About the cover
If 2020 has a symbol, it might be the mask. For eight decades we've let kids know we care about who they really are behind the figurative masks they often wear. In this issue we look at ministry in the time of COVID-19, like our work with this YoungLives mom and her daughter in Columbus City, Ohio. We also feature more traditional stories from California to Kazakhstan!
Cover photo by Alexis Ledezma
Aren Sarkisian has had more than his share of obstacles to overcome. Born in Iran, Aren (pronounced “Are-in”) came to the United States at 13 years old and enrolled in school unable to speak a word of English. Eight years later, a horrific attack left Aren with a traumatic brain injury that permanently impeded his speech, cognition and ability to do things most take for granted, like drive and live independently.
But Aren, now 32 years old, doesn’t see these difficulties as obstacles at all. Nor does he use them as excuses. He considers them gifts. And he uses those gifts to share the love of Jesus with his “beautiful friends” in Burbank, California’s Young Life Capernaum ministry.
“I wouldn’t change anything about my story. I am thankful,” he said. “God knew what He was doing. He changed my life. Satan was trying to hurt me, but God came and said, ‘I have a better plan for your life.’”
Without the ability to speak English, Aren was already at a disadvantage when he came to the United States in 2001. Feeling like he didn’t fit in, he started hanging out with the wrong crowd at school. He also found a church where he made friends, but he was still making poor choices.
“I was living a double life — going to parties on Saturday and church on Sunday,” he said. “I knew something needed to change.”
On his 21st birthday, Aren decided to invite his church friends to his party instead of the gang members that he’d gotten to know. The next day, the gang broke into his home and viciously attacked him, stabbing him in the head and back, missing his heart by one inch. He spent eight months in the hospital and months after that in therapy re-learning how to walk and speak.
“After I got out,” Aren said, “nobody wanted to be my friend or hang out with me.”
He enrolled in the FACTS program in Glendale, California — a transitional program that offers community college courses, vocational and life skills training, and the opportunity to interact with peers. Aren connected with friends who invited him to a birthday party.
There, he met Austin and Amy Nielsen who had just started Greater Pasadena Capernaum. Aren remembers the Nielsens inviting him to club the next week.
“I thought club was pretty cool because they were Christians and having fun too,” Aren said. “I thought that’s how being a Christian was meant to be.
“I became friends with Austin and Amy. They kept reaching out to me, and I started hanging out with Austin more and more. I went to camp with them at Lost Canyon. And that’s where I turned everything over to God. I told Him, if you want me, I’m all yours.”
Aren was so impacted by the forgiveness he experienced, he knew he needed to forgive too. His attacker was in prison several miles from where he lived, so he asked friends to drive him there. Aren said he made the drive 39 times before he got the courage to go in. On his 40th visit, he sat face-to-face with his attacker, forgave him and presented the gospel.
“It was a beautiful moment,” Aren recalled. “I started crying. I knew what the Bible said about forgiveness. I told him, ‘Jesus forgave me, so I forgive you.’”
For Aren, the next step was serving others. He wanted to be a Young Life leader. He resisted volunteering with Capernaum at first, but “God worked in my heart. He told me, ‘Everything I put you through helps you understand what they are going through.’”
He’s been a Young Life Capernaum leader now for six years.
“We go to places nobody else goes,” Aren said. “We tell them Jesus said they don’t have to be perfect. They feel all alone in school, sometimes even at home. When Young Life comes in, we become their friend. We say we are here for you. That’s what I love about Young Life.”
Austin said he’s seen God work in Aren’s life and watched him grow tremendously over the years.
“Aren has grown from a shy, timid teenager to a confident, yet humble leader,” Austin said. “Aren exhibits a genuine love of Jesus, a servant’s heart and a boldness in sharing his faith. He has grown from not really having a voice, relying solely on his family, to becoming a young man who has a voice that he’s not afraid to use.
“Aren is bold in sharing his faith, giving club talks, doing contact work and serving as a leader at camp and also on summer staff.”
Hayley O’Reilly has served the last three years on Capernaum mission staff in Burbank alongside Aren. She said, “Aren’s heart is aligned with the Lord’s.” A blessing not only to their Capernaum friends but to the leadership team as well.
“It’s incredible to see the way Aren views his disability,” Hayley said. “He’ll tell you he’s thankful for it, and that he understands the kids better because of it. Often he can pick up on what the kids are feeling and is tuned in better with what they need than any of us. Capernaum wouldn’t be the same without him.”
Aren is one of a growing number of leaders with special needs who has served on assignment at a Young Life camp. Austin said it was a challenge to work through the logistics, but it ended up being an amazing experience for everyone.
“I remember hearing from his summer staff coordinator that Aren was the glue of that team, so encouraging, positive and always a hard worker,” Austin said. “Aren is a living example of Romans 12, all the parts of the body of Christ working together as a whole. Without people like Aren in the body of Christ or in Young Life, we are incomplete.”
Aren said he is grateful for every relationship and experience God has given him in this ministry. He knows God is working through him to build friendships and show those friends the love of Jesus.
“I have two beautiful friends,” Aren said. “They were so shy at first and didn’t want to open up to me. Now they have really warmed up and opened up and become my closest friends. Jesus did that. He does everything.
“I believe I can do anything because God says whatever you ask in my name I will give you. Whatever I need, I ask God to do it for me. I know Jesus leads through me.”
Aren said his dream is to be on Young Life staff. Austin believes Aren’s perspective as a person with special needs makes him uniquely qualified to bring others into the arms of Christ.
“I believe the future of ministry for Aren is bright,” Austin said. “As more people are given the opportunity to see people like Aren in leadership positions, the better Young Life and the church will be.
“I believe there is more to be done to make the path smoother to get our Capernaum friends into positions of leadership. It hasn’t been easy and there have been obstacles along the way, but we’ll continue to fight to see it become normal. We need more Arens in positions of leadership! We need communities to rally around our Capernaum friends because God has uniquely gifted them for such a time as this.”
One friend on our trip was named Garrett.* Garrett's dad had been in prison most of his life. Three years ago his dad was released and Garrett was excited for the potential of a re-established relationship. Instead, his dad relapsed and died of an overdose a few months after getting out. Garrett has been hungry for male leadership all his life. His leader, Brian,* has been walking with him and invited him to go on this trip.
