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How do you build a community?

Certainly there’s the business of actually moving earth and paving roads and erecting walls. But a collection of streets and buildings is only a community in one sense of the word. In order to achieve that second and more vital aspect of community—the coming together of different people into a unified whole—strong hearts are always more important than strong hands.

That feeling of service, of helping one’s fellow man, of giving back, has long been and continues to be one of the defining traits of Dyer. In the context of both their faith communities and their civic organizations, the citizens of Dyer have always understood that their town is only as strong as the bond they share with one another, which is why they demonstrate such a steadfast commitment to volunteerism.

Starting Young

Perhaps one of the best ways to sow the seeds of community and to ensure a fully engaged Dyer citizenry going forward is by demonstrating the value of giving back to the town’s next generation of civic leaders. That’s the idea behind Junior Leaders, a program for kids in grades 6-12 offered by the Dyer Parks and Recreation Department that puts its young volunteers “on call” to assist with a variety of programs and special events.

“The goal when we started the Junior Leaders program four years ago was to help youngsters become more well-rounded individuals and to help them to fulfill service hours for high school, junior high and church sacraments,” says recreation supervisor Andrea Daliege. “As it’s turned out, we’ve had an outpouring of individuals who just want to help with our programs, and I am so proud of each and every one of them. They always give 100 percent and they never complain about the rain, cold or heat.”

Among their duties in working with kids younger than themselves, Junior Leaders may be called upon to instruct and/or demonstrate specific skills, befriend program participants to help keep them interested in a class or activity, help with setup, preparation and clean-up for a program or event, or even just help a child tie his or her shoelaces or find a bathroom. While these types of duties may not seem particularly monumental to an adult, they can foster a great sense of responsibility and service in a young person just starting to understand his or her place in the community and the importance of giving back.

“Junior Leaders play a very important role in our community and really make a difference,” Daliege says. “Who could pass up that great feeling you get when a child gives you a smile or high five after they hit the ball, or when a little one asks to take a picture with you? What a great feat it is when someone trusts you and looks up to you. Those friendships and memories last a lifetime!”

Labor Movements

Why is the church such a popular place to get involved in giving back to one’s community? Pastor James Clark of Dyer United Methodist Church says it’s all about living one’s religious beliefs and demonstrating the teachings of one’s faith through concrete action.

“I am very excited about the opportunities we have to show the love of Jesus in our community through service,” Pastor Clark explains. “There are people all around us with different needs that we can work together to meet. The church is called to be in the world, in the community, doing our very best to help make lives better.”

For the past four years, that calling has been made manifest for the parishioners of Dyer United Methodist Church through the Labors of Love service program, a September tradition initiated and nurtured by Pastor Clark and his wife Megan. The month-long program offers volunteers a wide range of service options from which to choose, including prayer partnerships, nursing home visits, building projects and food donations and preparations for the needy. The many available service types and levels of commitment reflect the Clarks’ goal of getting as many people as possible to do the greatest amount of good.

“The goal of the program is to move the people of our church out of the building and into the community to share God's love and help in any way we can,” Pastor Clark says. “It has been fun to see how it has gotten so many people inside our church involved and how they have gone on to invite friends and family to join us.”

Of course, there’s always room for more Northwest Indiana residents—both church members and non-members—to step up and help out this month. After all, the Clarks believe the effects of the Labors of Love program go far beyond only those on the receiving end of the service efforts.

“It has become somewhat addictive,” Pastor Clark says. “Our church has become much more involved in our community than we were before we started Labors of Love.”