Big. Bigger. Best.

Instead of panicking, they began praying.

The four leaders for Young Life’s outreach to Hispanic teens at Harrisonburg High School — called Vida Joven (Spanish for “Young Life”) — were in real need of a miracle. During the fall weekend trip, volunteer leader Claudette Monroy and her teammates noticed how linguistic and cultural differences had impacted the camp trip. Together, the team decided to take kids to a Young Life camp week custom made for them.

For the second year in a row, Young Life’s beautiful Saranac Village would host a camp week catering to Hispanic kids. “They’ll get to eat guacamole at dinner and listen to reggaeton,” volunteer leader Luisa Henao said. “It was just a better environment for our kids.”

There was just one problem. This custom-made camp session was scheduled for late August. Located in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, Harrisonburg City Schools would already be back in session. That’s when Monroy, Henao, Vicky Julian and Kyle Smethurst began asking the Lord to intervene.

Together, the group began praying and fasting. If God could part the Red Sea, surely He could help the four volunteer leaders get their kids to Saranac. A decision was made to cancel a club and spend the time in prayer. Monroy and others sent e-mails asking others to pray as well. The group fasted the day before Smethurst addressed the Harrisonburg School Board.

After a few anxious weeks, the Young Life team received their answer. Because of numerous requests from various people — the Young Life team’s petition was just one of many — Harrisonburg City Schools would start later, allowing the leaders to take their kids to camp.

Their crisis was big.
Their God was bigger.

“I was crying,” said Monroy, remembering her own reaction to the good news. “This is really important to me, because I know what these kids go through, and I know how camp changed my life.”

A Volunteer’s Vision

One of the most diverse high schools in Virginia, Harrisonburg school board vice-chair Tom Mendez said 40 percent of the students in Harrisonburg City Schools are English as Second Language (ESL) students. That percentage is the highest in Virginia.

Young Life’s outreach to Hispanic teens at Harrisonburg started two years ago when Vanessa Cisneros, a former volunteer leader, befriended many of the Hispanic students at the school. Pete Hardesty, the area director of Harrisonburg-Rockingham County, believes Young Life’s presence at Harrisonburg High School is a constant reminder of God’s sovereignty. “That’s been one of the most incredible parts to me,” Hardesty said. “When God wants something to happen, it happens.”

Beginning the work in Harrisonburg’s Hispanic community wasn’t easy. “It was pretty tough, because there was no concept of Young Life established,” Julian said. “It was really hard for parents to let their kids hang out with us. They didn’t understand why we were doing this.”

Now, Young Life is a huge part of the lives of Harrisonburg students like Genesis and Aracely. “It’s something for us to do,” said Aracely, a junior at Harrisonburg, “and it’s one of the only places I’ve heard about God.”

The leaders have seen example after example of God’s faithfulness. “It’s really encouraging,” Henao said. “We’re starting to see a little bit of fruit. It’s like, ‘Finally, something’s happening.’”

After hearing about the faith of these leaders, a private donor gave the Harrisonburg-Rockingham County area a sizable financial gift to help scholarship potential campers. “It’s definitely increased my faith and trust in the Lord,” Monroy said. “It’s given me a bigger revelation of God.”

Julian believes God’s provision for the trip is part of a bigger purpose. “We believe that kids are going to know the Lord,” she said, “and it’s going to happen at camp.”

Best Week Ever

A group of Hispanic teenage boys rushed the blue and white CrossTours charter bus as soon as it entered the Harrisonburg High School parking lot. The guys raced through the door, jostling for the “cool” seats at the back of the bus.

Just minutes before midnight, a group of people gathered to pray for the trip. Tim Hartin, on Young Life staff in Harrisonburg, prayed in English. Henao prayed in Spanish.

Then, bus No. 33 pulled off. After months of praying, fasting and pursuing kids — watching God repeatedly remove obstacles in the process — Harrisonburg Vida Joven was on its way to Saranac.

Literally seconds after the bus transporting the 20 Harrisonburg teens arrived at Saranac, Luis, Sammy, Manny and Arlinton were rushed off the bus and on to the tubes.