Garrett opened up every night at cabin time. He shared about his heart becoming hardened over the years. On night four, Garrett said he was giving his life to Jesus: "This trip has changed me. I learned to not be in an emotionless shell and to share what is on my mind. This trip has also allowed me to make more friends."
Praise God for a place like Wild Ridge (a Young Life camp in West Virginia) ... to take our friends on an adventure to encounter the One who brings forever peace and refuge to the broken heart.
Once in-person ministry was allowed, I had a new girl, Sara,* begin attending our summer Campaigners. She had never once come to club so I was surprised to have her show up randomly. I could tell she was on the more reserved, shy side. She told me she had never had an adult beyond her parents who seemed so interested in what she had to say, and that at WyldLife, she was beginning to feel like she actually was special. Despite her shyness, she decided to come to Crooked Creek Ranch (a Young Life camp in Colorado). The whole ride to camp she was so quiet as the girls around her chatted the whole way. The program team asked us for the name of a kid who would benefit from being celebrated. I gave them Sara's name. As she was called up to the “Hype Box,” something happened — she allowed her “most full self” to be seen as everyone went crazy for her. This year, I truly didn't believe camp would happen. I am so grateful for the experience we had and am reminded that even in 12 hours, Jesus can change a kid's life.
This summer, Lehigh Valley Young Life had the opportunity to go to Lake Champion (a Young Life camp in New York) as part of our summer service project (our camp alternative). Each day leaders and kids would spend four to five hours working on different service projects. That time serving was followed up with a meal, then a talk about how we are created to serve and finally a “cabin time” discussion about the day and the talk. We spent two days serving churches in our area and then finished off the experience by serving at camp. Camp was stunning as usual, but they needed help getting the cabins weeded and mulched, so we spent all day helping them make camp look awesome, and in turn we got to spend time on the lake and in the pool. For myself as well as our kids this day was good for the soul!
I took a kid named Charley to camp at Adventures Wild Ridge. This was his first Young Life camp experience and I can't overstate how impactful it was for him. Not only did he absolutely fall in love with the intentionality and adventure of Young Life, but he was able to process hard and traumatic life experiences, overlooking some of the most beautiful scenery in the Eastern U.S. The first night, during cabin time, he was blown away at the view and how we were able to process the club talks in a way that made him understand the gospel in a new light. Charley saw the beauty of creation in light of his Creator and was able to process it with people he trusted. The slowed-down and intentional camp experience made this trip perfect for a kid like Charley. He didn't need bells and whistles, just adventure and intentional conversations in a breathtaking place.
In the early 1960s, Young Life’s founder, Jim Rayburn, envisioned that Trail West would be a place to host adults and provide them with a “window into Young Life.” Since that time, the adult camp located in Buena Vista, Colorado, has played a pivotal role in families’ lives and helped them engage with the mission.
During the month of July, over three separate weekends, we were able to host overnight high school campers at Trail West Lodge. As far as anyone can remember and based on the research we have done, this is the first time Trail West has hosted summer high school-aged campers.
This historic first illustrates the contrasts that COVID-19 has brought out in Young Life and how the mission endures and adapts to fit into new realities.
This week one girl in particular shared she had been struggling with depression and coping through alcohol. As she cried I was able to tell that it took immense strength — she was an underclassman at a table surrounded by older girls who had been through similar experiences. She was nervous of judgment and ridicule coming from them after she shared, but the exact opposite happened; the girls surrounded her, reminded her they were on her team and she was worthy of so much more. At the end of the week this girl said, “Thanks for reminding me that I am worthy of God’s love and my life has been created for so much more than I have been living into.” She attended “Daystarters” [a morning Bible study] with us the next week as well as Campaigners — both were times where we prayed, spent time in the Word and shared victory in still being sober since camp. Praise God!
Imagine your annual fundraising banquet, after months of planning, is literally hours away. Now imagine you have to cancel the event because of the coronavirus pandemic and social distancing …
This was the exact predicament one Young Life area found themselves in on Friday, March 13, 2020.
That morning, Makenzie Hield, area director of East Boulder County, Colorado, along with her committee chair, Lauren Bocci, faced the decision of what to do next.
“Looking at having to cancel our banquet on ‘the day of’ because of the social restrictions being put in place was scary,” Makenzie confessed. “We were looking at potentially going into deficit in April if we didn’t have any money come in from our banquet in March.”
Because of the uncertainty surrounding the virus, Makenzie and the team didn’t know when they could reschedule their in-person event. The immediate challenge, then, was to try and raise funds to keep the area moving for the next few months.
Undeterred, Makenzie, Lauren and the rest of their committee, began thinking outside the box.
They wondered aloud, “What if we could have a virtual banquet?”
Lauren said, “Well, maybe we have a captive audience!”
Makenzie agreed. “We had a full registrant list of people who had planned their schedules to be with us that night, so we thought, why not try and put together the content we were going to do from up front at the banquet into the virtual platform, and still have a contact point with people?
“At that point people were starting to stay at home and not have much to do — it was a good touch point for us to still share about the mission of Young Life with our community and raise money to help us through the next few months.”
The team could also have natural follow-up calls after the virtual banquet. “It would be easier to have more one-on-one conversations with donors because we just had an event,” Makenzie said, “rather than just calling them up out of the blue.”
Another positive — the team knew they had content that translated rather easily into the virtual realm — so they decided to go for it ... at 11 a.m. From that moment on, it was “go time.”
The team quickly emailed all the night’s guests, Makenzie said, informing them of the change. “We let them know, ‘We’re going virtual tonight through a Zoom call — come with us!’ We then gave them instructions on how to use Zoom.”
At 4 p.m. the “up front” part of the banquet team, consisting of an adult panel, a kid panel, speakers and musicians, jumped online for a practice call to run through the event. They worked through factors like technology, the proper distance to sit from their web cams, how to run promo videos, what it means to be on and off camera, and many other details until they felt fairly comfortable with the results. We have liftoff ...
At 7:30 p.m., guests began “checking in” and for the next 40 minutes experienced the humor, energy, inspiration and excellence found at a more traditional banquet. Sitting in the comfort of their own homes, the guests heard from adults and kids about the need for Young Life in today’s world.
