Son to Father

This summer, a rarity in Young Life occurred. A father and his adult son spent a week caring for kids at Young Life's Washington Family Ranch. The son, part of the program team for the month, did so mostly from onstage. The father was there as a volunteer leader who brought kids to camp. The week was a special one for the two men, allowing them time together as they shared the love of Christ with kids.

"Time together" has not always been what the two men desired, however. Twelve years ago neither could envision such a joyous week, because they couldn't even coexist under the same roof. This is their story.

Three pivotal weeks

Growing up in Yakima, Wash., Kirk Willms suffered from depression for as long as he could remember. Even though his father, Ken, mother Joyce and sister Becky, along with professional counselors, did everything they knew to care for him, Kirk's depression grew worse. "I got very good at hiding it as I got further into high school. I figured out that I didn't have to deal with it, if I was drinking or smoking weed."

About this time, Kirk first encountered the mission of Young Life — in the person of Pat Garretson. "At lunch there was a table full of kids like me that most adults weren't excited to be around and Pat showed up, introduced herself, plopped down at our table, slapped some camp flyers in front of us and told us we were going to camp that summer! We were completely blindsided, but saw the pictures of kids wakeboarding on the Malibu brochure and thought it looked pretty awesome. Next thing I know I'm at a McDonald's washing cars to raise money for camp."

That summer of 1998, Kirk experienced the best week of his life at Malibu. "I felt love like I never had before." Although he had grown up in a church-going family, he wasn't ready to embrace the spiritual message he heard at camp. "I knew about Jesus, I knew about faith, but I rebelled pretty hard against it."

Returning home from Malibu, Kirk's hard times increased. He continued to struggle with drugs and depression, which hurt his relationships with friends and family. "Life at home continued to be challenging. My father and I didn't get along — I didn't agree with him, he didn't agree with me. If it weren't for my mom, I'd have been kicked out of my house." Eventually, Kirk did leave home, living instead in his car and on friends' couches and floors.

This downward spiral came to a head later that fall. Returning home to pick up some things, Kirk was desperate. "I was either going to Portland to see a friend or I was going to drive off the freeway. But my parents would not let me leave the house. I knew the only way I was getting out of there was if I was arrested, so I scared them enough for my safety and theirs that they called the police. I remember being walked to the police car and watching my parents ‘die' right in front of me. I went from having the greatest week of my life to the worst within a few months."

A third week would change Kirk's trajectory once again. As he struggled through his junior year, Kirk received a call from Garretson, letting him know an anonymous donor would pay for him to return to Malibu that summer. On this second trip to camp, Kirk "felt the same love as the previous summer, but this time I realized it was God. What I had never really put thought into is that there's God and me, and an opportunity for relationship between us."

Once home from camp, Kirk decided to follow Christ. "I called Pat to tell her and she's quite a risk taker. Within weeks she had me at a leadership camp at Washington Family Ranch, made me a student leader and had me share my testimony at the first club."

New eyes

These changes were not lost on Ken Willms. "I was growing pretty complacent in my faith. [Kirk's troubles] really shook us up as a family, because we thought we had it all together. It was a real wake-up call."

As Kirk's involvement with Young Life leadership grew during his college years, his parents began to see the ministry with new eyes. In 2001, Kirk was on summer staff at Malibu and his parents visited the camp as adult guests.

"I didn't see what I was going to do at camp for a whole week!" Ken said. "I wasn't excited about going. But you get up there and it really is the week of your life. It was eye-opening to see Christians having that much fun and how they reached out to non-churched kids."

The kids weren't the only ones undergoing change that week. "Where that week changed me was the 15 minutes of silence. Sitting on a rock at Malibu, the thought hit me, ‘What am I really doing that's important in life? God, what am I doing for you? I'm just going through the motions here,'" recalled Ken.

Time for change

In 2002, after seeing Kirk hang out with kids at their house, Ken was asked to lead kids at camp when other male leaders were unavailable. Ken graciously accepted, assuming this would be a one-week commitment. Little did he know that the week would change the next eight years of his life.

"That was the number one week for me. When we arrived, Kirk was there and all these kids ran up to him. That was pretty emotional for me. Those were the best cabin times I've ever had."

Ken returned home and immediately began leading Campaigners. When some other commitments cleared, he jumped on board as a full-time leader and has been working with kids ever since.

Ken also grew closer to those at home. As their faith grew, Ken and Kirk's relationship healed. Ken said, "If I want to see a miracle I just look at Kirk. From someone who back in high school would have said he hated me, to now, where we both consider each other our best friend, it's pretty neat."

Talking shop

Today, Ken continues to lead kids in Yakima and adults on the regional finance team, while Kirk is on Young Life staff in Skagit Valley, Wash. The two share a bond not too many fathers and sons can claim — one that includes phone calls on topics such as skits, club talks, Bible studies and budgets. Ken said, "That's been the highlight. We'll call each other late on Monday nights and see how club went or I'll ask him what he's leading on in Campaigners or he'll run things past me in regards to finances."

Joyce Willms, too, has joined in on the conversation, by taking an active role in direct ministry with kids. Ken said, "Joyce became involved with Young Lives (Young Life's ministry to teenage mothers) several years ago as a mentor. One of the girls moved in with us and has been living with us for five years, and Joyce is mentoring another one right now as well."

"The family that does Young Life together stays together," said Mason Rutledge, Evergreen regional director. "It's true of the Willms. They show up at each other's fundraisers, clubs, camps, etc. It must be in the Willms family DNA."

Judy Klaustermeyer, Inland Northwest regional director who has worked with Ken over the last eight years, echoes this sentiment. "Their family is one of my favorite families in the mission. Ken's been a leader, area and regional finance manager, donor, regional board member and husband of a dedicated Young Lives mentor. He's a multi-talent guy and invests his talents freely. His heart is huge. He's seen much fruit, but I am sure that seeing Kirk grow into a minister of the Gospel through Young Life is one of the richest rewards he'll ever receive."

Through it all, the family has drawn closer to one another as they've drawn closer to Christ. Talk to the two men today and you'll experience a mutual admiration society. "Dad's my biggest role model now because he worked so hard on his relationships with my mother, my sister and me," Kirk said. "He's always letting me know how proud he is of my work with students and I'm severely moved by the way he's faithful to God's call, and seeing the way that ‘Papa Willms,' as the kids call him, is changing kids' lives."

Ken is just as enthusiastic. "I'm living my dream through Kirk. I don't know where he or I would be without Young Life. We're all in this together, whether you're on the front lines or in a back room accounting office. Just recently, I saw a kid from that 2002 trip and suddenly it just makes it all worthwhile. I hadn't seen him in a couple of years and just to see him again reminds you of why you do this."