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Megan’s story

I didn’t return from my gap year with dreadlocks, sporting a traveller’s tattoo and having ‘found myself’.

Nonetheless, I returned with things more valuable than what a suitcase could hold. I have happy memories, stories to tell my grandkids, special friendships, times we laughed so much it was silly, times we cried because it hurt or we just weren’t sure, you-had-to-be-there moments, I-can’t-believe-we-just-did-that moments - moments that fit together like a jigsaw to form a new layer of experience, making me who I am today.

Even on the plane to Delhi I wasn’t convinced I was doing the right thing. Any flicker of excitement was eclipsed by my fear of leaving home. With little certainty of my own, I trusted the conviction and assurance of my teammates, family, friends and God.

Sure enough, God gradually opened my eyes and heart to his will and to the vibrant country he’d taken me to. At an informal village school I led a class of overwhelmingly energetic 7-11-year-olds. Perhaps unknowingly, they taught me so much and loved me with humbling grace and acceptance. Stood together on a roof surrounded by dirt paths, open sewers and livestock, we discovered the power of a ukulele! Singing with the kids was my favourite thing and reminded me of the universality of childhood and music.

India is chaotic! It’s disorganised, illogical and crazy. But it’s wonderful. I have come to accept that God too is chaotic. He may not reveal his plans clearly or in advance. He isn’t always sensible. How could one expect a father who saved mankind with a big boat and whose child was born of a virgin to be a fan of logic? I’ve discovered he’s a God who reveals beauty in the dust, peace within the traffic, and his wonder across the world.

Megan went to India with BMS World Mission Action Teams.

Jack’s story

Before my gap year, I was excited about combining adventure activities and growing in my relationship with God and others.

By the end of this year I will have gained instructor qualifications in kayaking, canoeing, mountain biking and bushcraft. I will also be leading and co-leading activities for young people.

Our first residential was life-changing. We had some of our first experiences supporting the activity leader and leading warm-up activities. The highlight of the week was speaking on the ‘sword of the spirit’ and the ‘helmet of salvation’. I really felt like I had something to say to these children after getting to know them. At the end I asked those who would like the armour of God to bow their heads and repeat my prayer. Straight away they all bowed their heads!

The most challenging part of the year has also been one of the most enjoyable - living in a house with the gap year team. I have never lived away from home and have really got to know each person. There have been disagreements along the way but with the help of the staff and God, as well as us encouraging each other and working together we are even better friends because of it.

My initial thoughts of “this will just be a year of messing about” and “I won’t change” have been proved wrong. I’m excited about what God has for my life and where he will take me!

Jack is still on a gap year with Adventure Plus.

Ruth’s story

I told God that I would never do youth work. Then I found myself embarking on a year of youth work training with South West Youth Ministries (SWYM)!

I left my job to spend the year developing skills that I could invest back into my church. The year-long foundation course ‘Be transformed’ has definitely been a year of transformation. It has been a privilege to teach the young people within my church and it’s a responsibility I take seriously. I enjoy preparing sessions that I hope will engage and inspire them to seek Jesus for themselves. Having socials at the end of term has been lots of fun and I got to experience the joys of laser tag for the first time! Although I love sharing the gospel and encouraging young people in their faith, the times when we just hang out and have fun together are really special.

With the encouragement, support and prayer of SWYM I have overcome obstacles that I thought I would never be able to. For most of my life the thought of delivering a talk terrified me. Through SWYM I delivered assemblies to hundreds of pupils, led Bible studies and delivered presentations with confidence to my peers; sometimes the best way to overcome a fear is to face it.

This year has given me a deeper theological understanding of the Bible and ministry, life-long friendships, confidence to develop as a leader, the ability to overcome initial fears and the time to build stronger relationships with young people and parents at my church.

Ruth was part of South West Youth Ministies’ ‘Be transformed’ gap year.

Alastair’s story

I first attended Fellowship Afloat when I was 9. I returned at 17 to obtain more sailing qualifications and was welcomed in to what can only be described as a family.