One of the highlights, Lauren said, came when the kids shared. “The panel was so cool because the kids were calling in from their own houses. At that moment you’re getting to see them in their environment — at their kitchen table or in their bedroom, rather than up on a stage.
“It really brought home that this is a real kid, telling their real story with whatever posters are behind them. That part worked so beautifully in this format and provided a level of intimacy.”
When it was all said and done, this was no virtual success — it was the real thing! What had appeared potentially impossible at the start of the day, pulling off an online banquet, not only “happened,” but was a tremendous victory.
“According to the number count at the peak of the banquet,” Makenzie reported, “80% of people who were registered to attend in person watched the virtual event.”
If pressed, would they do it again?
“It was definitely worth our time to do the virtual event,” Makenzie said. “I’m thankful we had the opportunity to tell people about the mission and get kids in front of them.”
So the next time you’re tempted to scrub the mission, you might want to embrace the world of technology. You just might end up over the moon.
What do Steve Romnes, Stevie Wonder, the apostle Paul and Jesus all have in common?
They all have the same powerful prescription for what is ailing our society in the midst of racial injustice, hatred and misunderstanding (on top of a global pandemic that has taken over half a million lives as of this writing).
OK, I am quite positive everyone knows these last two men, and likely most of you have heard of, if not enthusiastically listened to, Stevie Wonder. So who is Steve Romnes? Steve is a husband, father, small business owner, amateur boxer and, very importantly, a Young Life leader, donor and all-around partner in our ministry, who lives in Mankato, Minnesota. Steve is the kind of guy you want as your friend, and I am glad he is mine.
Hold on for just a minute before visions of Hallmark cards run through your heads. The kind of LOVE these men are prescribing is the strongest substance in the entire universe, and it’s the only thing that will allow us to overcome the troubles we are facing today.
In addition to all the things I said about Steve Romnes earlier, he has also developed a deep principle he lives by — “Double-Down on Love!” This principle has been hard fought for my boxing friend, as he has faced troubles in his own life, and faces down troubles in all kinds of kids’ lives as their Young Life leader. His number one strategy each time — LOVE. His number two strategy, LOVE. Steve says that’s all he has.
And in his experience, LOVE is always worth doubling-down on regardless of the situation.
What about Stevie Wonder, one of the most acclaimed recording artists over the last 60 years? Back when I was in eighth grade, 1976 to be exact, Stevie released a landmark (and I would dare say prophetic) double album called Songs in the Key of Life. Remember the troubled context of our U.S. society in those years after the civil rights movement, MLK’s assassination, the ending of the Vietnam War, heavy economic issues and political strife?
Stevie’s first song on that 21-song double album was entitled: “Love’s in Need of Love Today”:
Good morn’ or evening, friends.
Here’s your friendly announcer.
I have serious news to pass on
What I’m about to say,
Could mean the world’s disaster,
Could change your joy and laughter
To tears and pain.
It’s that love’s in need
Of love today.
Send yours in right away.
Hate’s goin’ round,
Breaking many hearts.
Stop it please,
Before it’s gone too far.”
© 1976 JOBETE MUSIC CO., INC and BLACK BULL MUSIC
I would highly recommend you listen to this song in its entirety, and if you get hooked, then listen to the double album. It’s truly amazing, and amazingly relevant.
Almost 2,000 years before Stevie Wonder wrote his powerful song about LOVE in the midst of profound trouble, the apostle Paul wrote his own poem about LOVE. We all know it well from 1 Corinthians 13. To mix it up a little, I will share verses 3-7 in The Message version:
If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr,
but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere.
So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do,
I’m bankrupt without love.
Love never gives up.
Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.
Love doesn’t strut, Doesn’t have a swelled head,
Doesn’t force itself on others, Isn’t always ‘me first,’
Doesn’t fly off the handle,
Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others,
Doesn’t revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Puts up with anything, Trusts God always,
Always looks for the best, Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end.”
The LOVE Paul is writing about is strong and persistent in the face of challenge. And, it’s not weak nor passive. It’s tough, it’s active and it’s what we need today.
Of course, Paul got his example of LOVE from the God he knew and served, especially his and our Messiah, Jesus.
When asked to name the most important commandment of all, Jesus answered:
The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:29-31, ESV).
Of course, Jesus’ LOVE for us moved Him to become one of us, suffer in countless and unimaginable ways on our behalf, and then die a cruel and tortuous death on a cross — all because of LOVE.
Inside of God’s LOVE, we can see and know all of His other attributes — among them, His justice, mercy, grace, patience, kindness and even righteous anger.
So how are we doing? How would we score our LOVE these days?
Would we be willing, with Steve Romnes, to make “Double-Down on Love” our strategy in all of our relationships?
Would we join Stevie Wonder’s prophetic lament and sing with our very lives that “Love’s in need of Love today/Don’t delay, send yours in right away”?
Would we with the apostle Paul apply a God-given love that “cares more for others than self; takes pleasure in the flowering of the truth; trusts God always, and always looks for the best”?
Storey Thompsen, Young Life Military/Club Beyond community director at Fort Knox in Kentucky, was several hours away from base when she heard schools were closing due to the coronavirus. Having left the base that week to attend her mother’s funeral, Storey returned on a Saturday afternoon and began making adjustments; she let her leaders know they would be running online small groups by the very next day and online club that Tuesday. That week, the Fort Knox team kicked off a Saint Patrick’s Day green-themed virtual club.
Storey attributes her leaders’ flexibility to their deep care of her and kids. “When my mother died, my supervisor remotely helped my leaders plan and run club while I went home to be with my family. That time away gave my leaders real ownership and they were willing and excited to jump into doing ministry online. ” After the success of a recent banquet, Storey saw the importance of keeping the momentum going with adults and kids in the community. But more than momentum, it was the consistency of having ministry. “We talk a lot about the stress of inconsistency in military teens’ lives. Keeping consistency for them, especially during this time, is crucial.”
To this end, Storey keeps the exact same ministry schedule as she had before the virus, while adding some new wrinkles to remain in touch with kids and leaders.
