Maria Restivo, 17, stands knee deep atop a pile of golden sand – not an unusual sight in Florida, except the sand pile is in the Tampa Convention Center. Around her, dozens of volunteers construct an elaborate desert scene, complete with a tent of meeting and starry skies — setting the stage for General Synod 28. Laughing as she climbs down the sand pile, Restivo joins Corey Tanaka, 17, spreading more sand in front of the stage.
Restivo, of First Congregational UCC of Murphys, Calif., and Tanaka, of Iao Congregational UCC in Wailuku, Hawaii, lent a hand Thursday as part of the Youth @ General Synod program, joining with more than 200 UCC teens in making a positive impact in the Tampa area.
In addition to helping at the convention center, UCC youth are serving with several community organizations around the city. Projects include caring for animals at the Humane Society of Tampa Bay, packaging food and preparing it for distribution at Feeding America Tampa Bay, and learning about environmental justice with Keep Hillsborough County Beautiful by doing clean up and beautification work at a local park.
Over at Metropolitan Ministries Tampa, Malcolm Wells, 16, of St. Petersburg, loads a cart with canned goods from the food pantry shelves, then bags the items for a female patron. Metropolitan Ministries is one of Tampa’s largest social services providers, offering everything from GED classes to homelessness prevention. About 50 UCC youth served there on Thursday.
Lisa Ward, a local AARP volunteer who runs the food pantry at Metropolitan Ministries most mornings, often works with young people who come to help out. As the morning’s work came to a close, Ward expressed gratitude for the UCC teens and adults who spent the morning following her instructions — organizing shelves, entering information into the computer, and serving patrons.
One of those volunteers was Roselyn Cruthis, 76, of Sun City Center, Fla. For the first time, the service projects have youth working side-by-side with UCC seniors from Florida, says Waltrina Middleton, the UCC’s Minister for Youth Advocacy and Leadership Formation. Middleton is the coordinator of Youth @ General Synod. She hopes the intergenerational pre-Synod service will become “a new tradition” and is thankful for the UCC Florida Conference’s assistance in mobilizing its 6080 UCC Network of “60 and better” adults to come and serve alongside the UCC youth.
The service projects benefit both the Tampa community and the people who serve, says Middleton. She encourages the teens to embrace these projects as an opportunity to “see the humanity in everybody we meet,” she says. “It’s not just a day to check this off the list and say we served.” Because the youth are among the first UCC representatives to arrive in Tampa, being visible in the community is a chance to extend hospitality as well as receiving it, Middleton says.
Youth and their adult chaperones will come together this evening to debrief — sharing stories of what they saw and learned. The Brooke brothers, two UCC teens who traveled the country experiencing and documenting how UCC volunteer ministries are impacting lives in many communities in the United States, will lead the debriefing and help the teens to consider how to take what they have learned and put it into action when they go home.
Youth @ General Synod began Wednesday evening, and includes meals, learning opportunities, and after-hours social events. The service projects continue through Friday mid-day. Some teens will also serve Friday at Trinity Café of Tampa, preparing and serving lunch for the homeless and needy.
One UCC teen, Angileece Williams, is using her video production skills to bring the stories of the UCC youth service projects to Synod delegates and others. Williams is the youth intern with the UCC’s Publishing, Identity and Communication team, and is helping to create a video that will be presented during the closing worship service on Tuesday evening, Middleton says.
Tanaka, one of the youth working at the convention center, sees the day’s work — transforming a plenary hall into a desert scene — as an example of the “Imagine What’s Possible” theme of General Synod 28. “Doing what can’t be done — that’s what the UCC represents,” he says.