Early in Kelsey Hayes' high school years, there was a time when Young Life was the high point of her week. She had always felt welcome and loved there, but when she became pregnant during her sophomore year, Kelsey stopped showing up on Monday nights.

Her son, Jase, was born just before the beginning of her junior year, and Kelsey was navigating teen motherhood — and the news that her grandmother had pancreatic cancer — without seeking the support of her Young Life friends. That all changed the afternoon Kelsey's area from Murfreesboro, Tenn., prepared to take its fall weekend trip to SharpTop Cove, Young Life's camp in Georgia, and she came to the buses to say goodbye to some of her friends.

In that parking lot, Kelsey saw leader Jenifer Niederwerfer, with whom she had always had a strong connection. Niederwerfer was going to be leading Kelsey's friends at camp, and all at once Kelsey craved the encouragement and connection to the Lord she knew she could find through Young Life.

"She got on her bus to help some of her friends, and she looked at me and said, 'I miss Young Life. I want to come back,'" Niederwerfer said. "She said, 'I really wish I could go to camp with you.'"

Niederwerfer sprang into action, finding Area Director Matt Thomas in the parking lot to formulate a plan. Thomas said that if Kelsey could come up with a deposit quickly, she could go to SharpTop on the late bus. Forty-five minutes into the trip, Kelsey called one of her friends to say she was coming on the weekend.

Catalyst in a crucial work

That spur-of-the-moment decision was the catalyst in a crucial work the Lord did in Kelsey's life through Young Life. Even as she walked through one trial after another, Kelsey became firmly convinced the Lord's love for her was steadfast and her place in His family was permanent.

"She kind of felt like God stopped loving her because of the decision that she had made," Niederwerfer said. "She felt like her baby was the consequence of her sin. She came to know the level of forgiveness and God's grace that He gives us, to know that the all-loving, all-forgiving God loves her."

When she initially encountered Young Life, Kelsey was more interested in seeing her friends than anything, she said, and when she stopped coming to club it was because she was afraid what the kids there might say about her pregnancy. But over time, her relationship with her leader and the peace she found from trusting Christ truly made Young Life vital to her.

"When I first started going to Young Life, it was more of a social thing," she said. "It turned out that my bond with Jen and her love for Christ and just her spirit is what drew me to get closer to God. It completely changed my whole outlook."

When Kelsey's grandmother passed away from her cancer, she constructed a support system of Niederwerfer and her Young Life friends to help her cope with the loss, as well as raising Jase. She heard about the area's summer trip to Windy Gap, Young Life's camp in North Carolina, and started to dream of going despite her family's financial limitations. Niederwerfer was determined to help her raise the money, and they succeeded in collecting the full amount. Kelsey's parents offered to keep Jase, and she was off to camp.

"We arrived at Windy Gap and to me, it looked like nothing less than a little slice of heaven," she said. "I walked with God for a full week and got to know Him and the group of girls more than I had ever known them before. Camp showed me that each person as an individual really does matter."

Songs of life

Kelsey's camp experience shored up her faith and prepared her for the most trying crisis on her already-rocky path. In early December of her senior year, Kelsey's dad committed suicide. On the brink of despair, she was at her house one night when she heard singing outside. She looked out the window and saw something unforgettable.

"When her dad died, we went and did a candlelight vigil in her front yard and sang," Niederwerfer said. "She ran out and jumped into my arms."

At the time of Kelsey's father's death, the Murfreesboro Young Life staff was planning for its annual fund-raising banquet, and Thomas had already asked Kelsey if she would share her testimony on that night. But when he heard about her loss, the area director was ready to find someone else, because he knew her pain was so raw. Niederwerfer approached Kelsey and was surprised to learn that she was still more than willing to share her story.

"It was really neat to see Kelsey become, not just a role model, but a hero for Young Life," Niederwerfer said.

By her side

"Young Life has changed the lives of so many young people and I can whole-heartedly say that they have definitely made my life easier to deal with," Kelsey said at the banquet. "I have been through a whole lot more than most of the people my age. One thing has always led to another for me since I have been in high school, and I am so blessed to have Young Life by my side."

Even though it was hard to recount her pain that night, Kelsey said she was determined to share what she had been through and how God had met her, because many teens think they are immune from the types of struggles that marked her high-school years. "It was kind of like my opportunity to make people understand that bad things happen to good people," she said. "Because I just think the biggest mistake everyone makes is that they're so quick to judge people. I got pregnant when I was 15 and it was not easy and it wasn't what I would have wanted. But I just thought that was something that would never happen to me."

Today Kelsey is going to college part time, working part time and teaching little Jase to cling to God no matter what life brings. Life is still hard at times, she said, but she can't imagine where she would have been if she had not found refuge in the Lord through the relationships formed in Young Life.