From the Grapevine

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Charting a Course

It’s just an ordinary neighborhood park in Phoenix — plenty of grass and trees, a playground for kids. If you were to drive past the unassuming area called Butler Park, you might not guess that for two decades it has been sacred ground.

You won’t find a single sign marking a tee box or a hole, but since the mid-’90s Young Life kids and leaders from Sunnyslope High School have been playing their own customized Frisbee golf course at Butler Park. Developed by Sunnyslope club kids and leaders after their return from Woodleaf in the mid-’90s, the course has served more than one generation because of its simplicity and the power of the relationships forged there.

“It’s just a walk in the woods,” said Stu Graff, who was the area director for Central Phoenix when the course was formed in the mid-’90s. “That’s all it is. It’s an excuse to take a walk together.”

Chuck Watkins was a Sunnyslope club kid who went to Woodleaf that summer and played Frisbee golf for the first time. He loved it because it was fun for all types of kids — athletes and non-athletes alike — and it lent itself to conversation. Back in Phoenix, he was one of the kids who chose Butler Park as the site of their own course and designated the holes.

“We said, ‘We’ll go to that tree, then to that light pole, there’s a penalty if a Frisbee goes into the street,’” Graff said. “We had some silly rules. It kind of took on a life of its own and it didn’t take very long before you would be driving by and there would be four club kids playing.”

Watkins transitioned from being one of those club kids to a volunteer leader in his old high school, and in his 14 years in that role he’s introduced countless high school friends to the course. Chasing Frisbees from hole to hole, he has discussed girl problems, struggles with parents and friends, and often pointed club kids to the hope found in Christ. And inevitably, he said, the draw of the course brings new kids into Young Life.

“The most consistent thing, over the course of 20 years, has been a Young Life leader with about two or three guys that he has a relationship with kind of making it their thing,” Watkins said. “And what transpires is that those three guys experience something organic and real, and good conversation, and they want to invite their friends.”

Young Life leaders have been walking alongside high school kids at Sunnyslope High for more than 60 years, making it one of the three oldest clubs in the state, said Arizona Regional Director Chris Eaton, and the Frisbee golf course has become a key tradition for new leaders who can’t wait to start organizing games of their own. Every Christmas, former club kids and leaders even come back for an informal reunion tournament at the park.

The course has changed over the years due to natural events, Watkins said. Hole No. 10 used to be the third palm tree on the left and now it’s the first, because one was lost in a storm and another was cut down by the park maintenance crew. But the core purpose of the course, and its meaning to so many Sunnyslope students, alumni and leaders has endured as a cherished tradition undergirded by two decades of relationships.

— Bethany Bradsher

Trick or Tweet

When she saw social media being used to hurt Moorestown High School, 18-year-old senior Monica used social media to help heal it.

With the help of her Young Life Campaigner friends, of course.

The problem all started when students got wind of a social media app that allowed anonymous posts. The original intent of the app was to let people living in the same geographic region help each other anonymously, but it wasn’t long before the students learned that the app was as good at spreading gossip as it was goodwill.

“Anonymity can bring out the ugly side of people,” said Daniel Thompson, the Young Life staff associate in Burlington County, N.J., at that time. “A lot of ugly things were being said about guys and girls and their parents, teachers. It was stuff people would never say out loud if they had to be held accountable for it.”

The hurtful, anonymous posts soured school morale quickly.

“The school was in a state of shock,” Thompson said. “They banned all electronics from the school to try to curb it a little bit. They had all these seminars. Four days after it happened, it was still raging on pretty strong. The school was up in arms with each other, because people were accusing other people of saying things. It was getting very ugly. Walking around the halls of that school was very depressing.”

It just so happened that Thompson had been leading the Moorestown Campaigner group through a study of the life of the apostle Paul. On the Friday night after the social media explosion, the Campaigners decided they wanted to impact their school like Paul impacted cities. 

The Campaigners had heard enough lessons. They were ready for action.

“We were brainstorming different ideas of what we can do,” Thompson said. “One of my seniors, Monica, started talking about how to use Twitter. We could create an account where people could direct message things into this account and those things would be tweeted out anonymously. We could use it as a compliments page.”

And with that, @MHSComps14 was created.

What happened next amazed everyone.

The Twitter handle was created around 10 p.m. on a Friday night. Within the next 24 hours, more than 600 messages had been sent to the account. The story eventually went from social media to local media, as an article about Moorestown High School’s social media redemption appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

“It was a beautiful thing to see,” Thompson said. “Good things were being said about people, and there were compliments about what is great about the school. People realized that the true heart of these kids was good, and that a few kids saying negative things didn’t reflect a lot about who those kids in the school were.”

On the Monday following the @MHSComps14 experiment, Thompson said Moorestown felt like a completely different high school.

“Our Young Life kids had made a very visible difference in their school,” said Thompson, who recalls the experience as one of his favorite moments as a Young Life leader. “It was unbelievable. It’s that moment when kids start to get it, grasp and live it out that reminds you why you do it.” 

Through the social media ordeal, Thompson learned not to underestimate the power of a Campaigner group to change a high school.“Don’t be afraid to challenge them,” Thompson said.

“Don’t underestimate the difference they can make.”

— Chris Lassiter​​​​​