“They were blown away,” said Smethurst, the lone male leader for Harrisonburg Vida Joven. “It was an incredible experience for these kids. They just kept telling me, ‘We didn’t know it was going to be like this.’”

That introduction to Saranac was just a microcosm of the week, as the Harrisonburg teens found themselves consistently amazed at the Young Life camping experience. “I liked everything,” said Juan, a sophomore at Harrisonburg High School. The only part our kids didn’t like was leaving. “That was the best week of my life,” one of the Harrisonburg girls, Yeri, said of the trip. “You learn so many things about God, and you meet so many people.”

Even volunteer leaders like Henao were overwhelmed by this camp week custom-fit for Hispanic kids. “It was so much better than I expected,” said Henao, who believes the cultural relevance made a huge difference in her girls’ camping experience. “It was just more natural to them. The kids all looked like them.” This year, a special dance featuring merengue, salsa and bachata was offered.

“The kids went nuts,” said camp director Jen Gros, Young Life’s staff person on point for Latino outreach in Stamford, Conn. “It was well-supervised, fun and clean. It was done respectfully.”

Carlos Dimas, the speaker for Latino camp week both last year and this year, thought year two was even better. “It was amazing,” said Dimas, who also brought a group of his kids from South Arlington. “I didn’t think it could get any better, but it did. There were more than 50 kids at the new believers’ walk who had never responded to Christ before. That in itself is a big deal.”

Being away from the normal distractions back home also gave many of the girls Monroy has invested in a chance to process the Gospel. “Our kids have really hard lives. We had really good conversations,” said Monroy, who witnessed the Lord doing amazing work in the hearts of the girls she knows. “We had one girl who just moved here from the Dominican Republic a week before camp. She ended up meeting the Lord.”

With stories like Monroy’s emerging from the camp, Gros is already excited about year three. “I’m excited to see the potential and growth for the mission,” Gros said. “Kids will be impacted and lives will be changed as the mission stays committed to a bilingual week of outreach.”

For Every Kid

The Latino camp week at Saranac is a viable option for Young Life areas reaching out to Hispanic kids, thanks in large part to the New York Metropolitan Region’s tireless pursuit of in-culture ministry. That pursuit is spearheaded by Mac McNally, regional director for the New York Metropolitan Region as well as vice president of strategic growth with Young Life. The region launched an Hispanic initiative in 2006.

“The Latino population is certainly on the rise,” said McNally, who sees great diversity in the five million school-age children in his region. “We started breaking into new communities and starting club. And they enjoyed the traditional style of Young Life. They loved coming together as a culture. They loved coming out en masse to club.”

In 2007, a decision was made to turn a week at Saranac into the first Young Life Latino camp on the East Coast. “All it took was an empty week at Saranac and the risk from the staff,” McNally said.

Gros thought the inaugural camp was incredible. “The entire camp was first-time kids and leaders,” Gros said. “Every kid who went continues to share that it really was the best week of their lives.”

The week provided the typical excellence of Young Life camp, as well as a cultural sensitivity to the Hispanic teenagers. Small gestures such as fresh guacamole with dinner or empanadas for dessert went a long way in making the kids feel welcome.

“Latinos had always come to camp and someone else had been the dominant culture,” said Jim Dyson, vice president of Field Ministries in Young Life’s Eastern Division. “This was the first time their culture was celebrated. There was just a festive feel about that. The message was done by Carlos Dimas, and it totally focused on speaking to kids within their culture.”

Dimas felt honored to be part of Young Life history. “There aren’t many firsts left in Young Life,” Dimas said, “and this was a first.” But not the last.

Based on feedback from the 2007 camp, a week custom-made for Hispanic kids found a permanent spot in the Saranac camp schedule and was offered to areas outside the New York Metropolitan Region. Harrisonburg and South Arlington, both located in Virginia, signed up to join five groups from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

“In three years,” said McNally, barely hiding the excitement in his voice, “we’ll have the camp full.”