Since 1991, the annual Ultimate Workout short-term mission trip has been a catalyst for spiritual growth and leadership development in the lives of North American Adventist teenagers. July 2009 marked Ultimate Workout 19, which was held in the city of Puyo, Ecuador. 175 young people participated this year, dividing into five small groups of 25-40 each for this two-week experience. One of the groups tried something new: a leadership team made up exclusively of teenagers. Spectrum asked lively teen project coordinators Vlad Dandu and Rebekah Widmer how things went and what they learned on UW19. Spectrum also interviewed Ultimate Workout head coordinator Steve Case about the impact and philosophy behind this year’s radical leadership experiment.
Spectrum: Ultimate Workout has been called the premier mission trip experience for Adventist teenagers. Steve, can you share a brief history of the Ultimate Workout?
Steve: The desire behind it is for young people to really live out their faith—to work out their faith—and we think that service is the best way to do that. Insight Magazine started the Ultimate Workout by teaming up with Maranatha Volunteers International. Teens go on a two-week mission project that involves mostly construction and also some forms of outreach. It’s been going for nineteen years now. Every July there’s another project somewhere in Central or South America.
Spectrum: What makes the Ultimate Workout different from any other mission trip?
Steve: I think it’s that the teens come from a variety of places. If someone comes with a sibling or somebody from their church or school, we put them on different sites. So by being put in a new environment with people they don’t know, teens are able to experiment with taking on a new identity. We say that if someone’s in Christ they’re a new creation, and I think it’s more apt to happen in this environment. That’s what makes the Ultimate Workout more intense than most other mission trips.
Spectrum: This is a unique year for Ultimate Workout. You added a new element called “UW Beyond.” What is “UW Beyond”?
Steve: Each project has adult staff, and one of their jobs is to mentor the teen participants into leadership roles. As the teens show competence, they become assistant leaders, and then they become co-leaders. Then if possible, they become the main leaders while the adults become their assistants. This has been happening on the various sites year after year. But this year we tried a site made up entirely of teen leaders—the project coordinators, the cooks, the construction people—they were all teens. We had two adult coaches along for the experiment.
Spectrum: How did it turn out?
Steve: Spectacular—beyond our wildest imaginings. I’d been envisioning this for several years, but this was the first year we really had enough student leaders in place to hand the whole thing over to them.
Spectrum: Steve, you were the overall coordinator for all five Ultimate Workout sites this year. But for the UW Beyond site specifically, there were two project coordinators—Vlad Dandu and Rebekah Widmer. Vlad and Rebekah, share a little about yourselves.
Rebekah: I’m a high school senior and this is my third Ultimate Workout. I’m from Antioch, California and I like to play basketball. I’m also really into mission trips and hanging out with friends.
Spectrum: Are you a normal teenager?
Rebekah: Yes, I think.
Spectrum: How about you Vlad?
Vlad: I’m sixteen and I live in Florida. I’m a normal teenager, too. Some of the adults at other sites say I’m an animal, but other than that I think I’m pretty normal. I was born in Romania but moved to Spain when I was five. When I was twelve I moved to Florida. I like to do a lot of things: I write, I play guitar, and I box. I really like boxing. I like the pain. I also love motorcycles and a lot of other things. I keep loving things more and more— I love things I don’t even know about yet, so I look forward to loving them someday.
Spectrum: You love life.
Spectrum: When Steve asked you to be a co-coordinator on this Ultimate Workout, what did you think it would be like? How have your expectations compared to what you've actually done on a given day?
Vlad: When Steve asked me to be a co-coordinator I pictured myself with a big shirt that said “The Boss.” I imagined myself telling people to go to bed and to stop talking and to stop playing cards and to not go outside at night and to put their ipods away. Then when all the kids were asleep, I pictured myself going on motorcycle rides in town. I planned to enjoy this trip because as a co-coordinator, I thought nothing could happen to me! Then when I got here I learned about all the stress that comes with being a leader, and I was really surprised that it wasn’t all fun. It has ended up being a lot of fun, but there have also been a lot of things coming at me on a regular daily basis. First, I’ll wake up at 5:00 and cook eggs with the cooks in the kitchen
Rebekah: I’ve never seen you up at 5:00! You’re up at 6:30!
