Hamilton Victory Gardens and SERVE

The following is an article from our Spring 2016 magazine. To view the whole magazine, click here.

Hamilton Victory Gardens and SERVE

by John Bijl

Youth Ministries Coordinator

Meadowlands Fellowship Church

Hamilton, ON

2015’s SERVE theme was The Other 51, but Hamilton SERVE has been stressing that principle for the last six years. Hamilton SERVE is not just a one-week work project. It is a culmination of 51 other weeks of working together, and Host Team members of Hamilton SERVE have created a symbiotic relationship with the two organizations they serve that lasts throughout the year.

One of the organizations is Hamilton Victory Gardens. It acquires vacant land from municipal governments, churches, schools and old age homes and builds vegetable gardens. All the gardens are built by using raised beds. The raised beds are built right on top of the existing land, so no work needs to be done to the land before they get started.

Getting volunteers to plant or weed or harvest is not a problem, but the physical building of the beds is extremely hard and difficult work to do. Through our partnership with Hamilton Victory Gardens, they have done year long planning to have most of their beds built by the groups that come to Hamilton SERVE. They preplan to have all the necessary materials ready for the week. They also spend a lot of time planning where gardens should go, all while keeping Hamilton SERVE in mind.

The week after Hamilton SERVE was done building beds, the Fruitland special needs SERVE came in and planted the gardens we built.

The produce that is harvested from the beds we build supplies multiple food banks with fresh produce—fresh produce that they would normally not receive. One of those organizations, The Living Rock, in turn uses the produce to teach street youth a trade such as being a chef or working in restaurant kitchens, which use their product to feed other street youth.

Our relationship with Hamilton Victory Gardens is not just one week, and the work we do affects the work of many other organizations in the Hamilton community.

Our relationships with the two organizations we serve have become so much more than a week of SERVE. This became truly evident to us at the end of SERVE in 2015. We were debriefing and discussing how tired we were when the biblical principle of the Sabbath was brought up by one of our host team members. We had just completed our 6th year of hosting Hamilton Serve and the idea of taking a one-year sabbatical was a very enticing idea, but the more we thought about it, the more we came to the conclusion that we can not take a sabbatical. We have two organizations that count on us. They plan for us. They need us, and it feels good to be needed.

Hamilton SERVE will continue as long as the Lord wants it to, but as long as we continue to work during the other 51 weeks with the Good Shepherd Centre and Hamilton Victory Gardens, no sabbaticals will be taken. Creating these meaningful and reciprocal relationships has helped make Hamilton SERVE very successful, and it has also enabled two amazing organizations to do the work that God has called them to do. We encourage all Host Teams to not just find places to work for one week, but to create meaningful and lasting relationships with organizations in your community. When you have those relationships, you will truly see and feel the full power of SERVE. In Hamilton, SERVE is not just one week, it is 52 weeks of being God’s hands and feet. May God bless you in your Kingdom work in your community.

To connect with Hamilton SERVE, click here to view their Facebook page.

To connect with Fruitland Special Needs SERVE, click here to view their Facebook page.

To Serve Again

A true Californian boy with blonde hair and blue eyes gleefully posed for the camera in a shirt that reads “Canada”, the rest of his features covered by a classic moustache disguise – this is the way most people at Serve know John Brouwer.

A playful character who is always willing to dance along to a Justin Bieber song, John’s heart is as big as the bright smile that lights up his face whenever he interacts with his friends.

His friends are the other special-needs campers attending Youth Unlimited’s Special Needs Serve, a weeklong overnight camp for teens and young adults with special needs. Some campers, like John, have Down syndrome, while others have learning impediments or more severe intellectual disabilities that can make life a challenge.

Begun in 2008, and hosted at Calvin Christian Reformed Church, Serve is run entirely by volunteers.

Currently, Serve welcomes 15 to 20 participants each year, providing them with a week of teaching and lessons about God, as well as one-on-one support from mentors, fun activities, volunteerism, friendship and good food.

