Moms on a Mission

To the untrained eye, the four women striding behind strollers and towing toddlers through the halls of Paso Robles High School may seem out of place. But these moms and tots are actually familiar faces to many of the students there. That’s because their consistent presence in the lives of kids — some of whom have become like their own — has contributed to the steady growth of the local Young Life ministry.

Affectionately dubbed the “baby brigade” by some of the students at the school, these women — Ashley Blake, Shiloh Hamon, Janay Jelso and Jocelyn Willis — are also “proof that being a Young Life leader doesn’t have to end when you’re 23,” said Chris Blake, the Young Life area director in Paso Robles, Calif., and husband to Ashley.

When the Blakes moved there to begin a Young Life ministry, they suspected that recruiting leaders may not happen as easily as in the college town in which they had previously lived. But during the next couple of years, God assembled a team of couples who got to know each other through adult Sunday school classes, Bible studies and simply hanging out together. They shared friendship, then ministry and, eventually, parenthood. Among the couples, two of the men serve as leaders and two are on the committee. But all four of the women have found a common calling in motherhood and ministry.

Growing families

When they hosted their first club in 2005, there was one baby in the bunch. Today, there are seven children in all, ranging in age from 4 months to 4 years old. The team continues to embrace all the blessings and challenges that come with mixing ministry and motherhood.

“At our leadership meetings, there are babies eating, babies crying and toddlers running around,” Ashley Blake said. “It’s chaotic for some, but we try to make it work.”

Chaotic? Maybe. A calling? Definitely. That’s what’s helped these moms be ministry multi-taskers — feeding babies while keeping up with high schoolers on scavenger hunts, carrying infants around camp, and planning skit and club talks during naptimes.

But some days the multi-tasking nearly comes to a screeching halt because of teething tikes or potty training pitfalls. Those are just some of the things that can sap the energy to be with the high school kids. But each of these leaders agrees that their call to love teenagers is strong enough to combat fatigue, even on the toughest days.

“Once I get there, whether it’s at club or up to the school for contact work, I get the energy I need and I’m reminded of why I’m there,” Janay Jelso said. “It never feels like a waste of time; it rejuvenates me! It also helps that we do this together as moms. We know what it’s like for each other.”

That’s due in part to the bond of friendship tying these couples together. “It’s awesome to walk through life together,” Jocelyn Willis said. “We love hanging out with one another.” So there is plenty of understanding to go around whenever family duties conflict with doing Young Life. Ministry-wise, the other team members try to fill in where they can. “Our schedules as moms don’t always mesh well with the schedules of high school kids,” Ashley Blake said. “We give what we can and always want to give more.”

Open hearts and homes

But Chris Blake is continually impressed with how the women open their hearts and homes in order to make time for teenage girls. “They’re very intentional about how they invite kids into their lives,” he said. “They take their kids up to the school together; they have girls over to help them make dinner, to bake or to spend the night. Girls are drawn to them. I don’t know if it’s because of their babies or them. I’m sure it’s both.”

Hannah, a junior at Paso Robles, would probably agree. Throughout the past two years she and Jelso have become close friends. She’s a regular at the Jelsos’ and adores their kids. “At first, it seemed weird to her that I wanted to hang out with her,” Jelso said. “But she always said yes. I always try to listen without judging. She knows that no matter what, no matter her mistakes, I am there for her.”

For Hannah, who’s had her share of disappointments and heartbreaks in her own family, the friendship with Jelso is not only a safe haven, but it’s been a life-changer. “Hannah will know Jesus differently because of Janay Jelso,” Chris Blake said.

And it’s possible that another girl, Viviana, will one day know Jesus differently too, because of her friendship with Ashley Blake. Vivi works at the local grocery store, a place Blake, like many moms, frequents often. But for her a trip to the market is not just a to-do — it’s an errand with an eternal purpose. Vivi’s mom lost her battle with cancer several years ago and, although her father has been a phenomenal single parent, “she’s craving a female role model,” Blake said.

So when Blake and her daughter, Addison, enter the store, it usually takes only moments before they are spotted by Vivi, who runs over to greet each of them with hugs and smiles. Encounters like these are evidence that going where kids are doesn’t have to mean going far.

Mothers’ love

That’s certainly been true for Jocelyn Willis, who knew right away what kind of kids she wanted to minister to. “I wanted to go after the kids who I was like when I was in high school,” Willis said.

Willis had to look no further than the dance studio where she is an instructor. So now, along with her regular classes, she teaches a free bimonthly hip-hop class, which creates a great bridge between her and kids who don’t come to Young Life club. Willis and the rest of the moms are hopeful that the seeds of friendship planted during dance lessons or conversations at a grocery store will continue to grow as they are patiently watered with love. And maybe that’s partially why God can make moms great Young Life leaders. Most moms already have a track record in patience, resourcefulness and sacrifice. But wouldn’t some “coolness” go a long way with teenagers, too? Shiloh Hamon doesn’t think so.

“I don’t even worry about trying to be cool,” she said. “I just try to be loving, fun and approachable. As long as kids know that I think they’re the ones who are cool and that I love them no matter what, then that’s OK.”

It’s often said that a mother’s love runs deep. But wherever this “baby brigade” connects with kids — whether it’s on campus or in their kitchen — kids get a glimpse of love from a Heavenly Father that is infinitely deeper.