From the Grapevine

True Athlete

Most 18-year-olds have not experienced 35,000 fans cheering for them. Most have not finished a marathon. But Shane Lauer is not like most 18-year-olds.

Shane has Duchenne Muscular Distrophy (DMD), a degenerative disease that affects the muscles. “It’s terminal,” said Ben Mortenson, area director for Young Life Capernaum in Baltimore, Md. He and his wife, Carissa, are also Shane’s legal guardians. “Every muscle slowly deteriorates … Life expectancy is to the mid-20s.”

But the Mortensons believe that every kid should be given the chance to live life to the full. A few years ago they found a kindred heart in David Slomkowski. He is the founder and director of Athletes Serving Athletes (ASA), an organization that provides racing opportunities for competitive people with disabilities.

“Shane is a really competitive kid,” said Mortenson. Earlier that summer, he and Shane competed in a four-mile race. “With two miles to go, Shane kept saying ‘Ben, you need to pick up the speed and pass these people ... I can’t move my body, but I can move my mouth!’”

Slomkowski, however, is a much faster runner than Mortenson. Slomkowski and Shane finished the 2009 Baltimore Marathon in 3 hours 47 minutes. “I get teary thinking about that day,” said Slomkowski. “Shane was so competitive … he’s losing control of his hands, but somehow he holds these straps for two hours so I won’t have to stop.” Mortenson recalled that Shane wore the finishers’ medal every day for a month.

Slomkowski insists that it is Shane who is the athlete: “Shane has the will of a warrior ... I’m just a piece of equipment. My identity is irrelevant.”

“It’s important to trust those who want to help you,” said Shane. “Despite my disability, God has given me the ability to race and be competitive.”

For his 18th birthday, the Mortensons bought Shane a racing jogger — one he’ll need for a sprint triathlon this spring.

– Ned Erickson

Deep and Wide

When Jordan Anderson enrolled at Alabama’s Auburn University in the fall of 2006, he dove in head first to three substantial time commitments. Without sacrificing the integrity of his studies in biomedical science, he also jumped into a full schedule of swim team practices and meets along with Auburn Young Life’s Quest leadership training. Learning how to balance his time and energy, Anderson began to see how his interests were — and are — braided together. “Swimming is this bigger picture of things that I’m learning. It’s a journey,” he said. “In ministry, it’s kind of the same. You meet all these neat kids. Sometimes it’s kind of grueling, because you don’t know what to say, you don’t know how to deal with their problems, you don’t think you’re cut out for it. But then you realize that you’re learning through it, through all the relationships that you make.”

So, as a Young Life leader he poured into kids during his sophomore and junior years, fostering friendships that he still maintains. “The mark of someone who wants to grow, mature and be their own person,” he said, “is someone who takes information from people who are more mature, more experienced and older than they are.”

Heeding his own advice, under the guidance of one of his academic advisors, Anderson applied for a prestigious national scholarship before the fall of his final year at Auburn and was elected as one of just 32 National Rhodes Scholars.

In September 2010, he will leave the United States for the first time, to pursue a master’s degree in Health Science at the University of Oxford in England. He hopes to equip himself with an education that will allow him to provide medical aid to people in developing nations.

Anderson is a multi-threat, demonstrating the academic, extracurricular, relational and leadership skills that made him a strong candidate for the Rhodes Scholarship this year. His commitment to his studies and sports only complement his commitment to Young Life — to knowing and loving kids, sharing with them the deep and wide love of Christ.

– Cory Bordonaro

Culinary Dreams

When Vince Gordon started Young Life in Jackson, Miss., he had come full circle. He and his wife, Leila, had purchased a home right across the street from Gordon’s old high school, smack in the middle of one of the most violent cities in the United States.

“When we moved into that neighborhood,” Gordon said, “everyone wanted to know ‘who is that guy?’” They remodeled the old home — an expansive unit in disrepair, nestled in a community most people were trying to leave.

Gordon started holding club in the home, and soon, he had kids coming over every day. Now, Gordon said, “everybody knows that’s Mr. Gordon’s neighborhood.” One of the first kids to get acquainted with the remodeled house was Taneisha Williams, a teen mom, and a sophomore attending Lanier High School right across the road. Upon entering the Gordons’ home for the first time, her eyes lit up at the sight of his renovated kitchen.

“I always liked to be in the kitchen,” Taneisha recalled. Raised by her grandmother, Taneisha had learned to cook by the time she was 10. She had spent hours in her grandmother’s kitchen watching and learning. Dreams of becoming a professional cook had formed by the time she entered high school. Standing in Gordon’s new cookhouse, she was awestruck. “It was a big, nice, pretty kitchen,” she recalled. She promptly told Gordon she could really cook something up in a place like this.

Gordon wasn’t so sure. He had served as a cook in the Navy, and he knew his way around the galley. Taneisha, called “Cookie” by her friends, persisted. “Mr. Gordon, I can cook for real,” she said. “You can ask anybody!”

Thanksgiving was right around the corner. “I put the challenge to her,” Gordon said. He told her he would purchase every ingredient she needed if she wanted to cook the holiday dinner in his kitchen.

Taneisha accepted. She worked into the night Thanksgiving eve, outrunning the sunrise and outlasting the volunteer leaders who had stayed to help. By morning, she had created a full meal, including cakes and pies, all made from scratch.

“It was perfect,” Gordon boasted. “This was a young girl who was passionate about cooking.”

He helped to nurse her culinary aspirations throughout her time in high school. “He encouraged me,” Taneisha said, “giving me ideas, boosting me on.” The teen mom who used to walk the school hallways with her head down learned to stand tall. “In Young Life, they teach you that no matter what people say about you, God loves you,” she said.

“I like to be a ‘real model,’” Gordon said. “A ‘real model’ is somebody whom a teenager can spend time with. They need to see how we handle problems, how we handle situations.”

Today, Taneisha works at a downtown restaurant in Jackson, where she produces every item on the dessert board. Gordon reconnected with her when he stopped in for a meal last November. “She’s one of their top cooks,” he said.

“Young Life,” Taneisha said, “changed my life.” In a city rife with violence and poverty, she is quick to acknowledge the watchful protection of her heavenly Father. “He let me see 26, and there’s some people who came from school with me who didn’t make it to 26.”

Gordon often recalls the decision to move to the inner city. “I love my job,” he said. “I think Young Life’s tagline, ‘You were made for this,’ fits me like a glove.”

– Travis Johnson