One bit of continuity from the in-person clubs to virtual clubs is the weekly raffle, which has proven to be a big hit. Instead of handing out the prizes like she would at a typical club, Storey delivers the prizes to the doorsteps of the winners and quietly sneaks away, leaving a fun surprise for the kids and a reminder that they’re not alone, nor forgotten! She’s now thinking ahead and brainstorming on what prizes would be easy to mail, if Fort Knox closes and she’s unable to get to kids who live off base.
One new approach Storey suggested to her leaders and committee was a weekly Zoom call on Thursday nights, not for ministry updates, but for personal check-in and prayer. After only a few times, Storey has seen the encouragement — and again the ownership — overflowing into the broader team. Adults and leaders are texting each other, checking in during unscheduled times and seeing themselves as ministers.
Even on a Zoom Call
As the team continues ministering through technology in the midst of uncertainty and fear, there are so many encouraging kid stories unfolding:
Painting parties, “Lunch Bunch,” movie nights and one-on-one conversations have now all gone virtual. Storey recently heard a senior staff person say, “You can take away club, small group and camps, and it would still be Young Life; but if you take contact work, relationships, incarnation or the gospel out, then we cease to be Young Life.”
Storey is now using the virtual world to minister to military teens through relationships, conversations, Bible studies and more, all reinforcing the truth that Jesus is present — even on a Zoom call.
In early 2020, Samaritan’s Purse (SP) deployed Emergency Field Hospitals to both New York City and Italy to provide critical care for people seriously ill with COVID-19. A respiratory care unit, operating in partnership with the Mount Sinai Health System, treated 190 coronavirus patients at the Central Park site from April 1 to May 5. According to the SP website, “More than 240 relief specialists served at various times on the Disaster Assistance Response Team there.”
Among them was Lynn (Lipp) McBride, a physician assistant and Young Life alumna.
Lynn grew up in Oakton, Virginia, with her parents and two sisters. She attended Oakton High School from 1986 to 1990, where she was introduced to Young Life, led by Area Director Rick Beckwith. According to Lynn, “My twin sister, Ann, and I were involved with everything Young Life had to offer: club, camp and Campaigners; however, Campaigners was truly integral to growing us up in our faith.” During those four years, Lynn and Ann not only attended Campaigners, they led Campaigners and brought friends from school to club, various weekend camps and summer camp at Young Life’s Lake Champion in New York. “Young Life gave us a vehicle to share our faith with everyone from classmates to teammates. This also challenged us to grow as servants and leaders,” says Lynn.
Following high school, Lynn headed to the University of Virginia. Though she didn’t serve as a volunteer leader, she was surrounded by friends who did and was able to serve on summer staff at Saranac Village (a Young Life camp in New York) in 1994. Lynn says, “If Young Life hadn’t been there to stand in the gap … who knows? The Young Life people I knew demonstrated authenticity as believers and translated that into lifestyle. They allowed me to grow in leadership and be a leader. These were formative years.”
After finishing her undergrad work at Virginia, Lynn joined a medical mission to Honduras. During this time a doctor took her under his wing, inviting her to shadow him in the office upon their return to the U.S. Through this experience, she discovered the physician assistant role and pursued her credentials through Emory University.
Fast-forward to 2010; Lynn was working in orthopedic surgery in Virginia when a major earthquake hit Haiti. Lynn and a friend said “yes” to joining the SP relief effort. “We served at a mobile medical clinic in Port-au-Prince,” said Lynn, “and I found it was a perfect fit. Emergency medicine is my specialty and being Christ’s ambassador in a crisis such as this, well, there is nothing quite like it!”
This first experience launched Lynn on a decade-long adventure that’s included five additional deployments with SP. The first two included traveling back to Haiti in the midst of a cholera outbreak and being part of the first emergency field hospital deployment following a major earthquake in Ecuador. The final three deployments entailed:
Serving in Mosul, Iraq.
“This deployment was more intense than anything I had yet experienced,” said Lynn. “There were six-foot blast walls around the entire perimeter of our hospital and the sound of machine gun and mortar fire could be heard continuously.” Lynn and her co-workers cared for over 4,000 patients and conducted more than 1,700 surgeries on Iraqi soldiers and civilians, including men, women and children. When asked if this fourth deployment was frightening, Lynn responded with a resounding, “Yes! The challenge is to trust God in spite of the fear. Then there is the opportunity to experience the many blessings of being Jesus’ hands and feet to people in need.” Interestingly, Lynn’s next deployment would further challenge her very human propensity to shrink, rather than move forward in spite of fear.
Joining SP’s relief effort in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in the midst of the Ebola epidemic.
“For the first time, I was dealing with going to the frontlines of a deadly infectious disease outbreak. I had to seriously consider what I believed about God, whether I would operate out of fear or faith.” Ultimately, Lynn experienced no sickness personally, and took part in God’s healing provision in the DRC for a month. Little did she know how this experience would build upon her last and prepare her for her sixth deployment; amazingly, only miles from her home.
Providing critical care for people seriously ill with COVID-19.
Lynn wondered if Americans would be willing to accept their medical treatment in a tent hospital in Central Park. What Lynn remembered from her experience with Young Life so long ago, presented itself once again in Central Park. SP healthcare personnel loved their patients relationally and created community. “We offered them hope and healing and faith. Patients wanted to stay. They didn’t want to transfer or leave. Additionally, they were very receptive to hearing the gospel. They asked us questions about our faith and asked us to pray for them,” Lynn said. “People were very sick and it was difficult losing some patients to the disease. At the same time, many people were healed and some came to know Christ.”
Lynn is quick to point out she is “not the most skilled or qualified, but I have been willing and God honors that.” She goes on to say, “I am one of the many who count it a blessing and privilege to serve, and this in spite of myself! Every time I’ve been asked to go, I’ve grappled with fear and trust; we can be so good at self-preservation that we miss our calling.”
So, Young Life, never underestimate the ripple effects of your investment in a kid’s life. Those opportunities to serve, lead and grow might just translate into world-changing action down the road. In the words of Lynn, “What you’re doing is hard work and you never know how you’re going to influence someone and the impact they will have. All my Young Life leaders did that for me; I encourage you to press in and press on!”
