Learning, Growing, Serve-ing – Hosting a Special Needs Serve

Special Needs Serve is tiring, emotional, and frustrating at times, and yet it is the highlight of my year!


I am amazed at all of the things that God has taught me. Over the last five years I have grown in my understanding of my own faith, my relationship with God and others, have experienced God in surprising places and have had a lot of fun in the process. (Never underestimate the fun factor!)


I work to orchestrate a Special Needs Serve that incorporates special planning and support in addition to the typical Serve template.


Youth mentors are important in the model that we use. Mentors are typical youth (not sure that’s EVER possible) who give of themselves to be the immediate supports needed to accommodate the many different needs of the students who come for this mission experience. Each youth with a disability is paired with a peer mentor who participates in Serve alongside them and lends support where necessary. Seeing the growth that happens among the mentors is amazing. They are challenged to learn how to do something with someone as opposed to for someone. It is a week where they trade selfishness for selflessness. They learn about authentic relationship—relationships that are mutual. The week begins with terms like ‘mentor’ and ‘participant.’ The week ends with terms like ‘friend’ and ‘buddy,’ communicating clear similarities—all equal and created for service.


Special Needs Serve flips our picture of disability, forcing us to see how everyone, regardless of ability, is created with gifts that contribute to building the body of Christ. It amazes me how many youth with disabilities do not otherwise have the opportunity to participate in a youth summer mission trip experience. I love the joy that the participants share when they are challenged to live out their faith—to be the hands and feet of Christ.


Amy has been a participant at Serve many times. As leaders, we have seen her grow in many ways, but watching her learn to articulate a clear faith is by far the most rewarding. “I like Serve because it gives me a chance to give back to God, meeting new people and learning more about God. . . . It gives me a chance to grow spiritually and as a person. . . . Each year I renew my faith in God, and I come home with a new message, which I pass along to others.”


Special Needs Serve helps us as leaders grow in our ability to be vulnerable. We learn to worship without abandon—to be who we are, to be free and to express our faith in many ways.


It also becomes a way to give testimony to the way in which God calls us all to live in community and in Serve-ice to him.

The Story Behind the Service

God’s story of redemption is the most powerful love story that we can share with one another. As youth leaders, we desire to share God’s story, and engaging students in experiences like Serve is a way for them to connect with God personally. It is an honor to serve alongside students and share with them in witnessing God’s redemptive work in new communities across the country. Those stories are what kept me involved with Serve for seven years and eventually led me to my career in youth ministry.

Serve is known for setting up great worksites like building houses, or working in fields, stocking the local area food bank, perhaps even folding clothes at a local pawn shop. Although all of these sites are good and in need of help from willing and able youth, how often are we sharing the story behind the service that our youth are engaging in?

One summer, I took a group of youth to Holland, MI on Serve. We were assigned to paint a house belonging to an elderly couple who attended the Host Church. After two days of scraping off peeling paint, my group of six was running out of steam. The work was difficult, the sun was beating on us and my students were growing weary of the project.

The elderly couple invited us inside, and we joined them for lunch with our brown sack lunches. We noticed that the man of the house was in a wheelchair, hardly able to speak or to move on his own. His lovely wife offered us lemonade and cookies. We decided to initiate a conversation with our new friends by asking questions in order to learn more about them. After our lunchtime interview, we learned that he had had a horrible stroke and that she was now his primary caregiver. This woman was in her late 70s and was completely devoted to the care of her husband every day: bathing him, clothing him, feeding him. She didn’t complain once. She described to us the blessing of their marriage and how she was happy to care for him in all these ways.

We finished the house-painting project for our new friends that week. It took forever, but we completed the project! On the Friday evening before Serve was over, I asked my group what their favorite part of the week was. I was blown away when they all agreed that it was spending time with the elderly couple; learning about their life and their unconditional love for one another.

The testimony of those being served can impact the life of a young person. As leaders, let us encourage our students to discover the story that lies behind the service. You will never know the story unless you ask. Make the service personal and engage with people’s stories; let them affect your group. In the end, Serve is not so much about the work we do for people as it is about witnessing God’s glory through the people that we serve.