Re-“cycling” a “Pioneering” work in the Former Soviet Union

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Young Life’s History in the Former Soviet Union 

Did you know there is a Young Life camp in the Former Soviet Union (FSU)? This camp has been repurposed from a property used for decades as a communist youth training camp. Today, this same property serves to communicate the gospel to youth throughout the FSU.

In the summer of 1990, I spent a few weeks at one of the Pioneer youth camps as a part of a college-aged Young Life exchange program with the USSR. Years earlier, the communist political reformation known as Perestroika had taken root and invited Young Life to move into the world of Soviet youth. Adolescents from the USSR came to U.S. camps, and American teenagers traveled to the USSR. The Communist Party still ruled the country, so participating in any effort to share the gospel involved inherent risks. Those of us who traveled to the USSR or met Soviet youth at U.S. camps quickly realized these wonderful people were “just like us” in so many ways. These friends welcomed the good news; most had never heard about Jesus. 

I was intrigued, excited and a bit overwhelmed to learn of the extraordinary growth Young Life had experienced since early 1989. The fall of Communism left an openness to spirituality, and Young Life responded. The USSR broke up, and nations were allowed to re-form. A complicated era of freedom, cultural rediscovery and new battles over borders and resources would unfold in the decades to follow. Young Life leaders (including staff primarily from the U.S.) were committed to walking alongside these new friends. By 2016, Young Life had a growing presence in 12 of the Former Soviet Union countries. Perhaps most exciting, was the fact that the leadership of Young Life had transitioned to being primarily indigenous. 

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A New Young Life Camp in Armenia and the Impact of Alumni 

In Armenia, Young Life acquired a former Soviet youth camp, and over the course of a few years,
Pioneer camp was unveiled! Young Life Alumni and Friends shared a role in the first season of camping. As the advancement coordinator, I learned about the developing camp at Young Life’s Annual Development Summit, and I was inspired to rally our alumni from our 1990 exchange trip. As we shared the redemptive story of the Pioneer camp, a former Soviet youth camp used to propagate atheism was now being used to share the good news of Jesus Christ — folks wanted to get involved. Interest spread beyond those from the trip 26 years earlier, and several friends decided to get involved. Not everyone had the resources to contribute to several million-dollar-building campaigns, but most could contribute to buying a bike and a helmet. After the funds were 400x200 Article Photo 2 Armenia6.jpg
raised, bikes, helmets and other gear were packed into containers and shipped to Armenia. Local staff were trained in basic mountain bike maintenance, and bikes were assembled and ready for the first week of campers in August of 2017. While mountain biking may have lost popularity at some Young Life camps in the U.S., most kids growing up in Armenia do not own a bicycle. These bikes have provided joy, challenges and an opportunity to build cabin unity for the campers and leaders in Armenia. They have allowed campers the freedom to experience the adventure God created for His children. Mountain bikes are only one small piece of what God is doing at Pioneer camp in Armenia as He lovingly pursues every kid, everywhere. 

This is just one example of alumni stepping up to make an impact that empowers more Young Life leaders and staff to introduce their teenage friends to Christ. If you would like to be involved in Young Life camping in the Former Soviet Union or at any of our camps, please contact me at ganaple@sc.younglife.org

You can also join us on an alumni trip to the FSU in the summer of 2020 to see the ministry firsthand! Information on this trip and all other alumni trips can be found on journeywithalumniandfriends.younglife.org​