"Come to the table" takes on a whole greater meaning for customers at Georgia Kitchens, Atlanta’s premier designer kitchen store. Joe Laboon, the store’s founder/owner and also a supporter of Young Life’s Developing Global Leaders (DGL) program, serves up far more than an elegant showroom of fine custom appliances and kitchen designs. Joe wants every customer to understand that beyond remodeling their kitchen, their purchase is also an investment in the lives of young people, specifically Young Life leaders in some of the poorest countries of the world. Joe is so passionate about it, he has dedicated an entire section of his showroom to tell the DGL story and introduce his customers to the eight students he currently sponsors in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
A longtime proponent of Young Life and volunteer when his kids were in high school, Joe first learned about Young Life from Chuck and Julie Scott, veteran staff members deeply connected to Haiti. Chuck’s father, Charlie (Young Life employee #24), was invited by Young Life Founder Jim Rayburn to start ministry in Jacksonville, Florida, and later directed ministry throughout the Southeastern Region. In 1980, Charlie and his wife, Mary, visited Haiti where they met a local pastor who asked them to help him start a school. It was their friendship with Pastor Tito and his son, Chedrick, that sowed valuable seeds for Young Life to take root and flourish in Haiti several years later.
In a country where less than 1% of young adults attend college, DGL offers access to a future most never imagine possible. Since the inception of DGL in 2009, Haiti has graduated 62 students from the program. After graduation, some have continued on Young Life staff, some have gone to seminary and others have entered professions including teaching, law enforcement, business and architecture. Young Life officially began in Haiti over 20 years ago with a team of three leaders. But today, thanks in part to Young Life’s DGL program, Haiti has 20 national staff and over 300 volunteers. Among those many volunteers are 19 current DGL students who are balancing ministry and academics, making an impact in their local communities while earning their college degree.
It was meeting these dynamic leaders on a vision trip to Haiti with Chuck Scott that inspired Joe to re-engage with Young Life, specifically with DGL. “I had seen pictures of Haiti, but seeing it firsthand was a shock,” Joe admitted. “Seeing what these kids are doing, their enthusiasm and drive, that really got me thinking.” Joe reflected back on his own story marked by educational privilege. “When I graduated from high school, it was just a given that I would go to college; my family could afford it and honestly, I kind of took that for granted.” So, when presented with the opportunity to open doors of education for those who otherwise couldn’t even dream of it, Joe sponsored not just one DGL student, but eight. When his first sponsored student graduated in 2019, he added another student, this time from the Dominican Republic, another country where DGL has produced outstanding graduates who are making an impact in Young Life and their local communities.
Back home in Buford, Georgia, Joe has expanded his Georgia Kitchens showroom and included DGL in the grand design, integrating it into the entire shopping experience. The display is tastefully designed covering both sides of a passageway leading to the outdoor living section of the showroom. Customers are treated to 41 & Change coffee (that also supports a DGL student) as they shop. Every staff member is trained and equipped to share the DGL story and answer questions about getting involved. “This is a team effort,” Joe said, “we’re all playing a part in a bigger story.”
For Joe, helping customers create beautiful kitchens is his business, but inspiring them to think beyond their kitchens and sponsor DGL students is something he considers the most valuable thing he offers. “I want my customers to have the opportunity to sponsor a student like I do. But I also want other business owners to see our DGL wall and do something like it in their waiting room, office building or showroom,” he said. “There are layers of potential here,” he continued, “I have ideas, but the truth is, God is always way out ahead of me.”
Developing Global Leaders at a Glance
Since its inception in 2009, DGL has 500+ graduates and 400+ current students in 60 countries throughout Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, Asia/Pacific, Former Soviet Union and Europe.
Most students in the DGL program are the first in their family to attend college.
Students are matched with sponsors who support them through prayer, encouragement and finances. Full sponsorship is $275/month for four years but you can sponsor a student at any level.
Nearly one-half of DGL participants are women — a compelling opportunity for women in developing countries where they are often denied access to education.
DGL students have recruited and trained over 10,000 volunteers who have reached approximately 630,000 kids worldwide.
After graduation, these leaders embark on professional careers in a wide variety of fields including medicine, law, education, engineering, finance, business and social work.
33% of DGL graduates continue with Young Life as full-time staff members, some recently advancing to senior level leadership roles.
95% stay in country and impact their local communities.
70%+ stay involved in Young Life as volunteers and/or financial supporters.
Alex Martinez and her team entered Sandy Springs Middle School to start a new WyldLife club with plenty of enthusiasm and calling, but it didn’t take long for the college-aged leaders to realize there was a significant segment of the school population that they were struggling to reach. Thankfully, they didn’t stop after identifying the problem, and they didn’t try to fix it on their own.
The story of how a group of Georgia Tech students helped create a diverse club that reached a broad range of Sandy Springs students is a testament to the power of community partnerships and ministry innovation. It’s a reminder that no one organization has cornered the market on reaching lost kids, that sometimes two groups with the same vision can be better together.
Two years ago, WyldLife clubs at Sandy Springs, and at other middle schools in Northwest Atlanta, were comprised primarily of white students from upper-middle-class backgrounds. Those students were eager to attend events, and their parents were quick to step in whenever needed. But as the leaders took a closer look at Sandy Springs they noticed a sizable population of Latino kids, kids who had never embraced WyldLife as something that could be available to them.
As Northwest Atlanta Area Director Alan Corder considered strategies to help them make a bigger WyldLife tent at Sandy Springs, he remembered that he had recently been connected with Felix Lora, the executive director of Sandy Springs Mission. Felix has worked with the Christian after-school program for underprivileged children in the area for nearly 20 years, and he had developed relationships with many of the students at the middle school. Felix had known about Young Life’s mission and tried to connect for years; after meeting Alex and the Sandy Springs WyldLife team, he was convinced joining forces would have tremendous potential for the Kingdom.
“We talked about what we’re doing, the kind of kids we’re hanging out with,” Alan said of his initial conversation with Felix. He had an idea of Young Life and WyldLife, and he wanted some sort of connection. He had all these kids and he wanted them to know the Lord, but he didn’t necessarily have the resources and the programs to do it.”
“I said, ‘Hey, we’ve got the kids,’” Felix said. “The problem is not the kids, we just have a hard time spiritually connecting the kids to college students who have the passion to see these kids come to Christ and walk with Christ. That was an easy fit.”
