From Australia's Outback
Service to Others Really Matters
Grassroots mission movement turns 20.
By Sandra Blackmer
Customers in the small-town hair salon in Australia’s northern outback jumped in surprise when a man in a clown suit marched in and plopped down into the nearest chair.
“I’m here for a perm!” he said, rainbow-colored tresses bobbing atop a brightly painted face.
Laughter soon broke out and realization dawned on the faces of those who had been residents of the black opal mining community of Lightning Ridge for some years. “StormCo is back!” someone shouted, and the welcome that ensued for Crunchy the Clown—better known as Chrys Martin, a StormCo team leader and a member of the Avondale Memorial Seventh-day Adventist Church in Cooranbong, New South Wales—warmed his heart.
“We’ve built a relationship with so many people in this town that they wait for us to come back; they want us to come back,” Martin says. “The mission of StormCo is all about the town, as well as the Adventist youth who are committed to serving those who live here.”
What Is StormCo?
The Australian-born mission concept coined StormCo—“Service to Others Really Matters” Company—actually arose from a change in plans. Jerry Unser, a former university chaplain for the South Queensland Conference, had arranged an overseas student mission trip, but at the last minute everything fell through.
The team, he said, was “desperate for some sort of adventure,” so Unser called pastors in the region until he found one who invited the group to stay in his church hall while they “looked around for something useful to do” in that small town.
“We ended up visiting schools, running cooking classes, visiting local churches, and hanging out with indigenous community members,” Unser says. “After we got home, we couldn’t wait to go out and do it all again.”
Twenty years later the program is still going strong. Adventist churches, schools, and conferences in every state in Australia and both islands of New Zealand send out StormCo teams on seven- to 10-day mission trips each year. Numbers vary from as few as one conference-based team in some places to as many as 20 or more in other conferences. Fifteen to 20 youth generally comprise each team—many of them returning year after year. The mission concept has also traversed oceans and taken root in such places as Canada, Europe, and Romania.
“The name is sometimes changed to suit the culture,” says Unser, now retired. “In Romania it’s called TinSerV [‘You Serve’]. I’ve been told they’ve sent out as many as 50 teams in one year.”
Unser says StormCo can’t adequately be described as a program, an organization, a form of evangelism, or an event—but rather as “a unique blend of adventure and community service that has become a widespread movement.”
“Our conference youth director, Mel Lemke, along with our personal ministries/ADRA director, David Jack, both caught the vision of StormCo,” Unser explains. “Together the three of us organized additional trips to more communities going out from Brisbane. It wasn’t long before some of the young people involved moved away and took the concept with them. It was—and still is—a grassroots movement. We’ve written coaching manuals, but there’s no official StormCo organization structure, except for those local churches, schools, and conferences who send out their own teams.”
In 2000—with the assistance of the South Pacific pision youth director at the time, Gilbert Cangy, now the General Conference Youth Ministries Department director—Unser wrote the StormCo Guidebook, outlining the foundations and principles of the program. He and Cangy, however, didn’t envision that this many years later, teams would still be building relationships with communities.
“StormCo has become an integral part of the fabric of youth ministry in Australia,” Cangy says. “It’s a great example of what Ellen White suggests when she refers to Christ’s method alone giving success. As we peer into the future, the challenge will be to ensure that ‘building bridges with the community’ leads to intentionality in extending the kingdom of God.”
How Is It Funded?
To help support StormCo, most local conferences provide a subsidy of $1,000 per trip as well as the insurance. Fund-raising in local churches supplements the subsidy, and every person on the team pays a fee to participate. Donations of food and other supplies from church members also play a large role in keeping StormCo teams financially afloat.
StormCo’s premise is twofold. First, the goal is to establish and build strong and trusting relationships, so the teams return year after year to the same community. Second, the teams go with no “agenda.” Instead of arriving with a predetermined program, they ask town leaders what their needs are and the ways they think StormCo can engage with the community. In some places, such as Lightning Ridge—situated about 460 miles (740 kilometers) southwest of Brisbane—that involves a Kids’ Club. To encourage children to attend, each morning Martin and some of his team members dress up as clowns and stroll through the town.
