A Wyld Mix

Every two weeks, without fail, a certain girl shows up at WyldLife in her school cafeteria. And each time, without fail, she tells her leaders the same thing. That it’s boring, and she’s not coming back.

Candy Smith, one of the girl’s leaders at New Castle Middle School, doesn’t believe her anymore. She and her team know what their friend from club knows but won’t admit — that they are part of something vibrant and exciting, that the Lord is truly the heartbeat of this club that has undergone a potentially jarring transition.

“They’re hungry, and they’re not even sure what they’re hungry for,” said Smith, a stay-at-home mom who has been helping with the New Castle WyldLife club since last fall.

If not for Smith, along with the rest of the team of leaders led by Young Life staff woman Kate Barrett, the kids at New Castle Middle School wouldn’t even have a club to show up to. In fact, the club almost had to shut its doors when staff transitions left a leadership hole.

Early strides

Ron Tinsley, who joined the Young Life mission in 1999, made an indelible mark on New Castle Middle School during his years there. He had an office at the school, he ran an afterschool tutoring program for the kids and he appointed a student board of directors for WyldLife. He also got involved with the entire family, not just the middle school students, and addressed issues that a typical suburban leader might not have to touch.

“I became part of the fabric of the school,” said Tinsley, now the communications director for a Christian school in Philadelphia.

Tinsley’s efforts began as an after school program for boys and then slowly evolved into a WyldLife meeting. At its peak the outreach was drawing more than 50 kids, he said, and he remembers the day when some of the student leaders came to him with a heartfelt request.

“I was only doing it once a month, and the kids came to me and said, ‘Look, once a month is not enough,’” he said. “And I didn’t take them seriously. I said, ‘If you get 30 kids to sign a piece of paper I’ll take you seriously.’ And they did it.”

Tinsley was able to get WyldLife recognized as an official student club, and because of that designation the administration gave him keys to the school and access to the gym, the auditorium and any other space he needed. He also managed to enlist the support of numerous teachers, even those who didn’t quite grasp the central purpose of the group. Even if the teachers weren’t Christians, they saw an undeniable change in the kids who had rubbed up against WyldLife and its leaders.

“We have a lot of access to the school, and that’s really unusual, especially in the Northeast,” Barrett said.

Turning point

So Barrett, who was initially assigned to a more suburban school in the area at the time, knew that the flame that had been ignited by Tinsely needed to be fanned with continued leadership when he left Young Life staff, or the club could soon fade.

Barrett was charged with trying to put a team together to sustain the work.

“Kate is a great model of perseverance,” said Jim Dyson, vice president of Field Ministry. “Last winter, we had a meeting where some were wanting to shut the club down but Kate felt it wasn’t what God wanted. She convinced all of us to take a shot at keeping the club going with volunteers and herself.”

She recruited a few leaders from a nearby WyldLife group, and Smith came in after a brief experience with high school ministry. The team has found themselves drawn to the multicultural student body at New Castle, even though their team is fairly monochromatic. Smith is from Jamaica and the other leaders are white, leading a club that was founded with mostly African-American kids.

Richness in diversity

It could be a recipe for unrest or even the dissolution of a ministry, but in this case God has sustained the work through both the kids’ loyalty and the leaders’ belief that they can be used powerfully even in unlikely places. In some ways, Smith said, the difference between the kids at club and the leaders has been the key to opening doors and encouraging vulnerability.

“There’s so much rich conversation that comes from diversity,” Smith said. “You don’t have to be afraid to ask certain questions. It’s a total learning experience. It helps us to celebrate diversity, and also celebrate other aspects of life.”

The vision continues

Hang around after school for any typical New Castle WyldLife club, and you’ll soon discover that there’s no such thing as a “normal” meeting for this group. The only non-negotiables at these afternoon gatherings are the presence of the Holy Spirit and the consistent and loving friendship of Barrett and WyldLife leaders Pete Letteney, Ashleigh Martz, Christina Poirer and Candy Smith. Along with the leadership team, two teachers, Bob Bye and Chad Everett, have also lent their hands and hearts to keep this club going. The diverse mix of kids is a challenge that they all welcome.  “You never know what you’re going to get,” Smith said. “Some days they’re quiet, some days they’re wild. They’re always happy to see you. They want to be known. They want to be loved. They want that connection.”

New Castle may have an established team with regular club meetings and kids who come week after week, but the leaders are continually learning and modifying their style. They came in with an open mind, trained in traditional Young Life but with little experience working with kids in urban settings. They were helped in this endeavor by a weekend of training with Dyson, who has decades of experience in urban ministry.

“The culture is really different,” Barrett said. “It was interesting to open up our eyes to how they view God and how we can help them see God better. If they can know how much God loves them and how much Jesus wants to have a relationship with them, then we really have succeeded.”

As for Tinsley, he may be in a different job in a new city, but the kids from back in New Castle are never too far from his mind. He prays for them often, and he takes comfort from knowing that God hand-picked Barrett and her team to continue the work that He inspired through Tinsley. Although he is not with them, the vision God gave him continues in the next chapter in New Castle WyldLife history.