Life at the Hollenbeck House

For one month this summer, Chico Flores will serve people hamburgers instead of haircuts.

A student at East Los Angeles Community College, the popular, young barber currently splits his time between books and the barber shop. This year, however, Flores will be on summer staff at Woodleaf, serving in the kitchen. He’s exchanging his clippers for a cutting board to be part of Young Life’s camp ministry.

It’s a nine-hour trip from his home in Boyle Heights to Woodleaf, but in reality Flores’ journey has been much longer. And it’s part of a much bigger story about what God is doing in Boyle Heights through a group of Young Life leaders and their unique form of incarnational ministry.

The Young Life team in Boyle Heights is extremely close, both relationally and geographically. The 10 members, who all have some tie-in to Biola University, live together in the Hollenbeck House. Built in the 1880s, the bright blue, pre-Victorian style house is located squarely in the predominately Hispanic Boyle Heights neighborhood where the housemates all do ministry.

Together, adjunct Biola University professor Larry Smith, his wife, Niki, and 10 Young Life leaders are proof that Young Life ministry doesn’t always fit in a box, but it fits just perfectly inside of a home.

“God’s always surprising us,” said Chantelle Gibbs, one of the Young Life leaders in the Hollenbeck House. “God’s been doing a work in Boyle Heights long before we got here. We just want to take a step back and follow His lead.”

Mi Casa es Su Casa

Everything about the Hollenbeck House – from the basketball court to the square-shaped swimming pool – is inviting to the neighborhood kids, for whom there is an open-door policy.

A wall was torn down to create a larger living room. Both Niki’s childhood piano and her interior design skills are on display in the area that doubles as a Young Life club room. It’s painted a rich, green color, and the walls are lined with large picture prints of the group’s first Young Life camping trip.

To the kids in the neighborhood, the Hollenbeck House is a refuge.

To the 10 Young Life leaders, it’s simply home.

Like most of the leaders in the Hollenbeck House, aspiring filmmaker Greg Sanders had Larry Smith as a Los Angeles literature professor before he had the professor as a housemate.

“I remember every week there would be tons of hand-outs,” Sanders said. “It had to do with Los Angeles. It would be about poetry, the history of Los Angeles, or an article about the Dodgers, the history of buildings downtown. He’s just a different professor. He tried to challenge the way we looked at stuff.”

The literature course helped Sanders, a Seattle native, develop a heart for the city of Los Angeles. Never one to turn down an adventure, Sanders decided to move in the Hollenbeck House before he had even seen the home.

It’s one of the best decisions he’s ever made.

“I never thought I’d live with my professor,” Sanders said, laughing.  “We run into hiccups and obstacles all the time. We always work through it. In short, I love living with these guys. Yeah, we’re ministry partners, but they are also my best friends. It’s just amazing to be part of a community like this.”

From the outset, one of the rules of life in the Hollenbeck House was that the housemates would all be involved in some form of ministry to bless the community. They were involved in several different types of ministries, but Larry and Niki never felt settled about the direction of ministry.

The 67-year-old Smith, now in his 45th year as a high school teacher, had been a volunteer area director in Coos Bay, Oregon, for 15 years. He and his wife served as summer staff bosses in the summer. Even as the couple pursued other ministry options, Larry and Niki kept thinking about Young Life.

“We were doing scattershot ministry, but it never felt quite right,” said Smith, referencing the first three years of living in the Hollenbeck House. “Young Life was always where our heart was. After three years, we just looked at each other and said, ‘What are we fighting this for? Let’s just go with what we know.’”

Chico’s Story

Besides the close-knit bond the leaders share by living together, one of the most rewarding parts of living at the Hollenbeck House is seeing the spiritual transformation of kids like Flores.

Because Flores’ home is close to the Hollenbeck House, the housemates befriended him quickly. However, Flores initially stayed away from the big blue house even though it was one of the only places he felt free to truly be himself.

“I felt good about it, but at the same time I was messing up,” Flores said. “I was like, ