Following His Own Yellow Brick Road

14 SPRING Following His Own Yellow Brick Road.jpg
“I had an awareness there was a God, but I wasn’t sure He took too much interest in my life.” 

This was the mindset of 16-year-old Nik Wright, and little wonder, too, considering what life had shown him thus far. 

At 14, Wright had been kicked out of his house by parents who were struggling with substance abuse issues. He soon found himself living with an “uncle,” who was fresh out of prison and bouncing around from hotel room to hotel room. Out of necessity, he quickly learned his uncle’s trade — selling drugs to afford a place to stay each night. 

Not surprisingly, Wright became chemically dependent and dropped out of high school. “I was a pretty good student for a period of time. I had a 3.9 GPA, but after my sophomore year I dropped out completely in the heat of this different world I was learning about.” 

The situation went from bad to worse, Wright said, as those who were “taking care” of him returned to prison. “I ended up alone in some pretty vulnerable types of situations.”
The lifestyle took its toll. After two years, he weighed 105 lbs. Hungry, angry, scared and completely alone, Wright showed up in Colorado Springs, Colo., at the doorstep of his grandfather, who immediately understood the seriousness of the situation.  
Wright’s grandfather brought him to the Dale House, a residential facility in town aimed at helping hurting kids and equipping them with the skills necessary for independent living.  

“That experience was my yellow brick road in this roundabout kind of way. The people at the Dale House welcomed me with open arms. There began the road … ” 

The path didn’t start out smoothly, however. Wright was, admittedly, not thrilled to be there. “I was a pretty angry and broken kid, and for the first few months, defiant and rebellious. I had a hard time with trust. But the leaders there were really persistent with me. They didn’t force anything on me, but they also didn’t waver.” 

One of those unwavering leaders was Drew Hill, currently a communications specialist and volunteer leader with Young Life. As Wright’s primary care counselor, Hill broke down walls with his younger friend through the power of laughter and music. 

“Drew would sit on the foot of my bed every morning and wake me up by singing country songs,” Wright recalled, “and I was not listening to country music at that point in my life!”
Wright often woke up to Hill’s reworked version of a popular country song: 

Good morning, beautiful /
How was your night? / 
Mine was wonderful / 
Good morning, Mr. Wright! 

Unbeknownst to Wright, Hill was not only inviting him into the day, but into a life of hope. 

“Nik didn’t have a lot of people in his life telling him he’s worth something,” Hill said, “but inside he knew it. I was able to speak into that and tell him what I saw and tell him he was valuable because he was God’s child.” 

“I was confused by why these people who seemed very different from me cared about me and loved on me for no reason,” Wright said. “In my mind, my value was pretty low — I had been involved in all these bad things. It was confusing, but also really attractive.”  

“Nik wanted relationships and he was well liked by both the staff and other kids,” said Kevin Comiskey, program director at the Dale House, and Wright’s good friend. “And the routine of the Dale House was soothing to him.”  

That routine is an important part of the rehabilitation process for kids like Wright. “I learned how to eat at a dinner table,” he said. “I learned how to work and save money; and I learned how to have real relationships.” These lessons were preparing Wright for the greatest truth of all. 
Every summer, kids from the Dale House spend a week at Frontier Ranch, experiencing Young Life camp like thousands of other adolescents. When his week came, Wright was blown away. 

“Nik had never been any place like Frontier,” said Comiskey. “At meals they tell kids ‘it’s all you can eat.’ The night of the steak dinner — after all the other campers left and the work crew was clearing tables — Nik and the guys at our table just stayed and said ‘keep bringing us that steak!’ They could not believe it was all you can eat. Kids go to camp and they see the kingdom of God. They see there’s another way — a whole other world they knew nothing about. From there they can choose: do I want to move into that world or not?”

“I remember the sin talk,” Wright said. “I could get on board with that — I had this separation from God. I realized I have this choice. After the cross talk, I sat on this flatbed wagon in the infield, in those beautiful mountains, and had this visualization of God being this Father. I met Jesus there at Frontier Ranch and I could see — again on this yellow brick road — that God really had a hold on me.” 

The road allowed Wright to obtain his GED, enroll in community college, and pursue career opportunities. Throughout these post-Dale House years, Wright’s thoughts never strayed too far from the place where so many had poured into him. He longed to do the same for others.  

“Just like kids dream of being an astronaut, my dream was to come back and work at the Dale House ... and I got my dream!” In September of 2010, Wright returned and for the next two years, invested directly in kids the way Comiskey and Hill had invested in him. In 2012, he was promoted to residential team leader, a position which not only includes caring for the kids, but also leading the other leaders.  

“The exciting part is I have a purpose today. When I wake up in the morning, I know what I’m doing is kingdom work. It has eternal weight. Jesus had a special place in His heart for the widow and the orphan and marginalized people. The greatest commandments are to love Jesus and love people, and I’m trying to do that to the best of my ability. I believe I was made to do this.” 

“I have tangibly seen and experienced what this dark, broken world has to offer. I’ve also tangibly seen and experienced what an abundant life with Christ offers.” Armed with this knowledge, today Wright lovingly walks beside kids and leaders who are following their own yellow brick roads. Wright smiles as he lives out the truth he himself learned firsthand: 

“You can only love on somebody so long before they have to respond.” 

In 1971, under the direction of longtime staff George and Martie Sheffer, and their son, George Sheffer III, Young Life launched the Dale House Project. Sheffer III, who oversaw the work for more than four decades, began the ministry as a response to the large amount of disaffected teenagers who, because they were runaways, not attending school, or even in and out of jail, were outside the scope of the traditional ministry. Comprised of three houses (on Dale Street), the ministry provides “a home away from home” for hurting kids, while training young leaders in residential and community ministry.

The Dale House has a capacity for 18 residents at a time and hosts about 60 to 100 kids annually. The time spent there prepares kids for life awaiting them.

“We are hard on them,” Comiskey said, “but not nearly as hard as the world is. They have a lot to learn in a short time, because they’re usually here six to nine months, then they’re emancipated. Work ethic is a huge struggle for kids. Many live on the edge of poverty, and if they don’t work, they don’t make it. It’s not all about work, but work gives you freedom of choices.

“We have these kids and they’re each God’s kids. He wants His kids treated a certain way. We celebrate birthdays with kids who’ve never had a birthday cake. What a great deal! That’s what we get to do with these kids!”

For the staff, the experience consists of a one-year training program, where they are immersed in the fields of psychology, counseling, family systems, Bible, theology, and relational ministry while walking alongside the kids. While the Dale House is independent from Young Life, Comiskey said, about half the staff still come from Young Life. “They know how to be relational with kids,” he smiled.​​​​​​​​​​​