Fellowship Afloat provides outdoor adventure activities and the gap year was all about living in community. Having strong beliefs in the vision of Fellowship Afloat, I returned as a volunteer and soon after as a member of staff on my gap year. That year helped build my confidence, taught me that I had a value to give and that I could gain great value from being with others. It was the first time I had really been part of an effective team and I learnt how to overcome the challenges that brings.

I am now a doctor and, years later, working on busy wards I feel those Fellowship Afloat lessons pushing me forwards. Not falling in to traps of resentment, bitterness and frustration, but enjoying the value that can be gained by striving together with others. It was because of Fellowship Afloat that I took on my biggest challenge. While studying medicine I recognised there was a problem in the medical profession - we were all striving on our own unlike Fellowship Afloat where there is a strong sense of community. I decided to try and change this by setting up a medical enterprise. We have since built it into the most popular educational community for medics with over 25,000 registered users. This vision is based on what I saw and experienced at Fellowship Afloat.

Fellowship Afloat changed my life. It showed me in practical ways how we can work together and the real impact that community can have.

Alastair set sail with Fellowship Afloat.

Hannah’s story

When I applied for YFC One, I was entering my final year of A Levels and dreading it. This struggle, I think, represents who I was before I surrendered my life to Jesus: constantly driven to be the best to satisfy my craving for acceptance and affirmation, I couldn’t deal with rejection or failure. I became fixed on perfection, thinking that everyone would like me more if I was the best at everything.

Comparing myself with others messed with my mental health and soon I was admitted to an eating disorders hospital with anorexia, depression and obsessive-compulsive-disorder tendencies. I improved somewhat but while they managed to repair my body, in my mind I was still broken and lost. When I got home, I went back to school and continued along my crumbling path. I agreed with my doctors that grade-dependency was unhealthy but I was still determined to be the thinnest girl I knew. Fast-forward two years and I wasn’t hugely different. I had learned lots about Jesus yet I still hung onto control and didn’t allow God’s presence to take over because I couldn’t risk not having what I wanted. I didn’t trust God to satisfy my needs, hopes and dreams, even though I loved him deeply.

YFC One was full of friendship, challenges and laughs. I learnt about God’s character and it stunned me. I thought I knew what God was all about but soon realised I had tried to squash him into a little box. Even at this point I didn’t let God have my all. However, during the next month when I was struggling to settle in at my placement, I quickly ran out of ideas to solve the issues I faced. One evening as I unloaded my stress and declared who God is, I slowly began to surrender. I put my future in God’s hands. That was the first time I started to see life in colour. Two weeks later, God healed me from my unhealthy obsessions. He restored me overnight. Jesus’ saving power freed me from constant fear, despair, self-hatred and brokenness. Since allowing Jesus access to all areas of my life, he has radically changed it, is changing it still, and there’s no going back! Now when I face uncertainty, hurt or fear I can come back to Jesus, my unchanging hope.

Hannah took part in Youth for Christ’s YFC One gap year programme.

Eleanor’s story

I spent my gap year with the Catholic Agency For Overseas Development (CAFOD) experiencing many aspects of the work that they do. I learned so much about how they work to achieve sustainable international development. I formed a huge interest in the relationship between development and human rights, was so inspired that I did a master’s degree in the subject and last year, volunteered in the Philippines, working with families and schools.

Since finishing my gap year, I have continued to volunteer with CAFOD, who suggested I apply for an international conference being held at the Vatican. My idea, which looked at integrating sustainable development goals more closely with climate change as a major cause of poverty, was accepted and I was invited to attend.

At the conference Pope Francis walked straight into our group offering kind words and he was very interested to hear about the work that we were doing. I was a little taken aback so stood further away, happy enough just to be in the presence of someone who has proved such an inspiration to my generation. But Pope Francis approached me! I was so humbled to shake the Pope’s hand and be thanked by a person who symbolises the Church’s mission to place the fight against poverty at its heart. It is definitely an experience I will never forget.

Then it was my turn to present my ideas to the symposium. My nerves from the morning had gone, replaced with the glow I felt after meeting Pope Francis. We spent the rest of the afternoon listening to and discussing one another’s ideas, the sort of dialogue that Francis has called for.

