An Unlikely Leader

I love high school kids. I just love them. So any time they’re around I ask myself, ‘I wonder what school they go to? I wonder if there’s Young Life in that school?’” Judging from Kelly Hills’ own high school experience, however, you might never guess she’d feel like this today.

Although she presented herself as happy, Hills’ classmates didn’t know she was leading a double life. “I always felt alone and like I didn’t have any friends. Upon entering college, I quickly joined the party scene and ended up with a 1.6 GPA after my first semester. I came home exhausted ... and pregnant. Ashamed, and once again alone, my parents and I decided the best thing to do would be to give the baby up for adoption.”

Eventually Hills married Dallas, who was in the Air Force, and they moved around the country. The marriage didn’t completely take away Hills’ pain, though. “Scars from my past followed me into my marriage, where not even my husband could heal them.”

The couple moved to McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey and Dallas left for Afghanistan in November 2001. “When the husbands would leave,” Hills explained, “a lot of the wives would go live with their parents, and so I lived in what seemed to me to be a ghost town.” Again, Hills found herself alone.

The turning point

One day Stewart and Elizabeth Welch, a couple who had been Young Life volunteer leaders in college, moved in next door. They befriended the Hillses and invited them to church. “There was something about the Welches that was different and inviting,” Hills said.

“Elizabeth followed up with me after church and asked me what I thought. Then, she invited me to study the Bible with her every morning. Our relationship was very comfortable; I knew I could share intimate details and not be judged or looked down upon. She taught me how to study the Bible, pray and be Jesus in the flesh.”

For her part, Welch remembers Hills “sitting on our floor in our living room, telling us her life story and thinking, ‘Wow. This girl is real.’ I remember long walks through our neighborhood, discussing theology and the world’s problems.

“But what I most remember,” Welch said, “was Kelly’s thirst for the Word of God, and how she soaked it up like a sponge. She had the zeal we all hope for and was contagious in her search for knowledge and truth. It was one of the best seasons of my life.”

Soon Hills began a relationship with Christ through Welch’s incarnational ministry; meanwhile, Stewart Welch invited Dallas to a men’s Bible study on base and it wasn’t long before he too met Christ.

That year the Hillses became volunteer leaders at the base’s Military Community Youth Ministry (MCYM), where they learned what a successful Young Life club looks like in Club Beyond, Young Life’s ministry to military teens. In 2004 they moved to Frederick, Md., where they met Kate (Barrett) Morgner, an intern at the time. Morgner taught the couple how to pursue kids, lead Campaigners and start a club from scratch. “I had the opportunity to explain why we do what we do in Young Life.”

Morgner encouraged them to build relationships with the kids first, and then allow these relationships to draw kids to the programmatic elements of Young Life, like club and camp. “Kelly and Dallas both had a huge capacity to do that, not to mention the boldness.”

“The number one thing that stands out to me about Kelly is that she was very driven,” Morgner said. “‘We’re going to make this happen’ was her constant attitude. I also saw how kids could relate to her because she’s a down-to-earth wife and mom, with a really young spirit about her.”

Today the couple lives in Waynesboro, Pa., a small town without Young Life when they arrived. Through some connections in nearby towns, Hills took five girls to Saranac — and Young Life began. They have since started club, Campaigners and taken more than 50 kids to camp.

“One thing I know”

There are many factors which go into making Hills such a strong leader. “Kelly remembers better than most what it was like to be a teenager; she has a pulse point for them,” Welch said. “She’s fiercely loyal and committed, and knows how to love kids where they are. She’s honest and open with them and really knows how to live out 1 Thessalonians 2:8, [in that] she shares not only the Gospel, but her very life as well.”

“I wasn’t a club kid in high school,” said Hills. “I wasn’t a Campaigner. I didn’t do work crew or summer staff. I hadn’t even been to a Young Life camp until I was 28! I have two kids and one on the way. I’m an unlikely candidate to be a Young Life leader, but one thing I know: I love Jesus and I love kids; and they need Jesus.”