An Interview with Judi Wallace

An Interview with Judi Wallace

Emily McKenna, Faith Formation Program Support Associate, sits down to interview Judi Wallace. Judi shares how she kept youth engaged with a special service project that took place in April. In her 9 years as First Church of Guilford, CT’s Director of Children and Youth Ministries, she has curated best practices on maintaining high numbers of youth, and nurturing adult volunteer relationships. Find out how she does it all!
Emily I'm really excited about your church's programs, and I'm hoping that you can tell me a little bit about what is going on this summer and what stage you're in right now with planning.
Judi We are having a mission trip. We are going to Boston with an organization called Praying Pelican Ministries at the end of July. That’s our summer plan. Last summer we did do a local mission, we found a need for a local resident that needed a handicap ramp attached to his house. It was really wonderful to be able to help someone locally. We’re used to going out and and being on a mission trip somewhere else, right? It’s great for the kids to realize that people need things right here. We were able to do that in small groups, masked, registered. The whole thing last summer was a little odd, but it worked.
Emily That's really wonderful. I read in the article that you shared with us that usually you all get up to 100 people on your mission trips. That's a lot.
Judi The Pilgrim Fellowship program here in Guilford was started many years ago by the then associate pastor. He encouraged kids to have their friends come to Sunday night meetings, and the mission trips really are the climax of the year for the for our Pilgrim Fellowship group. It became a community outreach over years of just more and more kids talking about it and wanting to be part of it. When I came on, it was full. Tons of kids on Sunday nights, tons of kids coming on mission trips. I would say, the majority of them, not church members or part of this church, but most part of Guilford High School. We've instituted many trips. Qualifications to be eligible to go on the mission trip, you have to do a certain number of hours of community volunteering. You have to be involved in part of our fundraising for the trip, and you have to attend a certain percentage of the Sunday night meetings as well.
Emily So it's good to have that kind of criteria to keep them invested, right?
Judi Yeah. I know that a lot of kids come to Sunday night meetings because they want to go on a trip. But it does create a community, with them not even knowing it. They create bonds with people they wouldn't ordinarily hang with because it's freshmen through seniors. When we go do the work, groups are split. We create the work groups. The gentleman that does that every year is kind of magical. He has all the kids write three names on a piece of paper that they want in their work group and they're guaranteed one. If they only write two names, they're not guaranteed any. He tries to get freshman, junior, sophomores, and seniors in every group and then even mix of gender. It’s just great because the kids form those bonds that are really important through their high school years.
Emily What is it, what are you doing that's keeping them coming back?
Judi I believe it is the mission trip, the interest in being on a mission trip and the community that's created, it's a safe space. It's not threatening. We're not doing Bible study at our Sunday night meetings, but we are talking about being aware of people who are homeless and being aware of people with addictions. We have kids from all faiths coming to this group. We've had faith panels where we have leaders from all different faith backgrounds come and talk to kids about different faiths. I know what keeps them coming back are the mission trips. I do believe that by the time they've come on a mission trip, at least one, they feel good about being part of this community. They feel like they're making a difference and that they're creating friendships and whether they know it or not, they are doing the work of God and what Jesus commands us to do in life. So I think that's really important.
Emily That's awesome. It sounds like all these youth are really into service and they're charged up by that. That's great.
Judi I do believe that that they come back because at first they were made to come by their parents and they found they actually enjoyed it or found a space that feels comfortable for them and that they feel is important. So, when I planned this April, with the week we had, we usually do our big trip of one hundred or more in April during spring break. Last year we had to cancel right before it, which was really a bummer.
Emily I'm sure you were hoping, like we all were, it’s just 14 days!
Judi I held out for a long time. Adults kept saying “You're not, you can't go. You can't.” I'm like, “Well, let's just wait…” It wasn't until the third week of March that I said, “Okay, we can't do this.” But when this year came around and we still were stuck in the space of not being able to feel safe going somewhere, I decided we should do something here locally. We have done some work alongside of Habitat for Humanity, and we've had kids that go on Saturdays and help build homes in New Haven. I was talking to my contact there and she said, “Oh yeah, we got two houses going on.” The problem with a high school youth group - they take only age 16+ as help. I responded, “What can I do with the younger kids?” I decided that we could make Adirondack chairs, picnic tables and benches. We made birdhouses right here on the church parking lot and lawn, all donated to New Reach, which is an organization in New Haven. They were so excited to have outdoor furniture for meetings because of Covid; they have all these great spaces and homes and people love to be outside. We made 15 Adirondack chairs and 15 picnic tables and benches and they're all gone. They have all been donated between New Reach and Columbus' House.
Emily So was it your idea to make those items?
Judi Yes, just sort of came to me.