Vlad: Okay, 5:00 only happened one day. But it was a really productive day!
Then after breakfast I’ll get people into groups for worship. After that I’ll go to the construction site because I really like laying block. But for some reason, after an hour of work, the outreach coordinator will come to me and say, “Can you come be our translator at a church service?” And so I go. Then as soon as I get back someone else will call me off the jobsite for another task. I’ll try to make it back, but before I can it’s time to go to some leadership meeting halfway across town that turns out to be really informative. Toward the end I’ll realize, “Man, this was a lot of information. I should’ve taken notes. Just then I'll look over and see that Rebekah has taken two pages of notes, so I relax and listen.
Two hours later I’ll get back to the site and set up with a little mortar, when the phone rings and it’s the cooks and they don’t have any gas. By the time that’s taken care of, the workday is over. And then instead of having free time to goof around with everyone like a normal teenager, I have to hunt down the kids who are doing worship and who have nothing planned.
Later on I need to sweep up the people who have stayed up and talked after Rebekah has gone to bed. I’ll give them a little slack—except for Nick, because if he doesn’t go to bed he doesn’t work the next day. Of course, some nights Rebekah comes out and tells everyone, “You guys are loud; go to bed.” And I’m in the middle of that group!
Spectrum: Rebekah, what does a day look like for you?
Rebekah: My day is busy! First, I go wake up Shervon so that he can wake everyone else up with his saxophone. After that I go change the water in the nasty hand-washing basin.
During the morning I’ll help Sara with outreach and make sure they have everything they need. And then there are meetings to go to and people to call to make sure there is drinking water. In the afternoon I’ll usually go on errands for things we need in town. After that I have to make my list of announcements for worship—I have to write a lot of things.
Vlad: I haven’t written one thing on this whole mission trip.
Rebekah: Then, of course, I usually have to sit down and figure out the money issue.
Spectrum: The money issue? You have to look after money?
Rebekah: Yes, I’ve had to budget $4750 in cash and it's scared me to death!
Steve: How much cash had you ever managed at one time before this trip?
Rebekah: Probably less than $300.
Spectrum: What would have happened if you lost the group money?
Rebekah: Please don’t ask me that! I try not to think about it.
Spectrum: UW Beyond is clearly about teens taking leadership to the next level. You’ve already demonstrated maturity on past projects, and now you are being trained for even heavier responsibility.
Steve: Right. We don’t anticipate that Vlad and Rebekah will simply go on other mission trips after this; we expect them to lead other mission trips. We think they’re ready to do that. We were talking to someone who will be a co-coordinator next year and she said she was expecting that although Rebekah and Vlad might be the figure heads for this project, I would be pulling the strings from behind. From her observation, that’s not the way things ended up happening.
Spectrum: What are some of the areas where you’ve felt personally challenged these past two weeks?
Vlad: I’ve had a sense of responsibility that causes me to wonder constantly, “Am I making this a good experience for the participants, or is this just some kind of fun trip?”
Rebekah: For me it’s been trying to balance my desire for friendship with my role as an authority figure.
Spectrum: That’s right. You guys are younger than a lot of the participants on this trip. What has it been like for you to be the authority for your peers?
Vlad: When people find out that I’m sixteen, they can’t believe it. Then they make the connection: wait, he’s sixteen and he’s telling us what to do? I like to make friends with everyone, but then people try to pull the strings to get what they want. They say, “Common, cut us some slack. Nobody will find out. Please.” And there’s a pull in me, because I’m sixteen and I like to have fun as well. But on the other hand, I have to look out for everyone’s safety.
Rebekah: I agree with all of what Vlad said. People will try and twist what you say around. They’ll go, “Oh common, you’re the same age as me” or, “Technically I’m older then you, so what would happen if I didn’t follow you?” And you come to the point where you wonder, “Well what would I do if they actually didn’t do what I said?”
