooling, it provided an avenue for Greg and Shelly to help their Orchards Church Pathfinder group put leadership talents to use out in the community.
Youth Take the Lead
Year by year, the program has grown. What began as four Sabbath afternoon programs in a park has blossomed to a full-summer ministry, with three events in three different locations each week for six weeks. What was initially an adult-led experience is now planned, designed and carried out by 20–30 Adventist youth representing as many as six local churches. The youth write scripts, help build staging and create the costumes. They are up front, leading songs, enacting plays and sharing a Christ-centered program, working with neighborhood children one on one.
John Wesslen, Orchards Church pastor, is excited to have the youth as the focal point. "The adults have stepped back into supporting roles, while our youth have stepped forward to lead."
"We work behind the scenes and watch with amazement as these teen leaders exceed our expectations," says Greg. "It's truly humbling to see what the Holy Spirit does through their willing hands and hearts."
Stop by some summer afternoon at Orchards Park in Vancouver and watch what happens as the Sidewalk Kids team arrives and sets up for action. One large trailer unfolds into a mobile stage. Another contains technical support equipment. There is something for every age group. Adults and retired volunteers help set up awnings and tables and run wires for the public address system. They plug in a popcorn machine and prepare snow cones for the coming onslaught of children. Youth workers get into costume and run over last-minute program adjustments. Back at the church, another group is bathing the event in prayer.
Church Comes to the Community
And then, it's time. The crowd begins to filter into the park. Some parents and children are familiar faces — they come each week and consider the Sidewalk Kids crew part of their community. Others approach tentatively, wary of a gimmick or hard-sell program. The arriving children run from the registration table to grab a snow cone and perhaps some popcorn on their way to a seat on one of the tarps on the ground to await the day's program. Parents and church volunteers mingle in the back. They all want what is best for these children — and this common interest is what builds community beyond church walls.
Building an awareness of Scripture is part of each event. "Our youth have designed some fun and creative ways to help these kids memorize Bible verses," says Shelly. "They come back each week saying, 'I remember the one from last time!' And that's what it's all about — putting God's Word in their minds."
Supporting the Vision
The Sidewalk Kids summer ministry doesn't have to be complex or expensive. But as the Orchards project has grown, so has the budget. The Riverside Church in Washougal, Washington, has now partnered with Orchards to add additional funds, volunteers and other resources. More than $20,000 from the Orchards Church alone is budgeted each year to help fund summer stipends for full-time youth who consider it a summer job. Funding has, so far, not been a problem, says Wesslen. "This program is not focused on the older folks in our church, but they realize the value of this program," he says, "and they contribute liberally."
Besides the special program and activities in the park, the Orchards/Riverside program serves a supper, catered by Gail Spreadborough, Columbia Adventist Academy food service director, who loves being part of the outreach. This dinner may be one of the few square meals some of the children can count on each week. And it's no small feat. Attendance at one of these summertime programs can surpass 120 adults and children.
Mingling Like Jesus
Beyond the rough, ungainly exterior of some who attend is a hunger for something beyond mere physical food. They consider this once-a-week event to be their "church" experience — the only contact they and their children may have with the spiritual side of life. "This program has gotten us involved in the lives of people who would never walk inside the doors of our church," says Wesslen.
Will this summertime project become a better bridge to church attendance or baptism? At least one family has placed their children in an Adventist school because of Sidewalk Kids. Other results are still tentative. One thing is for certain: It follows a model made clear by Ellen White when she described Jesus' ministry as going into the communities, ministering to people as one who desired their good.
"One special thing has changed through all of this," says Wesslen. "We know our neighbors now, and they know us."
Consider This at Your Church
Does your church have an active Pathfinder program? Have you been wondering how to expand your outreach into the community, to take your program to where people actually are? Do you have teens hanging out with nothing to do? Consider visiting one of these summertime programs in Vancouver to see how it is opening doors into the community. Talk to Greg or Shelly, Pastor John, or any of the youth leaders and learn from their experience. You'll find them eager to share.
Shelly says, "It's a lot of hard work. I'm exhausted at the end of the summer. But it's also the best thing I get to do all year!"
It could be for you too, if it helps you and your church step out beyond the four walls to become Salt in Our Communities.
Pull quote 1: "We work behind the scenes and watch with amazement as these teen leaders exceed our expectations. It's truly humbling to see what the Holy Spirit does through their willing hands and hearts."
Pull quote 2: "One special thing has changed through all of this, we know our neighbors now, and they know us."