How a kids’ summer camp led to an ecumenical youth movement along the Mississippi.

How a kids’ summer camp led to an ecumenical youth movement along the Mississippi

The woman lived in a town near the Illinois-Iowa border, about an hour and a half from the nearest emergency room. She had been in poor health for many years and spent time in the hospital frequently. She relied on the kindness of friends and neighbors for help with her house’s upkeep, as well as for transportation for her many trips to the hospital.

One day, the woman unexpectedly needed to visit the emergency room. She went down her usual list of contacts, calling them to see if they could make the lengthy drive. No one answered. Not sure where else to turn, the woman decided to try calling a man she had met the summer before—a man who had, with a group of students, volunteered to paint the exterior of her house.

That man was Steve VanWyhe, director of youth ministries at Second Reformed Church in Fulton, Illinois.

“After not talking with her for a few months, this lady reached out to me in a time of need, and I was able to take her to the ER and stay with her while she was being treated,” says VanWyhe. “God used our work camp to connect us and…I was humbled to see how God could use me to do more than help her get her house painted.”

VanWyhe is one of the church leaders behind Unite Work Camp, an ecumenical youth movement in the Mississippi River border towns of Clinton, Iowa, and Fulton and Morrison, Illinois. At its core, Unite Work Camp is a summer camp for students in grades 7 through 12 to paint the houses of people in need in their hometowns. Over time, however, the spirit of Unite has expanded to include year-round events for youth that encourage fellowship with other churches and open up opportunities to share the gospel.

From the start of his ministry in Fulton, VanWyhe has sought to collaborate with other youth leaders in the area. He meets regularly with youth pastors from nine different churches and several denominations for coffee, fellowship, and event planning. After he took part in a spring service project with one of these pastors, the idea of Unite Work Camp seemed like a good next step.

“This is a vision larger than one church,” says VanWyhe. “The youth pastors who helped create this camp knew that we could each make a small difference doing our own thing, or we could make a big impact on our communities by uniting together to do a major project.

“My heart has always been for the larger church to work together. We each do so many good programs that impact our community, but how much larger an impact could we make if we put our differences aside and united under the banner of Christ? We also wanted to show the community what the church is for, and does, instead of what the church is against…Local mission work speaks loudly to the community the love of Christ.”

Although the idea of a summer work camp was novel, the community has since rallied around the idea. Each year, the team of youth pastors raises enough money to bring in a speaker and band for the camp and to provide food and lodging for the youth. Local businesses and churches donate the paint and other supplies. Such donations help keep the participant cost to $50 for the week.

The team has also streamlined the application process that determines whose houses will be painted. The application gives homeowners the chance to share their story and needs. While the pastors do consider logistics, such as the square footage or height of a house, they keep prayer at the forefront of all decisions. In addition, they take the time to get to know each selected homeowner.

“The relationships I have made with the homeowners is my favorite part of the project,” says VanWyhe. “These aren’t some people we spend a week getting to know in some different part of the country. Instead, these are our neighbors—they become our friends, and our relationships grow. Each of them knows I care about them, and they are the biggest supporters of the work we are doing. The stories of how we have helped them in a time of need, and given them hope, never get old.”

Unite has already given hope to many in the greater Fulton, Morrison, and Clinton community. The first work camp took place in June 2014. With a crew of 50 youth and 16 adults from six different churches, they were able to paint six houses in three days. The following year, attendance jumped to 70 youth from eight different churches, who were able to paint nine houses during the three days of camp.

This summer, the goal is to paint at least ten houses.

“Each year we count the cost and decide if we can do this again and if God is blessing this ministry,” he says. “So far, the answer has been a resounding ‘yes.’

“The amazing thing about a hometown mission trip is that these students are constantly reminded of the home they painted as they drive past it each day, or are able to continue their own relationship with their homeowner. One homeowner still sends Christmas cards to each person who worked on her house two years ago! This has a great impact on the students—they do not quickly forget the work God has done through them.”

The impact of the work camp has prompted VanWyhe and his fellow youth pastors to plan other youth events under the “Unite” banner. Such events build upon momentum from the camp and reinforce the camp’s vision of seeing local churches come together. From worship gatherings to monthly game nights to other organized service projects, these Unite events encourage year-round fellowship among the youth of these three towns. VanWyhe says youth group members often bring their non-churched friends, and they’ve had up to 200 students at some events.

“I have seen some amazing responses from the students—openness to share the pain in their lives, and their resolve to follow Christ,” says VanWyhe. “God has opened up opportunities and helped us see that his dream is not just a camp experience, but to impact the youth and our communities on an even bigger scale.

“I can only sit back and watch God work.”


Inspired to serve your community? Visit for ideas.

Gather other churches in your area to see how you might team up for greater impact.

Make a point to stay in touch with the people your church serves after the event.


[Photos by Ken Kester]