Felix invited the WyldLife team to start coming to the afternoon tutoring program run by “Mission,” as Sandy Springs Mission is known, and soon they knew kids by name and jumped at the chance to run a WyldLife club meeting every other week at Mission’s headquarters. For a while they ran two different clubs — a traditional one for the suburban kids who were already part of WyldLife, and a group on alternating weeks for the kids they met at Mission. “We bring a little bit of a different vibe to their tutoring,” Alex said. “Some of them would literally walk up to us and say, ‘Who are you?’”
The friendships they made during those afternoons allowed the leaders to invite those Sandy Springs kids to summer camp at Southwind in the summer of 2018. Alex and several of the other leaders were nervous about taking kids from such different backgrounds to camp, but when the team looks back they see that trip as the most significant pivot point in the growth of their club. “I was convinced that they weren’t going to be a fan of anything we did,” Alex said. “I thought they were not going to like me, and talk about me behind my back in a language I didn’t understand. But it was so much fun. It was one of my favorite camp experiences ever, because it was such a different task. They were surprisingly so open to the gospel. They’re so open to trust you when you show them that you genuinely care about them.”
After that camp trip, Alex and her team felt walls crumble between them and the Sandy Springs students who had previously seemed marginalized. Suddenly they had as much ownership in WyldLife as the kids who had been coming for a while, and soon the leaders made the transition from two separate biweekly clubs to one combined meeting. And the most encouraging aspect of the leaders’ journey, Alex said, is the way these college students have gone from nervously showing up at Mission to seeking out opportunities to spend time with the Latino kids from Sandy Springs Middle — both at the tutoring center and in the community.
Georgia Tech is an extremely rigorous university known for its engineering program, and the conventional wisdom among Atlanta Young Life staff has always categorized it as a difficult place to find committed leaders. But Alex, now on student staff in northwest Atlanta, and her fellow leaders have defied that stereotype by doggedly pursuing other kids even when academic obligations are pressing. Many of their WyldLife friends play in a recreational soccer league on Saturday mornings, and even though the fields are on the other side of Atlanta and the games start at 7 a.m., it never fails to be rewarding when they get up and make the trip.
“Once we really got to know these Mission kids, they will tell you, ‘I really need to hang out with you today,’” Alex said. “They will tell you everything that’s on their mind. It’s so hard to miss things, because they really, really care that you’re there.”
With 80 middle school kids in his center every school day, Felix is always looking for volunteers, but over the years he has noticed that many of the well-meaning people who come to help aren’t approaching their relationships with the kids from a faith perspective. The WyldLife volunteers are young and the middle schoolers are drawn to them, he said, but more importantly they are believers who are approaching the kids with a genuine desire to see them know Christ. And Felix knows that when they have significant experiences with WyldLife, chances are better that they will stay connected into high school with Young Life, giving them more exposure to the gospel.
“For us, the challenge is connecting the kid with believers, to people who have a heart and a passion to work with youth,” Felix said. “WyldLife provides that for us. That’s how we get the most help from WyldLife; their passion and their whole vision is getting kids to know Christ and to walk with Christ.”
The coronavirus pandemic is just the latest crisis to provide the mission with an opportunity to adapt, innovate and grow. Whether the challenge has been manmade or natural, Young Life has always sought to operate out of a mentality of dependence upon the Lord’s provision and protection.
A mere 52 days after Young Life was incorporated — October 16, 1941 — came the “date which will live in infamy.” The attack on Pearl Harbor caught the U.S. unaware and thrust the nation into World War II. The mission, still in its infancy, looked for ways to connect with young people, both at home and abroad. One of those kids was Bob Mitchell, who would one day become Young Life’s third president. Bob, being too young to enlist, remembered how the war impacted the Dallas club he attended.
“You could see the influence of the Second World War on a lot of the songs we sang. We sang songs like, ‘What though wars may come / with marching feet and beat of the drum / for I have Christ in my heart’—songs inspired by the war. All these songs had a national as well as a Christian overtone to them—that was the atmosphere. It was a very different time and a lot of the kids in that club were drafted and didn't make it. They didn't come back.”
Back home, the Young Life work faced other unique challenges. Churches were suspicious of this upstart group who came into town and without much fanfare began working with the high school crowd. In West Texas, Wally Howard bore the brunt of this interrogation. “Where I was, there was a lot of suspicion about Young Life. Who are you? On what authority are you here? Who sent you? They thought we were Nazis!” Howard experienced the first taste of what the rest of the mission would soon discover: it was imperative staff build relationships with the church in order to educate, define, and explain Young Life’s calling and place in the kingdom.
As the Great Depression hung over the early days in Gainesville, World War II cast its own shadow through the first four years of the mission’s work. Many of the men who would have served as staff were fighting across the world. As the allies helped bring about V-E Day in May and then V-J Day in August, countries around the world celebrated the return of their finest men and women. Meanwhile, the mission welcomed many veterans like Van Nall (a former club kid) and Bill Starr (who one day would become the mission’s second president) on to Young Life staff.
(From Made for This: The Young Life Story, page 10)
The surprise attacks on Pearl Harbor were echoed some six decades later with the 9/11 attacks. Here again, the mission was reminded of the importance of being ready …
Every American remembers where they were on the morning of September 11, 2001. The terrorist atrocities carried out in New York, Washington, D.C., and rural Pennsylvania brought unspeakable horror and pain to a speechless nation and changed the course of history.
Like any traumatic event, the tragedy caused a stunned world to ask, “Why?” As hard as it was for adults to try and make sense of the senseless, it was even more challenging for kids. They asked the age old questions so many were wondering: “Why would God allow this? Where is He? Why did these innocent people have to die?”
Those living near the attacks, especially those who had lost loved ones, were particularly in need of attention. Like the leaders who had responded to tragedies throughout the previous decades, Young Life staff and volunteers quickly mobilized to care for any and all the Lord would bring their way.
In the Times Square/Hell’s Kitchen area of New York City, leaders began meeting with kids the day of the attacks in a space at a local church. Originally designated to be the area’s club room, the space quickly became a disaster relief area for Ground Zero workers. The next few days were filled with staff and volunteers continuing to do what they do best—being present in the lives of kids.
Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., leaders also reached out to kids in the aftermath of the attack on the Pentagon. Sam Branham, area director for Central Fairfax, Virginia, wrote in a newsletter that fall:
“On Wednesday, September 12, 50 or so high school students piled into my family room, sat with solemn stares and just wanted to talk about what had happened the day before. I was so impressed with the maturity of these teenagers. When they boiled everything down and reached a final conclusion, it was that people need to know God. They saw Jesus as really the only solution to any of the world’s problems.
In an effort to help kids in New York City and the children of those who died in the attacks, the mission established two funds. The September 11th Camp Scholarship Fund provided camperships to those who lost parents in the attacks, while the Young Life Manhattan Project helped fund new ministry sites in New York City: Times Square/Hell’s Kitchen, Harlem, Union Square, Gramercy Park, and the Upper West Side.
Less than a month after the attacks, on October 7, 2001, the War in Afghanistan began. The mission rolled up its sleeves to once again care for those affected by war. Young Life staff and volunteers continued investing in relationships with former high school kids entering the conflict, while MCYM (Military Community Youth Ministries) staff reached out to kids who were military dependents. This worldwide ministry, which had come to mean so much to so many in the military community, continued to faithfully serve kids both stateside and abroad, as their parents served the nation.
(From Made for This: The Young Life Story, pp. 145-146)
Alongside these two accounts could go numerous examples of Young Life responding in traumatic times, like Hurricane Katrina (and other similar natural disasters), the Ebola crisis in West Africa, and on and on.
The coronavirus pandemic is perhaps the most unique challenge any of us have ever lived through. Staying at home is the correct response, of course, but our hearts long to be with the kids we’re reaching.
So we’re continuing the tradition, but in a nontraditional way. Simply speaking, we’re now going to kids — “from a distance.” Whether it be virtually through modern technology like Zoom meetings, FaceTime and texts, or the good old-fashioned methods of phone calls and handwritten notes, the mission continues to “do Young Life” with every relational means at our ready.
Kids are still searching for meaning and purpose, and we’re still offering them ways to find The Way. Virtual clubs, Campaigners gatherings and one-on-one conversations are the methods of the day, and until the world is given the “all clear” signal, we will make the best of it.
Throughout our 78-plus years of ministry we continue to believe that, whether in the normal day-to-day or in uncertain times like these, Young Life truly is “made for this.”
Barry Asmus enjoyed a 35-year career speaking around the world on his topic of expertise: economics and the free market, and was named “one of the five most requested speakers in the United States” by USA Today. He was also the author of nine books and winner of numerous awards, including being twice voted the Outstanding Professor of the Year.
For the man who “wanted to be remembered for leading others to Christ,” however, perhaps one of his most personally gratifying accomplishments was his more-than-four-decade involvement with Young Life. Starting in the late ’60s, Barry alongside his wife, Mandy, ministered as a volunteer leader, faithful donor, committee member and national trustee.
In a 1990 article in Relationships magazine, Barry shared how Mandy introduced him to the mission:
“ … as we made our way to my first Young Life club, it was like a homecoming for Mandy. Ten years earlier she had committed her life to Christ in Young Life, and now she was eager to introduce me to the group.
“That evening in 1967 began a lasting relationship with the mission. I got involved in Young Life clubs.
“I can still remember my first attempt to give a short talk to a group of kids. I was unbelievably frightened. All my training as an educator hadn’t prepared me for teenagers who could see right through me. They would whisper, point, laugh, giggle. On the outside I smiled, but on the inside I didn’t fare as well.
As I look back, I see that three guys who hassled me the most in club went on to work in Christian ministries. Thank goodness, it is the message and not the messenger that changes lives.”
In 1971, Barry and Mandy linked arms with two other couples and started Young Life in Boise, Idaho; soon they also pioneered ministry in Moscow, Idaho. They led the clubs there until 1975, when Young Life staff were hired. After moving to Phoenix in 1983 for Barry’s new role as an economist and senior fellow for the National Center for Policy Analysis, the couple joined the local Scottsdale committee.
In 1988, Barry became a member of the [Young Life] Board of Trustees, where he served during the presidency of Doug Burleigh. “We just count it a privilege to be in the mission and it’s a thrill to be on the board,” Barry said. “We have loved every year of our involvement in Young Life!”
Barry concluded the aforementioned Relationships article by describing his passion for the good news of the gospel.
“The message of hope and forgiveness in Jesus Christ is so attractive, perfectly powerful and timelessly true that neither the brash nor the subdued, the happy nor the hurting can ignore it.”
Barry is survived by his wife of 57 years, Mandy, his son, Andy, and daughter, Angela, and their families.
Fred Davis, a legendary civic leader and businessman in Memphis, Tennessee, has graduated to glory. In addition to being an important pioneer within the civil rights movement, he was also a significant figure in Young Life’s history and a great advocate of the mission.
Fred will forever be known as one of the many leaders who walked alongside Martin Luther King Jr. during the Memphis sanitation strike of 1968. He was also sitting on stage the evening of April 3, 1968, when Dr. King delivered his momentous “Mountaintop Speech” the night before his assassination.
Fred’s many accomplishments are a tribute to this trailblazer’s love and service to the Lord and the people of Memphis. He was the founder of Fred L. Davis Insurance, one of the Mid-South’s first black-owned insurance companies. In 1967, he became one of the first three minority members elected to the Memphis City Council, where he served for 12 years. During this time, he and his wife, Ella, fought for the desegregation of schools within the city, around the same time the urban Young Life work was beginning in the city.
A 1995 Relationships article details Fred’s introduction to Young Life:
“In the mid-1970s, Fred was asked to help Larry Lloyd, a young white man who wanted to start a Young Life club in Fred’s home community of Orange Mound.
“Fred had never heard of Young Life, but he befriended Larry, explaining to him the nuances and uniqueness of the black community. Out of their partnership grew Memphis Urban Young Life.”
In 1984, he was one of the first two black individuals appointed to Young Life’s Board of Trustees, where he served two terms (1984-1989; 1990-1996).
“Fred also served on the Urban Committee during his time with the board,” Verley Sangster, former vice president of U.S. Field Ministries, wrote in 1994. “His contribution to Young Life Urban has been absolutely invaluable.”
