How a Group of Teens Discovered Their Identity in Service

Annual Ultimate Workout mission trip for high schoolers helped answer some critical questions.

Dustin Comm, Maranatha Volunteers International
How a Group of Teens Discovered Their Identity in Service
Through hard work and service, teens are discovering who they can be and how their faith can play a central role in their life. [Photo: Dustin Comm]

What do you remember from when you were young? When you were becoming an adult, but weren’t quite there? What occupied your thoughts? What moments formed you?

If you stop and reflect on your teenage years, probably many events and individuals prompted you to grow.

Today, teens are still in need of positive influences, asking the same questions, and searching for answers about who they are, how they fit into the world, and how their relationship with God plays into all of it.

It’s often a reason that teens go on Maranatha’s annual mission trip for teens, Ultimate Workout. Or, why parents may send their kids on it.

Finding Themselves on a Mission

“Well, I’m going to be honest,” volunteer Demetrius Wells admits. “My mom, she signed me up, and she said it would be very beneficial for getting closer to Christ and also for college and my future.”

Wells isn’t alone — each year a wide spectrum of backgrounds is represented on Ultimate Workout. Some kids have been on this project for multiple years and can’t wait to reconnect with old friends. Others are new and reluctant to engage, unsure of what to expect.

What Happened on Ultimate Workout 2023

All of these perspectives were on display in 2023 in the Dominican Republic for Maranatha’s 33rd running of the annual mission trip. In a rural area north of the capital city of Santo Domingo, 125 volunteers assembled to lay block walls for Hacienda Estrella and Villa Primavera Seventh-day Adventist churches and to pour the foundation for the Refugio Celestial church.

“I never laid block before, so that was really interesting,” volunteer Mya St. Louis says. “They had to teach us how to put the cement onto the blocks and then lay the blocks on top of the cement, like learn how to adjust it and all that good stuff. And that was really fun, very tiring, really, really hard work.”

The work was indeed difficult — high temperatures and even higher humidity handicapped volunteers’ energy. Without a church frame or roof for shade at the Refugio Celestial church, volunteers pushed hulking wheelbarrows of concrete in the sizzling sun.

The site medic enforced regular hydration breaks to ensure the safety of all.

“It’s definitely harder than it looks,” volunteer Lori Barnett says. “When you look, it’s like, ‘Oh, they’re just shoveling sand.’ But those buckets are heavy, and we have to carry them to whoever needs to pour it in. And the people who are doing the wheelbarrows, who are putting them in the molds, they are sweating. You just see everything, and when you’re in the moment, you don’t think about it, but you’re working hard.”

Despite physically challenging tasks, these young volunteers pushed through, in no small part because they became familiar with the stories of each congregation they were serving. The Hacienda Estrella and Villa Primavera churches are filled with earnest and motivated members who want to spread the good news about Jesus in their community but lack a proper place to grow their number. Failing structures and cramped spaces make it hard to attract and retain guests.

“We were very uncomfortable because it was a small house made of wood; it was full of termites eating the wood,” Villa Primavera church member Dinora Lara explains.

Refugio Celestial church members skipped from house to house over the years, even renting a space next to a loud nightclub for Saturday (Sabbath) worship. “There was always a very big crowd, and it was impossible for us to give the worship services because it was so noisy, and it was impossible for us to continue,” member Gloria Martinez says.

Part of the Ultimate Workout experience is getting to know these local members and their stories. Many of them are present each day to watch the teen volunteers working in construction, and the volunteers also attended church with the congregations on two Sabbaths.

Even with a language barrier, relationships are formed. “When you get there the first week, you kind of get to put faces and people together, and it brings it more to life when you know who you’re doing this for and how much they really need it,” three-year veteran volunteer Adrian Serna says. “And then just to get to see the joy on their faces when they come in the next week after all the hard work you put in, it just makes it so rewarding.”

Building Churches, Helping Neighbors

Each site also facilitated outreach activities such as trash pickup, literature evangelism, prayer, and Vacation Bible School (VBS) programming. Teams at each site helped to lead activities including games, Bible stories, crafts, and singing for neighborhood children. It’s a ministry that provides joy, laughter, and the seeds of connection to the Adventist Church.

