For All Ages

When Bill Dinsmore climbed on the bus filled with high schoolers headed to Castaway Club for camp last summer, he immediately felt out of place.

Looking around at the faces that were decades younger than him, he wondered what he would have to offer. He looked at Midland, Mich., Area Director Brad Sytsma - who had persuaded Bill to come to camp as a leader - and figured the guys in his cabin would much rather hang out with Brad. He was younger. Wouldn’t he be more fun for them?

"I was basically doing this because Brad needed help," Bill remembers. "I was geared up for total rejection."

The first evening in his cabin, Bill lay in his bunk and told God he would do whatever God needed him to do.

By midweek, Bill had started to get to know his new high school friends better. Cabin times - when leaders and campers ask questions about and discuss the message they heard at club - were fruitful. Three of the young men started relationships with God.

The week at camp taught Bill a lesson he continues to learn today as a volunteer Young Life leader: Age is relative when it comes to ministry. Bill and four other volunteer leaders in Midland are learning that consistency in loving kids and building relationships with them is what counts. Bill helps lead club at Dow High School with Ken and Mary Jane Van Der Wende, as well as part-time staff member Nancy Gorton.

John Walter is a leader at Midland High School. And just like with Bill, an experience at camp opened John’s heart to ministering to teenagers. He attended Castaway in the summer of 2000 as an adult guest. John prayed for a camper whom he’d never met. The young man accepted Christ later in the week, and John was able to meet with him before camp ended.

John wanted to see kids’ lives change in his hometown. Last summer he had his first experience at camp as a leader. John admits he was hesitant initially about spending a week with teenagers. But during cabin times John noticed how the young men opened up. As the week progressed, they shared more.

"Cabin times and one-on-one time break down a lot of barriers," he said. "I know sometimes they just need to share things about what’s going on in their lives. The best part is when they share how they’re hurting. … In order to share God’s story or your story, you have to hear their story."

At Midland High School John is known by students as "J-Dub." He is at school several times a week for lunch or sporting events. John said he doesn’t worry so much about what they think of him.

"Being 59, I don’t have to be cool," he said. "The kids tease me about not being cool and not knowing the current songs - every time they get in my car they reprogram my radio."

John and the other leaders say what matters more than knowing the latest hit song is showing kids they are reliable and, equally important, that adults listen.

"If you train [adult leaders] well enough, age won’t be an issue," Brad said. "All of our leaders have been trained to listen well. Adults are good listeners. Kids want to be with adults. [Kids] are not as discriminatory as people think."

Brad said adult leaders can also reach out to all different kinds of teenagers. John, for example, has formed a few friendships with kids with disabilities.

"They may not reach the kids the younger leaders would reach, but they reach kids who need Christ," Brad said. "Diversity in leadership breeds diversity in who comes to club."

But getting kids to come to club and building relationships with them does take a lot of time, Ken admits. Initial conversations can be difficult - and sometimes nerve-wracking - but teens are not so hard to get to know.

"I actually find the kids to be easier than adults." Ken said. "Their walls are easier to take down. They are more open to talk about meaningful things in life."

Nancy and Mary Jane know their high school friends are also excited for attention, even in simple ways. Before most of her trips to lunch at Dow High School, Nancy arms herself with packages of LifeSavers candy to hand out. Not only does it help to start conversations when she meets someone new, but it also helps students remember who she is. Even better, some start to expect Nancy at lunch. Conversations with kids get longer, and friendships start to form.

Nancy and Mary Jane also know that consistency means meeting the needs of their young friends. Since last fall Mary Jane has made dinner every Thursday night for about 12 girls. Afterward, they’ll have a Bible study and then head to club.

"We don’t do anything fancy, just quick meals," Mary Jane said. "They act like they’re in heaven. I don’t know if it’s because their parents work, but they just enjoy dinner so much."

Nancy makes breakfast for another group of girls on Friday mornings. They’ll eat and discuss Scripture or a book they are reading together. "Kids realize that when you get up that early in the morning every week to cook breakfast for them you really care about them," Nancy said.

Adult leaders do have different time constraints than college and single leaders. Brad said he has learned that adult leaders often balance ministry with work and families, but they still want to be involved with kids’ lives.

Bill’s job requires a lot of traveling, making it difficult to be at club every week. So every Friday he meets with a group of guys who were in his cabin at camp.

"They have their ups and downs," Bill said. "We spend a lot of time talking about sin, and I try to help them understand what the Bible says on how to live. I really think they feel they have a safe place to come. They’ve started to bring their friends. It’s been a neat year."

Before you say "no" to being a  Young Life leader: 

    • Remember: God can use you! Anyone who loves Christ and loves kids can build relationships with kids.  
    • Go to camp as an adult guest or a volunteer leader.
    • Join a staff person or volunteer leader in your area as he or does contact work.