Article and photo by Sarah Thompson, Director of Communications & Volunteer Mobilization
For Nick Casiano and Joanna Echtenkamp, summertime holds a meaning much deeper than a break from school, barbecue picnics, or humid days spent in swimming pools.
Along with hundreds of other teens from New England, Nick and Joanna have had the opportunity to participate in The Hartford Project (THP), a five-day urban ministry immersion experience during the summer, where church youth groups join together serve the community, learn about poverty, experience racial reconciliation, and build relationships.
Three components of THP weave together opportunities for teens to build character, grow in leadership, and deepen their faith in God, by serving at work sites throughout the city, connecting together through worship and prayer sessions, and learning about social justice the benefits of urban living.
"My favorite part about THP is always to connect with the young people in my community for a greater purpose of serving those in need. It is truly a bonding experience. I love going to the work sites, meeting new people, and working alongside friends,” shared Joanna, who has participated in THP for four years.
Nick, who participated in THP for the first time last year, added, “THP helped me grow as a person because it showed me that it is very easy to lend a hand to people in need. I want to continue doing this so I can make a change.”
And this is what The Hartford Project is all about: experiencing and sharing God's love in Hartford. For many, it's a life-changing experience.
“It's such a great opportunity to meet other Christians, serve together and have fun in Hartford,” shared Jacquelyn Perreault, Program Director for THP. “When I first participated in THP, God opened my eyes to His great love and gave me opportunities to share His love with others. It's such a unique and immersive week—to learn from God, live in service, and experience some of the great things Hartford has to offer.”
In a recent program evaluation conducted by Urban Alliance, the vast majority of youth who participated in THP in 2016 had a positive experience. 96.5% felt they learned more about God, 70.1% developed leadership skills, 82.9% felt closer to adult leaders from their church, 89% felt closer to youth from their church and 90.6% indicated that they plan to be part of a community service project in the future.
“I gained interpersonal skills and experienced faith on a new level,” shared Joanna.
While the majority of THP youth and leaders are from churches in the suburban towns of Greater Hartford, many are from the city of Hartford and face increased barriers to participating in impactful youth programs like THP.
Urban Alliance has stepped in to help alleviate some of these challenges, and to increase access for teens to participate in THP by providing scholarships that will be awarded to Hartford churches and ministry organizations that participate UA’s Next Generation initiative. Last year, 30 teens from Glory Chapel International Cathedral, House of Restoration Church and South Church were awarded scholarships.
"Often parents who are raising children in socioeconomically fragile communities greatly desire to expose their children to programs and activities that will empower them, but are overwhelmed by financial constraints," explained Rosaicela Rodriguez, Urban Alliance's Director of Implementation, Children & Youth Initiatives.
The hope is that burdens can be lifted for the families of some of these youth, so they are provided with an equal opportunity to develop the character, relationships and skills needed to succeed in their schools and communities.
As registration opens up for THP 2017, so do the opportunities for hundreds of youth to connect, serve and grow. To learn more about participating in Urban Alliance’s Next Generation initiative or THP scholarships, contact Rosaicela Rodriguez at 860.986.6052 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Every year I'm amazed by how God brings us together to experience and share His love in Hartford! If you spend just one day at THP you'll see a million moving pieces and hundreds of hands and hearts making it happen, and it's all God working through us,” said Perreault.
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