For about 40 former Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Young Adult Volunteers (YAVs), Labor Day weekend meant more than an extra day off work.
The first YAV alumni reunion was Sept. 4-6. The holiday weekend didn’t seem to deter many YAVs from attending, said Essie Buxton, associate for young adult and national volunteers.
YAVs seemed eager to reconnect with old friends and share stories with people who have similar experiences.
For about 15 years, the YAV program has been sending young adults (ages 19-30) to national and international sites for a year of Christian service. At many sites, YAVs live in community with each other.
“People form strong relationships with each other through this program because of that shared experience,” Buxton said.
One goal of the reunion was to keep such bonds alive. Another was to build support for the program. Former YAVs can help with that, especially recruitment. Leaders at the reunion wanted to make sure formers YAVs know about the variety of resources available to them — both for recruiting new YAVs and for having a continued connection to the program.
“They really put a lot of time into this program because it’s important to them,” Buxton said.
In small group discussions, former YAVs discussed forming a more structured alumni network, facing the difficult realities of the program, ways to tell their stories, new models of recruitment and the discernment process.
In addition to these more structured discussions, alumni had a chance to just talk. One group shared about their time in the Philippines. Shelley Milosevich, Sarah Tuttle Edgecombe and Hana Johnson all served there from 2003-04. Heather Grantham served there from 2004-05.
While the 2003-04 group was eager to catch up with each other, Grantham was at the reunion to speak with others who had been in the Philippines. During her year, she was the only YAV serving there. She had planned to work as a young adult intern or to be a YAV in Africa, but “God pushed” her to the Philippines, she said.
The other women had a variety of reasons for serving as a YAV, but all agreed that it was a life-changing year.
The greatest lesson Milosevich learned was to be flexible.
For Johnson, learning to just be was important.
“Learning to understand that it’s not all black and white” and that she doesn’t have all the answers was humbling, Grantham said.
Also humbling was realizing how much Americans don’t know about the Philippines, which was an American colony, said Edgecombe. Filipino children learn English in school and asked her why American children don’t learn Tagalog.
Johnson said she also learned a different way of being church. She knows people in the Philippines who have been killed because of their work for Jesus Christ. Even though the country is mostly Christian, it’s riskier to proclaim the gospel there.
For Grantham, death was a theme of her year — she knew a family member at home and pastors in the Philippines who died.
“I learned that death is part of life … but there has to be a resurrection of that,” she said. “There has to be hope. There has to be something to latch on to. If there’s not hope, why am I still in the church?”
Coming home from the year of service was a shock to the YAVs.
Shopping for shampoo, Milosevich said she was overwhelmed by the number of options and broke into tears. In the Philippines, shampoo options were much simpler.
YAVs need other YAVs to “figure out coming home,” Edgecombe said. “The figuring out what just happened ... we really need each other.”
Johnson said she felt angry and impotent when she came home. She was angry at the ignorance she saw in Americans, beginning at the airport on a layover.
“‘You all have no idea what I’ve just been through — and you probably don’t care,’” she remembered thinking.
Johnson then enrolled in seminary, where she sometimes felt she was pointlessly sitting in a classroom.
Coming back was also hard for Grantham, who experienced some disenchantment and questions about the church.
“I was really broken when I returned,” she said. “I couldn’t put into words what I had experienced, and that scared me.”
Grantham said she didn’t know how to answer people when they asked her how her year was. She punished herself a lot, giving away all her clothes to the Salvation Army and feeling guilty when she was sucked back into American culture.
These shared struggles are one reason why an alumni network is important, Milosevich said. It reinforces the strengths of the program while providing support to current and former YAVs.
Reconnecting with other alumni also allows them to hold each other accountable, Edgecombe said. By being around other YAVs, she has to remember her experience.
It’s good to be around people who have a commonality and who think globally, Grantham said. Being with others YAVs allows her to not lose that part of herself who spent a year in the Philippines.
Being able to live and discuss the shared experience of being a YAV with other YAVs helps validate the time of service, Johnson said.
“I did have a real experience, even if no one around understands it,” she said. “It was only a year, but God, it was a year.”