“We’ve been reading them Bible stories, so even though we don’t realize it, maybe those Bible stories create some type of curiosity in them to want to seek God more,” volunteer Michelle Perez says. “I mean, you don’t know what happens when they go home and when they talk to their parents about what they did. But through our character and how we talk to them, how we deal with them in certain situations, it could really show them that like, ‘Wow, these people are different,’ and maybe inspire them to seek what we have.”

A fourth team of volunteers provided free medical services to hundreds in each community where Maranatha was building. Health professionals mentored teen volunteers at stations offering general medicine, pediatrics, pharmacy, vision screenings and reading glasses, and prayer. A total of 654 patients were served in multiple neighborhoods near the job sites.

At night, volunteers cleaned up from the sweat and dirt of the day’s work and gathered to consider the spiritual side of the day’s experiences. At worship, youth were inspired by testimonies from their peers, fervent music, and challenging messages from the project chaplain. For many, these daily meetings stirred spiritual ponderings and satisfied a deep yearning to connect with other like-minded Christians and their Creator.

“I don’t go to an Adventist school,” volunteer Sophie Ha says. “I don’t really have a lot of people in my community who talk super-openly about what it means to really trust in God and to openly talk about the ways that Christ has changed their lives. [Here,] we had a lot of testimonies, and we heard about a lot of people’s personal stories. It was great to see them expressing that faith in front of so many people, and it was vulnerable, and I think that made me want to be more vulnerable.”

Adult Mentors Inspire Growth, Baptisms

Kids were also impacted each day by the adult staff they served alongside. Each year, dozens of adult mentors volunteer their time for this high school project.

“I’ve always loved teaching, but it just feels really natural to have someone with me that I can explain things to,” medical team volunteer Tekla Moller says. “But I hope they really get a flavor for the impact that this makes in people’s lives. And then if they want to go on and do it themselves, they’ve had a little exposure, they’ve had some experience.”

“The VBS leader is Ms. Sylvia, and I feel like she’s really been an inspiration to me, just because she’s very dedicated to making it a good experience for the kids at VBS, but also for the teens helping to create the VBS environment,” Ha says. “And I think that it’s like just a positive kind of attitude and outlook on spreading like, just, I don’t know, spreading love and the word of God.”

All of these interactions and experiences moved volunteers to make decisions about how they wanted to be in the world as they become adults. A spontaneous call for baptism led to 25 baptisms on Monday, and on the last Friday, 10 more.

“We were told that a good number, maybe even the majority of the people that registered for Ultimate Workout, said they wanted to deepen their relationship with God,” St. Louis says. “And we kind of saw that with what happened with the spontaneous baptisms. It was like so many people, in the spur of the moment, just chose to get up and give their lives to God — [it] shows me they were ready.”

“I feel like experiencing all the difficulties here, the physical, mental and emotional, spiritual, it’s all been an experience that’s made it,” volunteer Abrianna Drake says. “So, you’re either going to fall apart on your own, or you’re going to be drawn closer to God and you’re going to be taught to rely more on Him.”

On the final Sabbath, with their work complete, volunteers worshipped with their designated congregations for the last time. The physical transformations at each site were proud reminders of all of the sacrifice each team made during the mission trip and pointed to a bright new future for the local congregations.

“To watch young people from other countries taking care of the needs we have in a different place in the world — they may not be aware of the impact they are creating in the lives of these people in the places they travel to for collaboration,” Villa Primavera church member Jerson Encarnación says. “It will be very good to carry on with that helping spirit, not just financially, but at a human level.”

Each young person carried that helping spirit with them as they left Ultimate Workout 33 in the Dominican Republic. They also took new relationships they’ll foster for years to come, and spiritual insights that will set the course for the faith of their future — all a part of a mission trip that provided just one more formational moment along the course toward adulthood for teens searching for their place in the world.

The original version of this story appeared in The Volunteer, Issue 4, 2023, p. 8. Maranatha Volunteers International is an independent supporting ministry and is not operated by the corporate Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Dustin Comm, Maranatha Volunteers International