Steve: I think that perhaps this is the biggest challenge for teen leaders. When leading your peers you need to have a bigger perspective than just that of friend to friend. You must look to the good of the group. That’s where I see most teens fall down—they’ll sacrifice leadership for friendship. Both Vlad and Rebekah were faced with this danger, and I think they came through well.
Spectrum: Can you guys share some examples of specific failures and victories that you experienced in your leadership during Ultimate Workout?
Vlad: Once, one of our group members decided to invite two community members along for our rafting excursion. For a variety of reasons, Rebekah and I decided that this would not be a good idea. But despite our decision on the matter, our group member invited them along anyway. It was defiance, and we had to make a choice on the spot: should we let it go, or should we uphold our original decision? We chose the second option. This made our group member upset at us for several days, but I think we still did the right thing.
Spectrum: Rebekah, what was a big growth moment for you?
Rebekah: I think it actually happened between Vlad and I near the beginning of the trip. Some things happened between us during the first day or two that kept us from working as a team as well as we could have. Vlad and I were on the same site on UW17 in 2007, and then we were leaders together on UW18. When Steve invited me to be a co-coordinator with Vlad for this trip, my first thought was, “Vlad? Really. Okay, this should be… fun.” Vlad is free-spirited and exciting, whereas I’m organized and…
Vlad: And not so exciting.
Rebekah: I’m exciting! I’m just not as exciting as Vlad. Still, I really hoped things would work out. Staff orientation before the trip went well, but afterward Vlad stopped me right before the door to my floor and said that on UW17 I was mean and kind of bossy. He said that I was “alright” last year, but that this year I was actually pretty cool. I was like, “Why is he telling me this?”
Then when the participants got here I remembered, “Oh my gosh, there was a reason why I was nervous. What on earth have we gotten ourselves into? The next two weeks are going to be torture— every day is going to be awful! But then we sat down together with our coaches and talked about communication. Things changed after that, and it was a big victory.
Vlad: She rolled her eyes at me two times! I felt like I was dealing with my mom. I thought I was going to take a break from my mom by coming to Ecuador, but instead I got Rebekah, who acts like my mom.
Rebekah: I don’t remember rolling my eyes, but I’m sure I did.
Spectrum: Steve, did you know this history when you asked Vlad and Rebekah to become co-coordinators? Steve: I knew they were different from each other. I also knew that they each had strengths to bring to the position. I was looking at them to balance one another, which I knew could cause friction, but it could also build strength if they could get through their differences and learn to appreciate each other. Vlad mentioned the tension they had with another person who was challenging their leadership. The way they pulled together on that particular situation was just admirable. To me that’s when I saw the breakthrough. So yes, I knew it was risky to put Rebekah and Vlad together, but we take a lot of calculated risks on Ultimate Workout. I’m really pleased with what came out of this one at the other end.
Spectrum: What lasting impact do you expect this particular victory to have on the lives of Vlad and Rebekah?
Steve: I expect them to look at other relationship challenges with more hope. When they face someone else with whom they don’t jive, they won’t just quit. They’ll realize “Hey, we can work through this together and actually learn to appreciate the fact that we are different from one another.”
Vlad: If I can deal with Rebekah, then I can deal with anybody!
Steve: That’s really true. And if Rebekah can deal with Vlad, then she can deal with anybody and any animal!
Spectrum: Steve, your role on the UW Beyond site was to be a mentor and a coach to these student leaders. How did it go for you? How did you grow on Ultimate Workout 19?
Steve: I really floundered the first couple days wondering what I was supposed to do, because I did not want to take over or usurp the authority of Rebekah and Vlad. And yet they were struggling because their personalities were so different. It was very difficult for me—I felt kind of lost. And so I started looking toward getting acquainted with other participants while Vlad and Rebekah sorted things out between the two of them.
Rebekah: You left us to flounder?
Steve: I left you to fight it out, not flounder. And after a couple days, Rebekah and Vlad were able to say, “Hey, we’ve tried some things; here’s what we’ve come up with. Can you give us some tips on these specific issues?” If I had done that right from the start, my assistance would have kind of fallen on deaf ears. They needed to experience some things first. So yeah, I was floundering at the beginning, but I hit my stride after a couple days. This was a learning experience for me too.
