By Jeff Brumley
United Community Outreach Ministry is a small nonprofit that makes a huge impact with clothing, food and other services across a swath of struggling, urban neighborhoods in Jacksonville, Fla.
And that was before hundreds of youth campers with Passport, Inc., descended recently on UCOM and seven other ministries and nonprofits across the city for three weeks — paintbrushes, ladders, shovels and hammers in hand.
The activity occurred in Passport’s 22nd year with hundreds of campers attending a variety of camps and missions spread around the nation. The Jacksonville location marked the organization’s first return to Florida after several years away.
And it was right in time for UCOM, whose reach and effectiveness got a major boost June 16 to July 4 with the launch of Passport’s 2014 summer youth camp season. The campers, members of churches from a number of states and denominations, did everything from scrape paint to build community food gardens.
UCOM Executive Director Heather Mauny said the extra muscle saved her organization nearly $10,000, which will help expand its current reach of 18,000 clients by 30 percent in the coming year.
“We feel we are doing God’s work and when Jesus told us to love our neighbors as ourselves and clothe the naked, we want to be his hands and feet in the community,” Mauny said.
The Passport youth helped continue that practice, she added.
‘An impact on our city’
Organizers, camp leaders, youth and those who directly benefitted from the campers’ presence say Passport 2014 is producing powerful missional and spiritual benefits far beyond the organizations and individuals immediately helped.
“They really made an impact on our city in the three weeks that they were here,” said Rachel Gunter Shapard, associate coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Florida and the liaison between the Passport campers and the Jacksonville nonprofits and ministries they served.
Passport arrived in Jacksonville nearly 250 strong, including campers, chaperones and staffers. They broke into eight Bible study groups that, when not celebrating and studying scripture, fanned out to as many nonprofits and ministries.
With some they worked with the homeless, with others with at-risk children. In some locations they cleaned, sewed, played games with children and helped out at a tennis camp.
“A lot of what they were doing was coming in and helping do the work that the nonprofits never get to or have no funding to do,” said Shapard, a member of Hendricks Avenue Baptist Church in Jacksonville.
Shapard said she received rave reviews from nonprofit officials. Most of all she remembers the elderly widow who called her during CBF General Assembly to thank her for the youth who helped refurbish her home.
“She said, ‘I want to tell you how special it was to receive help and to have their companionship,’” Shapard said.
Return to Florida
But it’s also been a special moment for Passport, whose presence in Jacksonville marked a return to Florida — where it was launched in 1993 — after many years.
“I think they had a desire to come back — they actually pursued that,” Shapard said.
Passport founder David Burroughs attended CBF Florida’s annual spring celebration in 2013, and used the time to begin making arrangements for this year’s camp. That eventually included signing a three-year contract with Jacksonville University to house the visiting campers, staffers and chaperones.
Passport is a multidenominational ministry that holds youth camps, educational programs and missions projects in the U.S. and around the world.
In addition to the Jacksonville location this year, other Passport summer locations include Atlanta, Birmingham, Ala., Charlotte, N.C., Dallas and Danville, Va.
The organization’s approach includes fusing the traditional Christian camp experience with mission work. The goal is to inspire youth to learn cutting edge, missional approaches to missions and ministry they can take home and use in their own communities, said Amy East, the mission project coordinator for the Passport camp in Jacksonville.
Which local nonprofits and ministries are chosen to partner with is determined by their needs and Passport’s capabilities, East said. Another factor is the likelihood that ongoing relationships can develop between Passport and those groups.
“We want to build relationships for the long-term,” East said.
That approach conforms to up-to-date missions practices that reject traditional notions that missionaries simply helped those who couldn’t help themselves.
Avoiding that kind of “toxic charity” means recognizing that those in need have something to give back, East said.
“Our missions philosophy is that we heal and we need healing,” she said.
Passport campers see that firsthand by working with organizations in distressed communities.
“Kids can learn that they can learn from those they’re here to help,” East said. “We want to stretch their worldviews a bit.”
‘An eye-opening experience’
It’s precisely those kinds of lessons that have kept Mary Mullen coming back to Passport since she was in the sixth grade.
“There’s always some sort of twist that reenergizes me for God,” said the 18-year-old from Broadmoor Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, La.
Those twists have included seeing joy and hope in the lives of people living in desperate situations all over the country, including Danville, Macon, Ga., and St. Louis.
Someone somewhere always surprises her, she said.
“It’s an eye-opening experience.”
Working with the Passport youth was an eye-opening experience for some in Jacksonville, as well.
Mauney said was impressed with the organization’s reputation before the youngsters even arrived.
That was thanks to a presentation made during a lunch organized by Shapard for invited nonprofits. Mauney said she went hoping the group could help remove led-based paint from a historic church UCOM uses for its offices.
“It took me about 20 seconds to say yes,” Mauney said.
While in Jacksonville, the Passport campers removed about 85 percent of the paint from the 125-year-old building, leaving Mauney hopeful a contractor may volunteer to do the rest.
The youth also built raised bed gardens that will be used to grow produce that will be donated to clients.
Mauney said she heard Passport will be back in Jacksonville at least another two years.
“Hopefully we will have something for them to partner with us on,” Mauney said. “They were absolutely wonderful.”