By Anita Shetler

Ask any leader in the church or business world and they will likely tell you that leadership skills did not necessarily come easily or naturally for them. A case in point is Berlin Mennonite Church member and local businessman, Jeremy Kauffman, the Executive Director of Walnut Hills Nursing Facilities. He said, “At an early age, I was put in positions to lead others. These opportunities provided mixed results.” He added, “Leadership opportunities with increased responsibility came my way after college, and I realized that I still had a lot to learn. I worked hard to learn as much as I could, and I continue to do that to this day as becoming a good leader is a lifelong journey.”

He realized that having a mentor along the way would have been a benefit, and thus it was intriguing to him when Jeremy heard of a leadership program being planned for young people in the Ohio Conference.

The Youth Leadership Project was originally the brainchild of Sherah-Leigh Gerber, the former Ohio Conference Coordinator of Volunteers. The idea was further developed by Bethany Nussbaum, the advancement director of Central Christian High School. Bethany and Jeremy had recently completed a Values-Based Leadership program together at Laurelville Mennonite Church Center, and so when Bethany asked him if he would be willing to help her facilitate the youth program at a weekend retreat, Jeremy was quick to agree.

Jeremy said, “I was fortunate to have adults during my youth who took an interest in me and helped shape who I am today. For me, this program is about giving back, investing in youth the way other adults invested in me.” According to Jeremy, “For the church to be successful long-term, we need individuals who have the skills to lead the church into the future.” He continued by sharing, “Being a leader in the Mennonite church does not necessarily mean you have to be a pastor. One of the focuses of the program is to help the youth understand that each of them is different and have their own unique talents. What is most important is to use their own gifts to achieve greater good.”

Among the attendees at the first training session held at Camp Luz in August 2013 were two fellow members of Berlin Mennonite Church, 17-year-old Rowan Miller, and local businessman Barry Hummel, who would become Rowan’s mentor. According to Barry, “Prior to this retreat I didn’t know much about Rowan. I think we were both apprehensive about the whole idea of the mentor/participant relationship and how we would ‘gel,’ but after two intensive days side by side, we developed a real connection.”

Part of the seminar challenged attendees to put together a service project designed to develop their leadership skills. It was while meeting with Berlin Pastor Myron Weaver that the ideas for a project began to take form. The church supports Agora Ministries, which is an inner-city Columbus organization led by Rich Bartholomew. Agora provides worship services and activities several times a week for youth and children in disadvantaged neighborhoods. The idea of planning his project to benefit the families of Agora appealed at once to Rowan.

The “Agora Project,” as it came to be known, raised money for Thanksgiving dinner boxes which were packaged and delivered by Rowan and Berlin Mennonite volunteers to Agora families.

In planning the boxes, it was decided that since many recipients might have limited cooking facilities, the foods would take minimal preparation. Each box would feed three people, and households would receive one or more boxes depending upon family size.

James Troyer of Berlin’s Troyer Country Market was instrumental in helping to plan the contents of the boxes and for acquiring food and packaging supplies for a cost of roughly $20 per box.

Rowan explained the project to the Berlin congregation on several Sunday mornings, and excitement began to grow. Sunday school classes and individuals alike marked their giving to go for the “Agora Project.”

The week before Thanksgiving, 71 boxes and the food to go into them arrived at the church for packaging. Groups worked assembly-line-style, filling the boxes with packaged peanut butter sandwiches, canned applesauce, instant mashed potatoes, boxed stuffing mix, and other canned goods. A slip of paper with a Thanksgiving prayer was also included. Four slices of cold packaged ham would be added later, just before the boxes were sealed and on their way onto the truck for transport.

A group of 20 church people set out from the Berlin Mennonite parking lot Saturday morning, Nov. 23, to deliver the boxes. Rowan shared some of what he was thinking on that morning, saying, “Anytime I help people I feel better, but that is not the reason I should be helping people. It’s not about me making me feel better about my comfortable Holmes County life. It’s about how we can impact another person’s life by being generous and using ourselves to help them. Hopefully they will then help others and people will begin to share with each other and make more differences.”

Upon arrival at Agora, groups were formed and given a list of addresses where they would make deliveries. At each household they were instructed to ask if the family had prayer requests and then hold hands and pray with them before leaving. At the end of the day, each group had different stories to share about the families they had interacted with. It was notable that most saw very few men while making their deliveries. The majority of doors were answered by women who were raising small children on their own. Many of these women shared stories of violence that they had witnessed. They were appreciative not only for the food, but for the caring that the group brought to their door. By day’s end, about 30 families received food boxes.

Before heading back to Holmes County, Rowan was also able to present Agora Ministries with a check for nearly $1,000 which was raised above and beyond the cost of the food boxes.

“The project was successful in every way I could have thought it would be,” he said. Rowan presented a recap of the “Agora Project” at a follow-up meeting of the Youth Leadership Project seminar attendees held in February.

Equally happy with the project was Rowan’s mentor. “Early on, Rowan admitted that he was not comfortable getting up in front of people, but I was really impressed with the comfort level he developed over time,” said Barry. “I was also very pleased with the way the Berlin Mennonite congregation supported this project. The affirmation this gives one of our youth is priceless! I believe Rowan found this to be a very positive experience, and I hope that more of our youth will avail themselves to this unique opportunity the next time it is offered.”

Pastor Weaver agreed, saying, “The church should always be looking for opportunities to train youth to become leaders who are able to have an impact on the Kingdom of God. It has been a lot of fun to watch Rowan mature as a leader. On that last Sunday when he stood in front of the congregation to express his appreciation for the church’s support of the project, he was confident as he spoke with passion about being salt and light in the world. For business leaders to give of their valuable time to walk with and to train other potential leaders within the church is an invaluable gift to the church and to the Kingdom of God.”