Eleanor went on a gap year with CAFOD.

Sam’s story

My story began when I met Ben. He was part of the Kerith Commuity Church Academy gap year and serving on the youth team. Ben influenced me a lot, inspiring and increasing my faith. Seeing him totally on fire for God made me want to do the Academy.

Time passed and I decided to go to university. But God has his way and my plans fell through so I looked at my options again. I contacted the Academy pastor and the more I considered it, the more it seemed like the plan for me. He explained how it works: two days a week serving in ministry and two days of teaching and training, with a focus on theology and personal development.

I found the self-development especially helpful - courses such as Emotionally healthy spirituality, Freedom in Christ and Masterpiece (a course designed to explore gifting and calling) helped me to know myself deeper and mature intentionally. I started Academy as a naïve and immature 18-year-old, with not much idea of my place in the world, but through it I grew into the man that God has made me, gaining purpose and direction in my life. It helped me to take hold of my dreams and to learn to stand in them.

The serving side of Academy blessed me greatly. I chose to serve in the youth team and helped start a youth group in our new site at Sandhurst. It helps you see how a church operates, through both stacking chairs or preaching. I have continued to lead the youth in Sandhurst alongside studying theology. This has been a journey, from meeting in a living room with four people to holding youth events with more than 40 young people. Kerith Community Church has been an excellent place for growth, with all the leaders willing to spend time with me and speak into my life.

Sam took part in the Kerith Community Church Academy.

Louisa’s story

I remember thinking my gap year would bring me hope, passion and good ideas. I did tell myself we weren’t heroes and we wouldn’t change everything in the blink of an eye. But I was nevertheless full of beans when we arrived in Poipet, on the Thai-Cambodian border. We came, we saw and we… well I’m not sure what we did. Did we conquer? Have we transformed this place? I think more often I have felt like I have been conquered.

When we arrived, I was buzzing with ideas. We were going to have incredible team times, build amazing relationships, start a yoga class, work with villages, plant a garden, do interior design, start a youth project - we were going transform Poipet! I don’t feel we have made much progress. The sight of dusty streets, litter piled on the pavement, vehicles loaded sky-high, motorbikes packed with entire families, hands pressed to mouths, eyes squinting in the burning sun are all still present.

I had forgotten that God has a vision for Poipet. He reminded me that if he is for us, nothing can stand against. He can lift a city from the rubble and ruins. He showed me that I shouldn’t let my ideas drown in tiredness or lack of motivation. I shouldn’t think it isn’t my place to say or dream. I shouldn’t think I am not good enough or I haven’t made a change. I need to remember that it isn’t me transforming Poipet, it’s God and it always has been God. He doesn’t need me to be excellent at my job. Neither does he expect me to have perfect plans. He needs me to be available. He needs me to surrender and let him unfold his plan. So, I am dusting off my ideas and praying about them. Have we conquered? No. Have we transformed? Not yet. But God is at work.

Louisa volunteered with Tearfund and the Cambodian Hope Organisation for six months.

Here are a few more of our favourite gap years

Limitless pioneers is a gap-year programme focused on pioneering new youth ministries across the UK, through schools’ work and detached youth work, in partnership with local churches. You’ll receive high-quality training, make lifelong friends, experience more of God and see lives changed. limitlesselim.co.uk/pioneers

Church Mission Society offer gap-year placements around the world for adventurous young Christians who want to be challenged in their faith. churchmissionsociety.org

Soul 61 aims to raise up leaders who will change the world around them. The year includes teaching, serving, outreach and discipleship. soul61.co.uk

Rock UK offer an action-packed gap year developing skills, knowledge and understanding alongside working with children and young people. rockuk.org/work-for-us/gap-year-programme

Experience invites people to join XLP’s mission and be part of a community passionate about transforming young people’s lives. Help lead innovative youth work in inner city London and build relationships that sow seeds of hope. xlp.org.uk/experience

The Message Academy is a place for 18-25 year-olds to be trained, equipped and resourced to reach the lost. Get trained by the Message Trust in pioneering youth work, evangelism, creativity and mission. academy.message.org.uk