Fred remained close with the board until the end of his life, President Newt Crenshaw said. “It was my distinct privilege to get to know Fred over the past few years as we invited him to two of our board meetings as a Trustee Emeritus. I also made a visit to Memphis where Fred gave me an insider’s history lesson at the Peabody Hotel on the civil rights movement in Memphis and his role in the early days and in the years to come.
“Fred’s affable nature and kindheartedness were evident from our first meeting. He was pleased to have had a voice in our mission on the important topic of ministering to all kinds of kids — regardless of race, ethnicity or economic background. His voice and his views are still important for us today. We in Young Life will join many in missing our dear friend.”
Former Governor of Tennessee and current Young Life Board Chair Bill Haslam echoed these sentiments about his fellow brother from the Volunteer State. “While Fred and I did not get to serve on the board at the same time, I valued his friendship and everything he contributed to Memphis and Young Life. His integrity and compassion were well known throughout Memphis, and I was one of many who benefited from his wisdom.”
In an interview in 1987, Fred was quick to sing the praises of the ministry in his hometown and around the country. “The field staff in Memphis are doing an incredible job. If what is happening here is an example of what is going on in the mission, then it bodes well for our future.
“I have learned [by being closely involved with Young Life] that ministry can be conducted by non-ordained people who are fitted and trained and sent out to reach kids in their own setting. This is the singular strength of Young Life.
“I hope that we will continue to sail into uncharted waters — especially the city. And that we’ll persevere in joint-venturing ministry with the major black denominations. This kind of venturing offers us a whole new frontier.”
Fred Davis is survived by his wife, Ella, and their three children, Michael, Marvin and Sheila.
The mission is indebted to Bruce Sundberg, who along with wife, Beth, profoundly influenced Young Life’s growth around the globe during his 29 years of leading.
From 1952 to 1961, Bruce served as a volunteer leader while at Hamline University and Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota; he soon came on staff, and for his first 11 years led in Illinois and Missouri. By 1972, he was ready to turn his sights to Asia.
What follows is the account of how Bruce helped establish the work in two countries:
Surely the Lord must have smiled upon the bewildering events — at least from a human perspective — which led to Young Life’s presence in South Korea. In 1970, two Korean gentlemen, Mr. Sun and Mr. Chung, traveled to the United States for ministry training. Accompanied by Mr. Kim Jong Dal, the group arrived speaking very little English.
Bruce Sundberg, on Young Life staff in St. Louis, met the men and because of the poor communication, assumed all three were Christians. He later discovered, in fact, that Mr. Kim was an anti-Christian, anti-American Buddhist and a high official in the South Korean government. Believing a trip to the United States would empower an even greater career in politics — his ultimate goal was to become president of South Korea — he came simply to gratify these aspirations.
Something funny happened on the way to his political dreams, however. Drawn in by the hospitality of Bruce and his wife, Beth, Mr. Kim gave his life to Christ. In 1971, Kim Jong Dal returned to Seoul, not as a rising Buddhist politician, but as a Christian missionary, starting Young Life for the teenagers in his homeland.
After their indirect influence on the work in Korea, the Sundbergs left the states in 1972 to make a direct impression on the Philippines and other parts of Asia. The country had begun Young Life seven years earlier, and the Sundbergs were excited about the prospect of strengthening the country’s leaders, like Eli Yasi, while expanding the work into Manila.
By 1975, Sundberg was meeting regularly with the president of the Philippine Senate. The two formed a breakfast group with about fifteen of the country’s leaders, which included Supreme Court justices, senators and business executives.
“All that time I never mentioned anything about Young Life as I had a sense I was not to. However, I was praying all along about the kids of the Philippines.”
One day, a senator’s aide handed Sundberg a copy of the recent Saturday Evening Post article on Young Life. The senator (who had no knowledge of Young Life, much less Sundberg’s involvement in it) wanted to hear Sundberg’s thoughts on the article and how to reach kids in the Philippines!
“So the next morning, after the meal,” Sundberg said, “the senator turned to me in the presence of all those leaders, and asked, ‘Bruce, please share with us about the article on Young Life and your thoughts about reaching out to the youth of the Philippines.’ Incredible!”
I shared with the Fellowship the Young Life article, including a few things, of course, that were not in the article. There was a very animated discussion that day and a common consensus reached by the end of the meeting that they wanted a Young Life-type outreach in their country. Then they turned to me and asked if I would implement it. In my fondest dreams and hopes that was what I had prayed would happen, because as soon as they did that I knew that it was their work; it was no longer mine.”
Over time, Sundberg connected with Cardinal Jaime Sin, the Archbishop of Manila and spiritual leader of the country’s thirty-eight million Roman Catholics, who gave the work his blessing. Soon the work there, which was called “Bigkis” — the Filipino word meaning “bind together,” — was under way.
(From Made for This: The Young Life Story, pp. 83-85)
In 1980, after eight years in Manila, Bruce left Young Life staff; two years later the mission asked Beth to head up Young Life’s international student exchange program, Amicus, which she faithfully oversaw for the next 18 years. Upon leaving staff, Bruce joined The Fellowship in Washington, D.C., and focused on ministry in Cambodia and Liberia.
Bruce is survived by his wife, Beth, his daughter, Ashley, and six grandchildren.
Kazakhstan is the world’s ninth largest country, but with a small population of 18 million people. Over 70% of the population consider themselves Muslim and radical Islam has an influence from surrounding countries.
Ministry in Central Asia began in 1998, with one club in Almaty; we now have ministries in nine big cities in Kazakhstan and send our leaders as missionaries to other Central Asia countries. The ministry is diverse — we serve all ages, kids with special needs, kids with cancer and orphanage kids.
In most places around the world, Young Life begins in high schools, junior highs or at universities with able-bodied students, but in Kazakhstan, the government and individual families are seeking assistance in services and care for kids with special needs — an open door to communities we’d otherwise never be allowed to enter. Seen as “experts” in their work, Young Life Capernaum leaders are often asked to train others. This outreach takes Jesus into orphanages, homes, schools and communities. As staff and leaders recruit more able-bodied leaders to work with Capernaum, many of these new volunteer leaders branch off and begin able-bodied Young Life. In other words, Capernaum is oftentimes the launch pad for beginning able-bodied Young Life in this part of the world!
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