Soul in the City, the summer youth mission/service trip for the Diocese of Central Florida, continues to transform local communities as well as the lives of the 50-plus youth and youth leaders who show up for a weeklong community service experience. The youth groups from All Saints’, Lakelandthe Cathedral Church of St. Luke, OrlandoChurch of the Messiah, Winter Garden; and St. Luke and St. Peter, St. Cloud; all spent July 24-28 at St. Edward’s, Mount Dora, with the purpose of working on community service projects and worshipping together. This year’s event theme was “Extra Ordinary,” and the experience was nothing short of that.

Students serving at Lake Cares Food Pantry. | Photo: Dan King

The SITC youth spent the week in smaller teams working on various projects around the Mount Dora community. Some worked with Lake Cares Food Pantry to fill “backpack bags” of food that will go home from school with children who need additional food over the weekend. Others did property cleanup with Forward Paths, an organization that helps young people who are aging out of the foster care system. Some teams worked on campus back-to-school preparations for local elementary and high schools.

Other projects included work with the Cat Protection Society of Lake County, FloridaOrphans’ Rock Thrift StoreW.T. Bland Public Library and more. One of the highlights was working with the city of Mount Dora to freshen up landscaping in front of the Police and Fire Headquarters building and to help with some park beautification projects.

The youth got a visit from Mount Dora Mayor Crissy Stile, who also treated the team working at the Police and Fire Department building to ice cream, a welcome surprise while they labored in the summer heat. She encouraged the youth when she spoke with them at dinner one evening to keep their hearts for community involvement, explaining how great a difference these efforts can make.

Mayor Crissy Stile addressing Soul in the City youth. | Photo: Brian Lawson

“It was a pleasure to meet the young people participating in this program,” Stile said after SITC ended. “The lessons learned by the kids and the appreciation from the local organizations that benefited from their hard work made it a win-win. Seeing community efforts through partnerships like this is the best part of my job.”

In addition to the service projects, the youth spent lots of time connecting with each other. They participated in organized game activities and free time when groups could wander downtown Mount Dora to get ice cream, coffee or boba tea. Some explored the shops, including the local bookstore, which they later realized is owned by Stile.

Some of the best connection time came through the worship and small group experiences. SITC participants attended chapel throughout the week, where they would worship and receive a short lesson from one of the youth ministers, including one night with the Rt. Rev. Dr. Justin S. Holcomb, diocesan bishop, doing the teaching. The lessons focused on topics such as “You Are Special,” “We Are Special” and “Do Something Special.” Following the time of worship and teaching, each church group gathered separately for its own small-group discussions, where the youth dove deeper into the conversations around the lesson topics.

Bishop Holcomb teaches Soul in the City participants.| Photo: Kirsten Knox

But what makes SITC unique each year is the personal growth and transformation experienced by those who attend, experiences that shape who they are for years to come.

“My students have grown so much closer together as a group and in their relationships with Christ; it’s a truly amazing thing to watch,” said Brandon Phelps, youth director at St. Luke and St. Peter. “To see the Holy Spirit and Christ working through not only my students, but students from all different groups, was amazing. I cannot wait to see what this generation coming up will do in the world.”

SITC continues to provide a great opportunity for diocesan youth to serve our communities and to grow in Christ. For one special week this summer, the community of Mount Dora felt the presence of the church. Opportunities like this not only provide incredible growth opportunities for all of the youth and adults involved but strengthen partnerships in our communities as well.


Note: This article was originally published at the Central Florida Episcopalian Online.