Small Towns, Big Impact

God has always chosen to do big miracles with small things. The five loaves and two fish that fed thousands. Or the tiny insects that plagued Pharaoh and helped Moses free the children of Israel. And the 12 disciples who preached a message that changed the world.

In Tonasket, Wash., a town of fewer than 1,000 people that stretches along the eastern bank of the Okanogan River, some kids drive 40 miles for club on Monday nights. More than 300 kids from the area have heard the Gospel at camp since 1980. And the area is run
by volunteers.

Then there’s Owatonna, Minn., where Chuck Jamison has poured his life into the hearts of teenagers for 22 years. In that time, Young Life has transitioned from suspect to prominent in the community of 20,000 people. Jamison and his volunteers chaperone dances, teach and coach at the high school and sponsor an after-prom party that more than 400 kids attend annually.

People who love teenagers in the Emory and Henry area in Virginia knew they needed to look beyond the Appalachian Mountains surrounding their community for the resources to support Young Life there. They raised $40,000 in one week so that David Wells could bring the love of Jesus to the high schools in the area.

Don Stuber, national director of Young Life’s small town ministry, said these and a hundred more stories testify that God is doing big things in small towns.

 “What we continue to see is that Young Life is effective in small towns because it can affect the whole town,” he said. “When you reach a kid in a small town, you reach his parents, his barber and his rodeo coach. It becomes one of the most beloved organizations in town. Often the people don’t have the resources to support Young Life, but they make it happen anyway. Everyone knows us and knows what we’re doing, and it’s celebrated.”

Small numbers, big need
Young Life defines a small town as a one–high school town of less than 25,000 that is not a suburb. According to U.S. government statistics, there are 17,600 small town high schools in the United States, as opposed to 9,300 high schools in large and midsize cities.
According to national Young Life statistics, in May 1999 there were 344 small town high schools with a Young Life club. By May 2002 that number had grown to 528, a 53 percent increase in four years.

“This is the first time anyone’s ever been an advocate for small towns,” Stuber said. “People drive by urban blight all the time, but they don’t drive by the middle of Iowa very much. Small towns are invisible; they’re not seen. But it seems to be turning around.”

Judy Klaustermeyer stays busy conquering the invisibility factor in her corner of the world. She started a Young Life club 16 years ago as a volunteer in Central Washington and then started three more clubs in neighboring towns.

For the last five years, she has been Central Washington’s regional director, where 69 percent of her region is made up of small towns. She is also a member of the Small Town 12, a group of a dozen regional directors from across the country whose goals are to equip, empower and educate staff about Young Life in small towns.

“It’s hard to get to small towns, and a lot of the resources aren’t there,” she said. “We want to stir up the hearts of the people to care about small towns.”
Overcoming obstacles
 Wells has worked with Young Life in Virginia, where he grew up, since 1997 and currently works in the Emory and Henry area. He agrees the impact of Young Life in small towns can be greater than in other places.

“Because the community is smaller, it’s close-knit,” he said. “You’re known pretty quickly. Since you know people by name, it’s easy to minister to families of kids because of the smaller scale.” 

Dr. Jim Helleson and his wife, Kim, have been working with Tonasket’s Young Life club since they started it in 1980, after coming to the town to work as a physician and nurse practitioner. He remembers things were hard in the beginning, but the years have endeared Young Life to the community.

“There was a lot of mistrust by the administration at first. They thought we were a bunch of zealots trying to take over the school,” he recalled. “The one thing about rural areas is you have to develop trust. Now we have tremendous school support. They see how it’s affected lives of kids, and they are very supportive.”

Part of what built that support is that, from the beginning, Young Life has been a lifestyle for the Hellesons rather than just a Monday night event. For example, Helleson has served informally as the team doctor for various sports through the years. He goes to the high school campus every week to check on the athletes with injuries, which has built trust not only with the students but also with the coaches and administration. Some of the best inroads are also made through relationships with the schools through substituting, coaching, chaperoning events and tutoring.

Though Young Life is established in Tonasket, ministry is difficult at times. Isolation and leader burnout are the two biggest challenges there and in many rural areas. Unlike small towns, urban and suburban areas often have larger committees, leadership teams and other Young Life areas nearby.

“It can be discouraging when you’re not connected to a support system,” Helleson said. “But prayer is what sustains us. We’ve never felt like this was a sacrifice. We get more out than we put in.”

Jamison remembers reintroducing himself to the high school principal each year until Young Life became “part of the fabric of the community.” Finances are another challenge in small towns, but Jamison and others have seen God faithfully — and creatively — provide.

“When we first moved here, a key committee guy said, ‘You’ll never raise more than $40,000 in a town this size,’” Jamison said. “In 22 years, we’ve hardly ever been in the red. And we raise our $145,000 budget locally.”

Owatonna raises its budget in traditional ways, including a banquet, golf tournament and corporate donations. But about $40,000 of its budget comes from a much sweeter source: its annual cake auction.
Each spring, 100 individuals and businesses make elaborate cakes for the fund-raiser.
Baked inside each cake is a small piece of foil announcing an extra surprise for the lucky bidder. Vacations, diamond earrings and watches are among the Cracker Jack–like treats given away each year.
“It runs on the radio for five hours and is broadcast on local cable TV,” Jamison said. “And people actually sit and watch it! That wouldn’t happen in a large city!”
In classrooms and beyond Ken Purnell is on teacher staff for John Day Young Life in Canyon City, Ore. Purnell has been working with Young Life for four years, and each year club has grown, with 45 kids attending this year.

Teacher staff is one of the most effective ways to grow a Young Life ministry in a small town, Stuber said. “The whole teacher staff program came from our strategy in small towns,” he explained. “Small towns resist ‘outsiders,’ and therefore, the best way to move Young Life in is to find someone from that town who has a heart for kids and Christ.”

There are three volunteer leaders in Canyon City, including his wife, Kerri. She cooks breakfast for his Campaigner guys at 6:30 a.m. every Wednesday, a tradition for the past three years. She also attends as many away basketball and volleyball games as she can, with the closest opponent 130 miles from home.

Another volunteer, Carla Wright, a retired teacher, brings a van full of teenagers 13 miles from Prairie City each Thursday night for0 club.

“We just try to let kids know we care about them,” Purnell said. “We try to have a very active presence in the community by being involved in all that goes on. This is regular Young Life as far as I know — earning the right to be heard, investing in kids and praying for them, talking to them and honestly falling in love with them.”
Continuing to trust
From Washington state to Virginia, people who live and minister in small towns are pioneers, paving the way for Christ to move in the hearts of teenagers. And as they map their trail, they settle their hearts on the truth of God’s faithfulness.
“We’re dependent on Him in a new frontier where people are hesitant and things don’t come easy,” Wells said. “We are committed to lifelong, incarnational ministry. Who else is going to come to the boondocks and do this with them? They need Christ the same as everybody.”