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Young youth hold up wooden projects that were created during family volunteering at Amigo CentreYoung youth hold up wooden projects that were created during family volunteering at Amigo Centre

Five-year-old Elizabeth Rosenberger is good at finding treasure.

During the Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) Family Program at the Amigo Centre in Sturgis, Michigan, she collected feathers, pretty rocks, flowers, shells, and pine needles she eventually tied together to make a broom.

“I’m making a movie,” she explained, as she divided her time between sanding the wooden sides of a fire extinguisher box and tending to her collection.

At the Family Program there were treasures for everyone, from grandparents to infants, from teenagers to toddlers. The weeklong summertime program was filled with a balance of family fun, work, good food, activities, campfires and spiritual growth.

Ellen Rosenberger, mom of Elizabeth, along with David, 11, Emily, 9, Lucy, 7, and Amanda, six months, signed her family up because she treasures the opportunity to help her kids experience what’s it’s like to serve on a mission trip. “You never know what trips can do for a child,” she said.

Her husband, Luke Rosenberger, who is pastor of East Bend Mennonite Church in Illinois, recalled how, when he was 11 years old—the same age as his oldest child, David—a mission trip to Nicaragua with his own father changed his life. As adults, he and Ellen lived in Nicaragua serving as missionaries for more than a decade.

“We wanted to take the kids to Nicaragua on a mission trip,” he said. “But COVID restrictions prevented that, so we decided to attend the MDS Family Program.”

His parents, Judy and Dan Rosenberger, also came along, sharing their care and wisdom, and treasuring the time with their grandchildren.

Others from the East Bend Mennonite Church attended as well: 11-year-old Lena Kreeb and her father, Matt Kreeb, as well as Jayne Eby and her son Bradon, 16, and their family friend Kyleigh Kiogima, 20.

Repairing the camp

The Amigo Centre serves as a church retreat facility, children’s day camp, summer camp, and a place to connect with nature for many groups.

For Cheryl Mast, who coordinates outdoor education and volunteers for the Amigo Centre, these families are a treasure: they are repairing a camp badly damaged by a derecho in 2020. Over 90 percent of the trails on the 400-acre property of the Amigo Centre were unnavigable because of downed trees.

As the families helped repair and paint the last two cabins damaged in the 2020 disaster, Mast said their efforts were just in time: a band camp would be using the cabins the very next week.

Mast, along with MDS project director Dan Coyne and MDS crew leader Kelly Foster, also coordinated daily tasks for the families, with age-appropriate work for all.

“I’m going to show you some plants you can eat—and I’ll also show you what poison ivy looks like!” said Mast, who also helped the kids paint the wooden panels for a ball court, as well as construct and install wooden fire extinguisher boxes.

As he finished painting his name—complete with a specially designed shadow around it—on a wooden panel, David Rosenberger sat back with a sense of satisfaction: “That was a lot of time and work,” he said.

“It’s a very fun, very authentic way to introduce kids to service.”

— Dan Coyne, MDS Project Director

When asked about her favorite aspect of the MDS Family Program, Lucy Rosenberger, arranging an on-the-fly salad, said. “I like the plants to eat!”

Her sister Emily didn’t want to pick a favorite: “It’s been so fun,” she said. “I don’t like to pick favorites because I want to enjoy everything.”

Lena Kreeb, as she held baby Amanda, was looking forward to practicing her gymnastics skills on the playground.

The teenagers, who helped put the last coat of paint on the newly repaired cabins, were surprised by how much work they were able to complete each day.

“We got a lot more done than I thought we would,” said Bradon Eby. “It was impressive.”

He added: “Now that I’m actually here it’s a whole lot better than what I was expecting. I want to come back next year.”

Kyleigh Kiogima, 20, made a last-minute decision to attend the MDS Family Program—and she’s glad she did.

“I was sitting in church, and I had gotten back on Saturday from a weekend in Chicago, when I found out that my brother, who was planning to go, couldn’t go,” she said. “I asked if I could go help.”

Kiogima agreed they got more work done than she expected. “You do what’s needed,” she said. “I think more people my age will come once they see us involved.”

Hope for the future

Coyne, a mental health therapist and social worker, said the MDS Family Program—which was offered for the first time in the U.S. in summer 2022—is about including every voice in the next generation of MDS volunteers.

“The children are our next generation,” he said. “It’s a very fun, very authentic way to introduce kids to service.”

Coyne said he sees a lot of hope for the impact MDS could have in the future. “The kids are brilliant—and their voice is imperative,” he said, adding as he smiled at the kids: “I hear there’s gonna be some ice cream, and there’s gonna be some s’mores!”

Foster, reflected that the Amigo Centre is a special place that’s perfect for the MDS Family Program. “God’s creation is amazing,” he reflected. “Everything works together.”

The MDS Family Program is about coming together and appreciating each other’s gifts—the treasure we all have to offer, added Foster.

“If we pay attention to what’s going on with each other, if we watch out for each other—the way that all works is just amazing.”

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