The Small Town Difference

Over the past two decades, the Empire State Region has been building up thriving ministries in all of New York’s major cities. The vision is beginning to shift. It is time to bring the message of Christ to the small towns across the state.

“Before a couple years ago, [Young Life] had no contacts in Wayne County,” said Rick Rogan, regional director of the Empire State. Now, an eighth-grade language arts teacher, Kevin Shoemaker, and his wife, Julie, are working to build a ministry in Wayne County, N.Y., which is 20 miles east of Rochester. Both natives of New York state, the Shoemakers live in Ontario, a town in the northern part of Wayne County, which has a population of about 9,800 people.

Struck by a difference
About three years ago, Shoemaker was invited by his brother-in-law, Mike Kuhlkin, area director of Rochester West, to drive a van as a chaperone for a two-night Young Life ski weekend at Saranac Village, a Young Life camp in the Adirondacks. Once the group hit the slopes, Shoemaker noticed how Young Life leaders interacted with kids. Kids were not skiing by themselves; the leaders were in the snow, getting cold with their high school friends.

“I knew there were serious conversations going on,” Shoemaker said. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘This is it, this is how Christ did it. He went where the people were.’”

Shoemaker began to feel the call to bring Young Life to Wayne County, his home. He shared this vision with his wife and together they began to embark on the journey of starting Young Life in Wayne County.

The small town differences
There are some unique characteristics to living in a small town and doing ministry there. Earning the right to be heard means becoming a very active part of the local community, not just the school system. This may mean joining civic clubs or taking an active role in planning local festivals and parades. In rural settings, news travels fast and people know one another.

But the things that remain the same throughout the mission of Young Life — the message of Christ, His death for all people and His resurrection — are unchanging. “These kids are just like my own children. All kids have the same basic need — love,” Julie Shoemaker said.

Getting started
Because Shoemaker was a middle school teacher, and had contact with middle school kids all day, it seemed natural to begin WyldLife. He also knew that bringing kids to camp would be a sure-fire way to fan the flame for WyldLife. So last December, with some money earned from garage sale fundraisers, the Shoemakers decided to take five kids to WyldLife camp.

“They could have used that money to pay themselves, but they didn’t,” Rogan said. “Their hearts are so connected to this thing that they’re doing all kinds of stuff for kids.”

The trip to Lake Champion, another Young Life camp located in Glen Spey, N.Y., was a success. The kids loved it and the hard work that the Shoemakers invested would soon pay off.

“We wanted to start WyldLife and it was affirmed at camp,” Shoemaker said. “Those kids became a basis and really helped us out.”

One month later, on a Friday night, Wayne County had its first WyldLife club. With 40 kids in attendance, it was evident that God’s hand was guiding this blossoming ministry.

“We had no budget, no leaders, no nothing,” Shoemaker said. “But we went for it anyway and God’s grace has been beyond sufficient for us.”

It took a little longer than the Shoemakers had hoped, but the ministry was gaining momentum.

“I have built some pretty solid relationships with my students,” Shoemaker said. With teaching, coaching the school’s soccer team, going to games and living only five miles from the school, Shoemaker sees kids nonstop.

Shoemaker knows that being a teacher has helped him meet a lot of kids and has helped give Young Life credibility. But he knows that to keep Young Life and its message alive and growing, a vision must be cast to the students who have a heart for their peers.

Especially students like Brad*. The typical troublemaker, Brad was easily swayed by his peers, and he had recently been ejected from a soccer game for bad behavior. One day he pulled Kevin Shoemaker, his teacher and coach, aside to talk to him. Brad confessed to knowing that he was falling short of who he knew God wanted him to be. Soon he began coming to WyldLife and was more excited about his relationship with Christ. People began to notice a change in Brad.

One day, Brad and three of his friends went out to dinner where Brad talked openly about his struggles with sin and he explained the Gospel with excitement. Brad said that without the support and encouragement he had been receiving from WyldLife he would have never felt comfortable enough to share his faith. Now, God is using Brad to change the hearts and minds of his peers.

The journey continues
Along with being involved with kids’ lives, the Shoemakers have also put a lot of effort into building their local committee. In the past three years, the committee has grown from five to 15 members, and they are still trying to gain more support within the community.

“We have great parents who help out and volunteer,” Julie Shoemaker said. Still with a smaller community resources can be limited. Finding financial support and additional Young Life leaders has also been hard in the area.

The Shoemakers are committed to the long-term growth of Wayne County Young Life and have recently been put on teacher staff, meaning that they receive a stipend for their ministry work as well as Young Life training. They are working hard to cast a vision to the small community with the hope that they can connect the area of Wayne County to the Empire State Region for years to come.

“Their heart for kids, for Christ and their relentless energy connect them to a lasting impact,” Rogan said.

Along with much prayer, the Shoemakers have put in many hard hours and have received a good return.

“It’s been exciting but exhausting,” Julie Shoemaker said. “But it’s worth it when you see kids making better choices.”

Extending the reach
James Beneway High School, a combined middle and high school, has 1,600 students who need to hear the story of Jesus Christ. This year, many of the incoming high school freshmen had
experienced WyldLife the year before. The Shoemakers knew those kids could begin to help orchestrate a legacy of Young Life at their school. Currently, Young Life is well underway; the high school club and Campaigners are already flourishing.

God willing, this year will be one of tremendous growth for Wayne County Young Life and WyldLife. Because of a willingness to love kids, the Shoemakers are bringing Jesus Christ to kids in their community. Rogan, who is excited about the future of Wayne County, said, “As a result of their faithfulness the community will never be the same. There will be a ripple effect to this thing.”

*an alias