“We say hi to the grocery people and the bakery man and any customers we meet,” Martin says. “If we see kids, we give them a flyer and invite them to come to Kids’ Club. Most of the shopkeepers know who we are and what we’re about. They advertise word of mouth for us. Some put up posters.”
The children who show up at Kids’ Club—sometimes as many as 50, even in such a small community—learn songs, watch puppet shows, participate in Bible story plays, do crafts, and play games. And everything is Christian-based.
“When I see the rough kind of environment that these kids live in and watch the kids themselves play roughly, I don’t feel comfortable at first,” says Kayla Sleight of Cooranbong, who has participated in five StormCo trips. “But then we start to share love with them, have fun with them, and begin to see little changes in their responses. It gives you a great feeling!”
Avondale College student Joshua Page says he’s been participating in the Lightning Ridge StormCo trip for six years because of the “feel-good experiences, the bonding with the team, being able to serve, and just seeing a need in these communities and feeling like you’re meeting it,” he says. “It draws you back again and again.”
Each morning team members also take over the local radio station. They run the equipment, give the announcements, report the news, and play Christian music.
“It’s great fun!” says Nelson Eddy of Euroa, Victoria (formerly of Cooranbong), who’s been a Lightning Ridge StormCo team member for seven years and heads the group that produces the town’s morning radio programs throughout their stay.
“Like a lot of ministries, we don’t always see the fruits of our labor because we’re here only once a year—but a lot of people remember us, especially the kids. We’ve built a rapport with the people here.”
Eddy also has seen a shift in his own attitude toward others and mission.
“When you leave your comfort zone and come out here, you get a very different perspective of the world,” he says.
Station managers Bevan and Ann Brown say they’re happy to see the StormCo kids return each year.
“They’re always well-spoken; they uplift the station, and the listeners respond well,” Ann says. “A couple of times we’ve had computer problems, and Nelson has helped us out. We could use him here more often.”
In the afternoons the team rolls up their sleeves to tackle community service jobs such as pulling weeds, woodcutting, painting floors and walls and bleachers, repairing veterans’ homes, cleaning up churchyards, and repairing buildings.
“One time we paid to replace a leaky water tank at the Catholic church,” Martin says. “With StormCo there are no barriers; there are no walls. We’re about people and service.”
And community residents are taking notice. Lightning Ridge Adventist Church member Beulah James says she frequently hears residents praise the team’s work and dedication.
“One woman, whose two girls attend Kids’ Club every year, told me that her daughters get very excited when they know it’s time for StormCo,” James says. “The mother couldn’t contain her joy! She said, ‘My girls have learned about Jesus, and they sing songs about Jesus. It’s so sweet to hear that singing at home.’
“StormCo has established a good name here,” she added.
Serving in “Hard” Places
Some 240 miles (385 kilometers) east of Lightning Ridge lies the indigenous 300-resident community of Toomelah, where StormCo leaders Trudy and Jeff Chilcott and their team have served a week each year for 14 years. While significant improvements have become evident in the health and welfare of indigenous Australians, life in aboriginal communities can still be a struggle. Toomelah is no exception. Indigenous Australians have higher rates of disability, chronic diseases, hospitalization, assault, suicide, and lower-life expectancy than nonindigenous Australians.* Attempts by the government and other groups to change the lifestyle of Toomelah have generally been met with skepticism and resistance—but not so with StormCo.
“They embrace us as family members. They protect and respect us—and we love them,” Trudy says.
The Toomelah StormCo team comprising some 20 academy and college students focuses largely on engaging with children, youth, and young mothers. They run a Christian-based Kids’ Club in the mornings, and in the afternoons they take the children fishing, collect firewood, talk to the young mothers about hygiene and nutrition, do crafts, and discuss ways to handle personal challenges.
“I tell the young women to place high value on themselves,” Trudy says. “I explain that others won’t value them if they don’t value themselves—just simple stuff like that.”
