A Powerful Partnership

If imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery, then the leaders of Vida Joven Dominicana have every reason to blush.

Lives changed all across the Dominican Republic stand as a testament to Young Life’s solid footing there, but the influence of Vida Joven (Young Life) extends way past its borders — to other Latin American nations that have mined the riches of leadership, commitment and faith that define the work in the D.R.

In February, staff workers from six Latin American countries came to the D.R. for a leadership conference, and later a staffer came from Venezuela to spend a month shadowing D.R. staff member Rafa Alejo. Then in May, Alejo returned the favor, going to Venezuela for three weeks to encourage the ministry there. And two Guatemalan staff workers have scheduled a summer trip.

“Leaders in the D.R. who have kind of grown up in the ministry and grown up in the faith through Young Life are the ones who are now impacting people in other Latin American countries,” said National Director Scott Meidema.

Often, the road of international ministry is littered with good intentions and stories of burnout, but the D.R. has sidestepped those pitfalls with a powerful blend of visionary North American missionaries and extraordinarily gifted Dominicans who have embraced the vision for the lost kids in their country.

“The first thing I would say is, the North Americans who have gone to the D.R. to help grow and build Young Life did it right,” said Joe Walters, the director of the Latin America Region. “People like Marv Asphal, Scott Steele and Tracy Paulino — they will be in the Latin America Region hall of fame. At the appropriate time, the North American staff have decreased and our Dominican staff have increased, in leadership and in responsibility.”

Walters continued: “The second thing is, God has raised up excellent nationals.”

In 2006, the ministry had a memorable celebration — the 20th anniversary of Vida Joven Dominicana. At the celebration were former and current missionaries, staff from Young Life’s Pico Escondido, volunteers and dozens of Dominicans who have owned the ministry during those two decades. And the hub of it all, the one whom God used to bring so many others into this fold, is Rafa Alejo.

A homegrown harvest
Alejo was first touched by Young Life in the 1990s. He was transformed by Christ, and before long he was bringing other kids to club, first as a volunteer and then as a staff worker. And in a country where evangelicals are rare and relational outreach is often misunderstood, he shepherded one new Christian after another into Young Life leadership.

Today 11 of the nation’s 13 staff workers are Dominican, and all have been impacted directly by Alejo’s infectious enthusiasm for the work of saturating the D.R. with the truth of the Gospel.

“He caught it, and has lived it, and he has been a machine,” Walters said. “Many of the staff are disciples of Rafa. You just can’t tell the story of Vida Joven in the D.R. without his name and his involvement.”

“A lot of times contact work and kind of living it out are hard concepts in Latin America,” Scott Meidema said of Alejo. “He’s a relationship natural.”

Another source of outstanding leaders is the Milagros De Gloria Foundation, which provides college scholarships to Young Life volunteers who would otherwise be forced to quit leading club and get a job to pay for their university costs. Today a handful of the Dominican staff are graduates of the Milagros program, and three of the sharpest volunteers each year are selected to take part.

With laborers like Alejo and the Milagros graduates carrying the torch, Vida Joven Dominicana has been introduced to approximately 400 kids a week in 17 different areas, and the reach of those clubs extends from poor kids in remote barrios to wealthy English-speaking teens in the city of Santiago. Their commitment to reach every kid is further reflected in the Capernaum ministry in the Cien Fuegos area of Santiago and one club for Haitians who have migrated to the D.R. in the city of La Vega.

When Meidema first came to the D.R., he was a teacher in Santiago with a limited knowledge of Young Life. But he got to know Tracy and Arturo Paulino, who worked with Young Life in that city; he became a volunteer and eventually joined the staff.

He is the third national director in four years, taking over for Arturo Paulino a year ago. Paulino filled the job after Scott Steele, who served in the D.R. for 10 years, returned to the United States in 2003. But the leadership transitions have only intensified the Dominicans’ stake in the ministry and proved that its success does not hinge on the presence of American missionaries.

“It’s been really fun to see quality growth over a period of time,” Meidema said.

Hearts open at Hidden Peak
One catalyst of that growth has been Pico Escondido, a Young Life property in the Dominican mountains that is being built through a combination of capital campaigns and regular mission work teams. Even with a multistage construction plan ahead, the camp is being used frequently to share the Gospel with Vida Joven kids and to help train its leaders. With a goal to eventually house 250 kids and leaders, the current facility can host 110 people.

It is not uncommon for Dominican kids to spend their whole lives in the town or city where they were raised, but each summer their Young Life leaders convince them to take on the adventure of Young Life camp at one of Pico Escondido’s three summer outreach weeks. During the third week of the 2006 program, Pico hosted its first camp for Capernaum teenagers, and for many it was the first time they had ever left their neighborhood.

During their week at Pico Escondido, the kids swim, play sports like baseball and basketball, ride mountain bikes and attend daily clubs with wild program characters, games and elaborate skits.

The assigned team for those camp weeks is usually made up completely of Dominican staff and volunteers, and the work crew members are Dominican club kids who, like their U.S. counterparts, have been impacted by the ministry and desire to serve. The idea of work crew once seemed like it would be a hard sell in the D.R., but now kids are standing in line for the chance to serve, said Pico Escondido Camp Director Roy Clifford. “The first time we had Dominican work crew, our leaders were saying, ‘How can I get kids there?’” Clifford said. “Now they’re clamoring for work crew spots because they’ve seen the impact that the work crew experience has had in their areas.”

Hundreds of kids each year also participate in Exposure, an outdoor wilderness adventure that was birthed when Scott and Jennifer Steele began leading rock-climbing trips for club kids and even, for a time, ran a climbing equipment store to help defray the costs of ministry.

Just as the first portion of money for the next phase of construction is coming in, Clifford and others are seeking non-Young Life groups who can rent the camp for retreats and help pay the cost of campership for Vida Joven kids. The cost of camp is only $40 for five days, Clifford said, but the average kid who comes to camp can only pay about half of that.

Barrios backlit by hope
As part of the commitment to instilling national ownership of the ministry, staff workers are trained to raise money in the areas where their clubs are held, even if many of those neighborhoods are marked by stark poverty. As counter-cultural as such fund-raising efforts are in the D.R., staff like Julia Veloz have been blessed as residents have given sacrificially because of the new life that Vida Joven has infused in their barrios.

“Giving money to somebody who’s not your family down here is kind of an unusual cultural idea,” Meidema said. “Most of the people they know are in the poorer class, so I would say that is one of the major challenges.”

But it’s a challenge that these staff are ready to embrace, because they firmly believe that the future of the Dominican Republic is closely tied to the work of Christ in neighborhoods like Nibaje and Los Palmaritos, places where Vida Joven is bringing an infusion of life and light.