NEWTON, Kansas (Mennonite Mission Network) - From Feb. 23-25, the Menno Guest House in Phoenix opened its doors to dozens of veteran SOOP volunteers, returning for the 25th anniversary celebration of the Phoenix SOOP location. The weekend celebration was marked with volunteer opportunities at partner organizations, sightseeing tours, as well as ample time for storytelling and singing.
"Celebrating 25 years of SOOP in Phoenix was a wonderful time to reflect on the many ways God has been present through this local unit," said Arloa Bontrager, SOOP program director. She expressed that the event was a great opportunity to see not just some of the work that had been done by volunteers in the community, but how the community had shaped the volunteers as well.
Founded in 1993, the Phoenix SOOP location was originally hosted in the home of Peter and Rheta Mae Wiebe, who served as the first directors of the unit. Volunteers would either stay in one of the four available bedrooms in the house, or in campers parked on the Wiebes' yard. "Community life is one of the very enriching experiences [of SOOP]," said Peter Wiebe. "People come here to serve, but the extra benefit is when we can share together."
This focus on communal living carried over to the Menno Guest House, which was purchased in 2007 and now houses SOOP volunteers during the winter season and serves as a bed and breakfast throughout the rest of the year. "In the evenings when we [SOOP volunteers] have our meals, it's not how fast you can eat," said Ben Newcomer, who, along with his wife, Mary Jane, serve as the current directors and hosts at the Phoenix SOOP location. "We will sit there for hours sharing stories of what God is doing in the work that we're involved in."
Since its founding, the Phoenix SOOP program has welcomed more than 400 volunteers who have served with multiple partner organizations throughout the Phoenix/Glendale area. Volunteer positions have included home repair projects, teaching English as a second language, building accessibility ramps, harvesting citrus for food banks, as well as stocking a thrift store that caters to refugees arriving in the community.
Jim Gascho, who, along with his wife, Lila, served as the directors and hosts at the Phoenix SOOP location from 2016-2017, described that the most rewarding part of SOOP was witnessing volunteers connecting with the mission of the organizations that they worked with, and bringing that experience back to their home communities. "[SOOP is] an opportunity to have one's eyes opened to what the needs are, not just here, but to reflect on back home as well," he said.
"[SOOP] helps us get out of our comfort zones a little bit, trust a little bit, and be willing to try something new," said Wanda Stauffer, who traveled from Lincoln, Nebraska, with her husband, Rick, to be part of the celebration. "You meet new people, you make friends, and you stay in contact."
SOOP (Service Opportunities with Our Partners) is a program of Mennonite Mission Network that provides short-term service opportunities to families and adults of all ages to connect with missional faith communities across North America.