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‘My Philippines mission service infused every aspect of my life and career’


Young Adult Volunteer experience is radically life-changing

By Dessa Quesada Palm | Mission Crossroads Magazine

Left to right: 2016–17 YAVs Akilah Hyrams, Andrew Flanigan and Katheryn McGinnis, with Dessa Palm, YAV site coordinator, in the Philippines Photo provided

As a mission co-worker and cultural worker in the Philippines, sometimes I am utterly exhausted. There are periods that require quite a bit of travel related to meetings and theater-based trainings for children, youth, church workers, teachers, women and others. When I am in Dumaguete, days sometimes stretch into late evenings for rehearsals with our youth theater group or with Silliman University Divinity School students preparing for the annual church workers convocation. So a few years ago, when asked by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) program if my husband, Cobbie, and I would consider reopening the Philippines YAV service site, we pondered, could we? Should we? Could we say no?

Other considerations were also swirling in my mind then. How would North American volunteers, mostly coming out of universities, deal with the grinding realities of living in the Philippines? During the program’s mutual-discernment process where I would interview prospective applicants, I sometimes felt like a casting director for the game show series Fear Factor. Can you deal with pesky mosquitoes, humongous cockroaches, armies of ants and other critters? Will you try a taste of exotic fruits like durian or the duck’s egg delicacy called balut? What about prolonged periods of scorching heat and humidity? Bucket baths and spartan toilets? Frequent brownouts and, the potential deal breaker, weak or nil internet connections? The list goes on.

The inclination to say no, however, began to shift to a yes as I got to know individuals who had been nurtured by a year of service in the Philippines — people like Jed Koball, who is now a PC(USA) mission co-worker in Peru, and Richard Williams, coordinator of the PC(USA)’s Young Adult Volunteer program.

Cynthia Rigby and William “Bill” Greenway arrived in Manila in the summer of 1989 as the first yearlong volunteers sent by Princeton Theological Seminary with blessings from the PC(USA) to serve alongside the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP). The overall goal of the program, which was called Volunteers in Mission at that time, was for young people to develop a firsthand understanding of the church’s ministry in the Philippines; then, upon returning home, they would be able to clearly and accurately communicate realities in the Philippines with their congregations. After two weeks of orientation, they moved to Cagayan de Oro in Mindanao, where the UCCP assigned them as assistant pastors. They also participated in Muslim/Christian dialogues in various parts of Mindanao.

Both Cynthia and Bill are now on the faculty of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. About his experience as a volunteer in the Philippines, Bill shares, “Now, many years later, I can say my year in the Philippines was among the happiest and most profound and formative years of my life. It is fair to say that my experience in the Philippines has and continues to inform every aspect of my teaching, writing and understanding, and that in such a way the goals of those coordinating the UCCP program definitely have been, and continue to be, fulfilled.”

Moments with these special people have given me the opportunity to value how the YAV program can build leaders. I could not turn away from the opportunity to be part of such an important ministry. How can one say no to a program that is proving to be transformative and instrumental in creating a new generation of leaders for the church and our communities?

Thus, here I am now, deeply involved as the Philippines site coordinator of the PC(USA)’s YAV program, fully committed to the knowledge and hope that lives are changed and leaders are made through the experience of international volunteer work.  

Dessa Palm, YAV site coordinator in the Philippines, works as artistic director for Youth Advocates Through Theater Arts. Carlton J. “Cobbie” Palm is a mission co-worker and director of spiritual formation at Silliman University Divinity School.

This article is from the Spring 2018 issue of Mission Crossroads magazine, which is printed and mailed free to subscribers’ homes within the U.S. three times a year by Presbyterian World Mission. To subscribe, visit

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