Emily So did you go to Home Depot and get all the wood and needed items?
Judi I have I have a crew of amazing adults, leaders who come on the mission trips with us. They are in construction. One is an architect; one has his own home construction business. I reached out to them when I had this idea way back in January and I said, “Hey, what do you think? Could we get kids that are 14 and 15 years old and build these things?” They said, “Yeah, let's come up with some plans.” The architect designed a very unique Adirondack chair and picnic table and benches and ran with it. They ordered all the materials. We have tools here because we have collected tools over many years, and we always bring them on our mission trip. We have everything you would ever need to build a house, actually. So, that’s what we did. They did all the planning and got the lumber. We had done fundraising for our trip that we never went on and we had the money to purchase the wood and all those things, which is expensive right now. The architect said to me, “You do know that we could go buy Adirondack chairs cheaper than making them.” I said, “Yeah, but that's not the point.”

Emily I really applaud you on that. I think that it's been really hard for a lot of youth leaders to figure out ways not only to keep being in service to our communities, but to gather and do something like that. This is really amazing stuff. I think that I'm wondering what's next with these wooden art projects. Do you think you'll do this annually now that you've started it?
Judi I had many, many requests on Facebook. We have our own Facebook page and our church Facebook page where we were posting what we were doing. And I had many, many requests for “Can we buy one?” So, of course, my adult leaders are thinking this would be a great fundraiser.
Judi I feel like this offers an opportunity for kids that don't have the time or money to go on a week-long mission trip to actually build, learn and be in community and create something for other people. I think other youth groups could, across the board, do the birdhouses. A friend of mine who's a youth pastor, she lives right here in Guilford and she was walking by every day. She came by and said “This is amazing. You have so many kids out here.” And she said, “I'm stealing your birdhouse idea. We are going to build bird houses.” What we ended up doing with the bird houses is, half we donated to Restore, which is Habitat for Humanity’s store. That provides things for people at less cost. They sold them at their restaurants. I also had parents whose kids came home with pictures of the birdhouse they made and painted. The parents called me and said, “Can we buy it?” And I said, “Sure.” So, again, it could be a fundraiser or it could be, a “make them and donate them” to a place that can sell them and use the money for some good purposes.
Emily Do you still have the plans for the bird houses?
Judi I actually was just looking, I don't because the guy that did them, he is a carpenter by trade and I don't think he had a plan.
Emily Oh, wow, that's so cool. Every youth group needs to get their own carpenter. Yes.
Judi I do feel so blessed that I have these people that come and work with these kids and spend the week. I have so many adult volunteers that are invested. And what we did was great. But you really don’t have to have the people as the resources, or the money to create a situation like this. If you take it and use something smaller, like a birdhouse, or even picture frames or something that you could buy a kit for - Oriental trading has birdhouse kits.
Emily That's true.
Judi Home Depot has birdhouse kits. The pieces are all precut, and it's a matter of gluing and nailing and painting to create something.
Emily So when you were done with that week of building in April, what did it feel like for you when it was all done, as the leader? What does it feel like to do something like that? 
Judi I had I had no idea what the interest would be, and when Russ, who was the architect who did the plan, said, “How many do you think we'll make?” I said, we make 2 or 3 of each. He responded “Really? I'm thinking like 10 or 12.” So, it was so far beyond my expectation. It just it felt so good to be able to have kids out doing something. And together. I was so, so happy to be able to do something and to see kids out together doing something. It was good. On the last night, they all stayed. We had a campfire and played Spike Ball and stuff like that.
Emily What advice would you give other youth leaders who are trying to find out who needs help in their community? You have connections to these organizations, and you happen to live in an area in the state where those things are really close by. If someone was starting from scratch, what would you tell them to do?
Judi I do have a lot of connections, mostly because I've been doing it for a long time, but I would say Habitat for Humanity is a great resource. United Way has a lot of transitional housing in cities and suburbs around cities that that need things, even painting and cleaning and yard work. Then I just I Googled. Transitional housing, volunteer opportunities, and organizations near me that help the homeless. It's amazing when you reach out to make a cold call and say, “Hey, I'm doing this, we would like to help in any way we can.” A lot of organizations are looking for money, but the tangibles, there are some tangibles that that people need. There's also Meals on Wheels here locally in Guilford, they were accepting individually wrapped desserts for their Meals on Wheels program, that you could bake at home and bring to them. It's really just thinking about where is there a need near you. Christmastime opens a whole wide opportunity of gifts and things like that for different organizations.
Emily That's great. This is all wonderful. I'm trying to think of anything else I should ask you or if there's anything else you'd like to offer.
Judi Just to say, it can be daunting, especially in this Covid time too, to create something that interests teens and youth. I think the more active it is, like building or creating or playing a game or doing a walk for hunger, these activities are bringing awareness to these kids that they can make a difference. It really helps them to navigate those teen years when they feel like they're doing something important. They rally around stuff like that as long as it's active. It's a special group here.
Emily It certainly is, I'll be praying for all of you, and I hope that your Boston trip is a great success.
Judi I hope so, too. A lot of the kids that are going already are vaccinated. I hope that it's a success and all are healthy and can go.
Emily Amen. Thank you, Judi.


Emily McKenna

Emily is the Program Support Associate for the Discipleship and Justice & Witness Teams of the Southern New England Conference.   Emily grew up in the Naugatuck Congregational Church UCC and at Silver Lake Conference Center, where she has served as ...

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