In the evenings the team members organize youth nights in the community hall for those age 13 and older.
“We basically play old-fashioned partner-type games, just to get to know everyone,” Jeff says. “On Friday nights we have a bonfire, and young people we’ve asked beforehand give their testimonies. It’s really a powerful thing for a young person to actually talk to their peers about what God has done for them.”
The difference StormCo makes in a town like Toomelah is not found in altering the culture or the people, but in building relationships that provide hope and direction.
“We see small changes, and are thankful for them,” Trudy says. “When we arrive, the young mothers have their little babies all clean and wrapped up and show them off to us. The children are better cared for. The nutrition is improving.” When Trudy asked a local elder whether she had noticed any changes, however, the woman, she said, “was absolutely blown away that I would even ask the question, because she really believes that what we’re doing with the young people is life-changing.”
Team member Adam Bailey of Melbourne has been part of the Toomelah StormCo team since 2008 and says that even though it makes a positive difference in the lives of the children, he personally has grown from the experience as well.
“You come with this almost arrogant way of thinking, that we’re going to change their world; but what we learn from them, and the love we receive, is much bigger,” Bailey says. “We simply show them that they’re valued, that we care.”
When Stefanie Gaassen went on her first StormCo trip to Toomelah in 2005, she was drawn to the young children and helped to organize the daily Kids’ Club. She then switched to running the youth nights for the older age group.
“I’ve watched the children grow into teenagers, and some of them now have babies and others are studying at school,” she says. “I encourage them to keep at it and to do something positive with their lives.”
Stefanie is now married, and her husband, Paul, is also a team member. Paul wasn’t an Adventist when he began dating Stefanie and participated in his first StormCo trip, but he describes the mission experience as a turning point in his life that led to his accepting Jesus and being baptized.
“I’d never done any kind of service before; it was such a new and exciting experience,” he says. “I love being able to help others and seeing the benefits from that, as well as learning more about the indigenous culture.”
Stefanie and Paul are currently students at Avondale College, where they’re studying to become teachers.
Jeff Chilcott concedes the secret to StormCo’s success in Toomelah is its approach to the community. Meeting with town leaders and asking them what their needs are and what they would like the team of young people to do to help was “the turnaround,” he says. “They were so used to people coming in and telling them what they needed. That’s the brilliance of this whole program. It just turned a switch, and their attitude became completely different. We have no agenda; no expectations. And we build relationships.”
It’s Also About the Team Members
While building relationships with communities, StormCo team members are also developing strong bonds with one another and renewing their relationship with God. North New South Wales Conference Youth director Jeff Parker says lives have been transformed because of the program, including that of a young student who said that participating in a StormCo trip “really clinched it for him.”
“He said, ‘If this is Christianity, I want to be part of it,’ ” Parker explains. “He wasn’t from a Christian home, but now he’s a teacher in one of our Adventist schools. And this isn’t an isolated story.”
The Chilcotts also emphasize the positive impact of StormCo on team members.
“StormCo is teaching our kids to be strong leaders, to make decisions for God, to become more aware of others as well as their own God-given gifts and abilities,” Trudy says. “They take this experience back with them to their churches, and it leads them to become involved in church leadership roles. It also guides them in their career choices. I know one young man who became a minister because of StormCo.”
Jeff adds, “Serving others helps the youth to also not be so inward-looking and to focus on others.”
Martin puts it even more strongly: “It’s saving our kids for eternity.”
“So many young people are drifting away from God and the church,” Martin says, “but with StormCo they’re catching a passion of service to God and others. They’re becoming involved in their church. They’re passionate about Christ and their religion, and they’re not afraid to stand up and be counted. I believe StormCo is a gift from God.”
Not everyone can get up in front of people and preach, Chrys adds, but they can help people, they can “go out and live and breathe their Christianity in the community, and when people ask them questions, they’re able to share with them about Jesus. . . .
“StormCo is about being Christ in a community,” he says. “It’s what being a Christian is all about.”