Access to Love

Bringing kids from the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind (FSDB) to Young Life camp requires that Young Life leaders go the extra mile. Literally.

Many FSDB students come from families who financially qualify for a state-provided education. While Young Life campership donations help cover the cost of camp, these kids still need to find transportation there.

So several days before camp, leaders set out across the state, pick up kids from their homes and bring them to Young Life’s SharpTop Cove, in Georgia. And in between arriving at camp and heading home, these Young Life leaders will tend to many daily details so that deaf campers see what can’t be heard and blind campers hear what can’t be seen. The logistics can seem overwhelming. But kids like Maria* prove it’s all worth it.

Deaf since she was a young child, Maria came to the United States at the age of about 14 from Cuba with extremely delayed language ability. “When I met her, the only word she could sign was ‘hug,’” said Michelle Kratz, a Young Life leader and a deaf-education major at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Fla., where FSDB is also located.

Because of Maria’s language development, leaders wondered how she would be able to understand abstract concepts like faith at camp. But after each club talk, Kratz and other leaders would gather with Maria and the rest of the girls from the cabin, summarizing the club talk as much as possible. One day, Kratz was surprised when, during their debriefing time, Maria suddenly signed, “My heart is changed. Jesus died for all.” “I’ve never seen her use those signs before,” Kratz said. “So I asked her, ‘Do you want to know Jesus? Do you want Jesus in your heart?’”

Maria signed, “yes.” The two prayed in silence. And later that night, “She was completely changed,” Kratz said. “She was so giggly and bubbly. I don’t think we’d heard her even sigh, let alone laugh before. Now every time she sees me she has questions to ask me about Jesus. And her parents are so supportive and happy, too.”

Hope beyond high school

Young Life’s mission and methods have been translated in many cultures with great success, and now the deaf and blind cultures in the United States are no exception, thanks to the growing ministries to deaf and blind kids who attend residential state-run schools not only in Florida, but also in California and Oregon, too.

Aimee McDonald, who leads the Young Life leadership team for FSDB, said deaf and blind teenagers “need to know they are loved and cared for unconditionally. They have a lot of questions that other teenagers have. But they also wonder why they are deaf or blind. A lot of them have just lost hope. We try to give them a hope beyond high school.”

Getting a taste of that hope can be hard to come by. Many of the students don’t typically have access to churches that can meet the needs of the deaf and the blind consistently. “Their [spiritual] needs may have never been met or they’ve experienced resistance,” said Araya Williams, who started a Young Life club for students attending the Oregon School for the Deaf (OSD). In addition, especially for most students attending state-funded schools, “it’s not uncommon for kids to come from tough backgrounds and hard economic situations,” Don Lohr said. “The challenges from their disabilities are compounded by the other problems they face.”

Building bridges

But walk into any of these Young Life clubs and those challenges seem worlds away. In California, deaf students attend club with hearing peers.

“The first time I came to club, I thought, ‘Oh, what a fun deal!’ And everyone was happy, enjoying themselves, playing games, singing songs and hearing about Jesus,” said Isaac West, who is now a Young Life leader in the same club for CSD students.

He also noticed that club was a bridge between the hearing and deaf cultures. “When I saw deaf groups with some cute girls hanging with hearing groups, I was surprised that hearing students knew some American Sign Language. That was great for me to see hearing and deaf students get along and have fun.”

For Wyatt Baldwin, who recently graduated from CSD, his involvement in Young Life has been life-giving. “I still think back to Woodleaf [Young Life’s camp in California] -— the great friends, learning about Christ, having deaf and hearing people together. It really was the best time I’ve ever had.”

Common language

The clubs’ success is a credit to the relationships leaders build not only with students, but also with teachers, parents and administrators.

“Our leaders are really ingrained in the school,” Lohr said. “Leaders help with on-campus tutoring, they go to football games, and participate in dorm activities like crafts and game nights.”

And sign language expertise is not a prerequisite for spending time in these communities. Cassandra Luontela became a Young Life leader for the CSD club while taking beginner sign language interpreting classes. “I was clueless,” she said. “But I’m accepted by the kids even when I make mistakes.”

Abby Turver, a Young Life leader for the OSD club, has discovered that every kid understands the language of unconditional love.

“Relating to them, because I am hearing, can be hard because I don’t fully understand all the hardships they go through. But I do my best, and I just let them know I am there and love them for who they are.”

And it’s that kind of friendship that helps hearts sense the Savior’s love. “God definitely draws them to Him,” said Scott Swanson, a CSD Young Life leader. “I don’t know how it happens but it does.”

*Name has been changed.