A visiting group works in a community garden.

Sometimes well-intended service trips can leave the communities they are visiting with unintended consequences.  Sunshine wanted to address this head-on by developing an intentional and thoughtful service learning experience that engaged people with the community without reinforcing negative stereotypes, creating dependency, or displacing employment by using free volunteers.  Jared Hamernick, BridgeBuilders Director, believes addressing stereotypes or preconceived ideas in an engaging and safe space for processing can be a pivotal learning and growing experience.  The hope is that people who come through are challenged both intellectually and spiritually through their experience and go back to their communities with a mindset sensitive to continued learning and service.  

“Close your eyes and think about the community or neighborhood you come from.  What are the very worst things about that community?  What do people say or think about it?  Now imagine if that was the only story that was told about your community.  It doesn’t mean those negative things aren’t true, but it doesn’t paint a complete picture of your community either,” shares Hamernick with a group of young college-aged students from Penn State, Furman, and Boston Universities during the beginning of their week-long service learning project in the Woodlawn Community.  Hamernick goes on to highlight some of the beauty and presence of God in the Woodlawn community, where Sunshine Gospel Ministries has resided since 2004 and the BridgeBuilders program has been running for the past 14 years.  

“Coming into this community, you can’t change it in a week, but you can be changed by it in a week,” BridgeBuilders Program Coordinator Vida Wilson also points out.  This is the philosophy the BridgeBuilders program holds for those groups that come to learn and serve.  Back in 2004 when the BridgeBuilders program was founded, it sought to address some of the pitfalls or challenges many short-term missions programs faced, including prior models Sunshine had used to engage people outside the community in serving the neighborhood.  “We really wanted to highlight the beauty and resilience of the community and how God is already present and working,” Hamernick says.

Service opportunities are curated with other community partners that are sustainably working year-round in the community, such as community garden initiatives, Dulles Elementary School, and Living Hope Church.  BridgeBuilders offers both weekend trips as well as week-long trips.  Groups experience a variety of experiential learning opportunities that are hands-on in the Woodlawn neighborhood as well as the city-at-large.  Every evening, there is time for thoughtful discussion, debriefing, and learning centered around topics of racial justice, generational poverty, and healthy engagement.  

Currently, BridgeBuilders welcomes approximately 600-800 individuals annually and can accommodate up to 125 people at a time.  Trips are designed for churches, youth groups, and college groups and are currently booking for Summer 2018.  Wilson shares, “The entire experience is centered around facilitating opportunities for people outside the Woodlawn community to listen and learn from our community.  The ultimate goal, then, is to return home to be and affect change.” For more information about the BridgeBuilders Program please contact jared@sunshinegospel.org.