Spectrum: The UW Beyond coaches prepared workshops each night for those interested in exploring their leadership abilities. What other development opportunities have been available to those UW Beyond participants not functioning in official leadership capacities?
Rebekah: On a practical level, those of us functioning in official leadership capacities have tried to mentor others to take our spots next year. For example, one day the kitchen staff came up to me and asked, “Hey there are two boys who are interested in doing kitchen work next year. Is it okay if we put them in charge and we become their assistants? And I said, “Great idea. Sure, go ahead.” And so the participants then got a chance to test their leadership abilities too, under the guidance of experienced teen staff. Another example is the girl who is going to be taking my position next year as co-coordinator. I worked with her the last couple days, showing her what I do with the money and what a day is like in the life of a project coordinator.
Spectrum: As someone who has experienced leadership at a young age you are more likely to understand how to shape other young leaders. You’ve seen adults take risks so that you might develop into leaders. Do you think this will affect how you relate to other young people as you get older?
Rebekah: The experience of being mentored and then mentoring other people into my position has helped a lot. I think in life I’ll be more willing and apt to mentor others.
Steve: According to the way of the world you cannot become a leader until you have demonstrated competence and have had years of experience and education. But in the way of God, age has nothing to do with calling. The question that makes the difference is, “Does God’s Spirit equip you?” And if people are open to that, then age is irrelevant. So when people go, “Wow, I can’t believe they’re sixteen or eighteen and they’re leading this thing” our response is, “Well you’re thinking according to the way of the world.” In the way of the world, no you can’t. But in the way of God, my goodness, Samuel was much younger then Rebekah or Vlad and he was getting direct messages from God. David was younger, and he killed a giant. So in the future, I hope our leaders remember that age is irrelevant. As they get older I want them to remember that as long as God is using a person, anything can happen. Paul said in 1 Timothy 4:12 “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young” because in the way of the world people will! Just blow it off. Go ahead and do what God has equipped you to do. Our leaders have done that.
Spectrum: Steve, you’re the president of Involve Youth, and one of your organization’s stated purposes is to draw young people to faith by giving them a taste of leadership in the church. Ultimate Workout is a prime example of how this is happening. How do you see Ultimate Workout impacting the life of the church as you reflect back over the nineteen years it has been running?
Steve: For one, the people who come on Ultimate Workout often go back to their church and start implementing things there. They believe that they can make a difference right now. It doesn’t always happen, but we see it happen repeatedly. We see that people who go on Ultimate Workout become leaders in student organizations, in their churches, and in their communities. I think this fulfills one of the great hopes of the church: that young people will not “wait around” to do something. They will do it now.
Spectrum: Have you seen the long-term impact Ultimate Workout has had on specific young people over the years?
Steve: I have, and I could even mention specific names. There are many examples of people who have started as participants and have then worked their way into leadership. They’ve become pastors and mission trip coordinators. Some of them work for Maranatha and are key people in the short-term missions movement. At the same time, we don’t try to hold people in. We are always releasing people to go and make a difference someplace else beyond Ultimate Workout. We’re not trying to run our own separate universe.
Spectrum: Rebekah, you’re going to college next year. What do you want to do with your life? How has Ultimate Workout shaped your future goals?
Rebekah: This trip has definitely fit right into what I want to do. I’m majoring in business so I can become a field worker with Maranatha or ADRA or some other organization that will allow me to coordinate groups internationally.
Spectrum: Steve, would you do UW Beyond again?
Steve: We’ve already made plans for next year and our leadership team is taking shape. I’m even looking to see how we can expand UW Beyond. We need more of this!
Visit www.ultimateworkout.org for updates and information on how you can send a teen in your life on Ultimate Workout 20, scheduled for July of 2010.
Steve Case lives in Carmichael, California where he is president of Involve Youth Ministries. http://www.involveyouth.org/
Vlad Dandu attends Douglas Anderson School of the Arts in Jacksonville, Florida.
Rebekah Widmer recently graduated from Redding Adventist Academy in California and will be attending Pacific Union College this fall. She plans to pursue a double major in business and aviation.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/1777