Serve is never the same. There are always new mentors and participants. It is always changing, but the thing that stays the same is the friendships that are made, and it amazes me how quickly they are made,” said Joanna Janssen, a Direct Support Worker for Christian Horizons, who has been involved with Serve since its creation.

To retain participant interest and create unique memories, every day at Serve is different. Part of the day is devoted to teaching, while the other part is devoted to fun and friendship.

Small groups is a time for participants to learn and go deeper into the lesson and word of God, while in the evening, the speaker draws them together as a whole camp to impart a message.

Highlights of the week always include leisurely activities like bowling, motorcycle rides, Ray’s reptiles or mini put, and the volunteer work sites – such as Jericho Road, the Ottawa Mission or The Ottawa Food bank – where participants serve others.

To finish the week, there is fancy dinner where participants and mentors dress up, get pampered, dance, and perform together in a talent show that brings everyone to their feet.

Ron Hosmar, Commissioned Pastor of Youth and Congregational Life at Calvin, was inspired to create Serve by discovering a similar project in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Approaching a congregational member who had a sister with Down syndrome, Hosmar asked if she would be interested in trying the same type of project. After Hosmar, and a small group of interested volunteers, visited Grand Rapids, the Serve project was given a chance.

Over the past six years, Serve has continuously evolved, welcoming and saying farewell to various participants, mentors, speakers, volunteers, work sites and activities.

Not only do participants return again and again to enjoy the week, but every year familiar faces are seen among the mentors, with volunteering often running in the family.

“My sister was a mentor the year before my first year of being a mentor and she really enjoyed it,” said 17-year-old Ben Brinkman. “It seemed like a good experience, and I loved it, so I have continued to be a mentor.”

Serve’s commitment, camaraderie and love is apparent in the instant bonds created between mentor and participant and the old friendships that are quickly renewed.

Taurie March, an exuberant fan of the TV show Glee and much-loved participant, had these words for future campers, “I would tell them that you make new friends and it’s such a blast.”

“Our Mentors want to come back each year because they grow and come to love our participants so much,” Hosmar said.

“Everyone on the trip is remarkably present. People are able to truly see each other,” added Mark DeVos, Serve’s 2013 speaker. “This kind of attentive love has an untold impact on the youth and other servants during the trip.”

While the participants are the ones there to learn and volunteer, the mentors and camp staff can’t help but leave with valuable takeaways. As Brinkman said, “[Serve] has impacted me through [the participants] joy and unique point of view on things, giving me new perspectives, as well as the great experience and unforgettable memories.”

“Every person has unique value. I learn this from the participants,” said DeVos. “In many ways they are able to accept and love one another better than I am […] I respect them for their fearless ability to live out their uniqueness.”

“When they accomplish something for the first time the joy they show is contagious,” Janssen said, “They teach you something new every day, and they have a love for life that not everyone has.”

The benefits of Serve can be seen throughout the lives of everyone involved, whether volunteer, mentor, planning team, participant or the parents that are given a week’s respite from the sometimes demanding care of a child with special needs.

“Our participants learn to be more independent,” Hosmar said. “Their families appreciate a safe place for their children to be cared for and loved on for a week. They can then take some time to rest knowing their son or daughter is safe. “

Serve’s volunteer planning team is in full swing with preparations for 2014’s camp. It will be held at Calvin CRC in Ottawa from July 5 – 10. Though the site is full, if you know of anyone who might be interested as a mentor [aged 14 and up] or participant [aged 14 – 26] for next year, have them contact Pastor Ron. You can also review the past Serve happenings by looking up Pastor Ron’s blog and clicking on the July entries for any given past year. “Hopefully,” Hosmar said, “Serve continues to grow and be part of the fabric of our church and the lives of those families who we are blessing through this ministry.”

Parents of participants agree.

“I wanted to have John be in a project where he was fully included, not just an add-on,” said Grace Brouwer, John’s mother. “John knows he is serving Jesus, and others. He gains new relationships, even though from afar, and I can relax because I know he is in good hands.”

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.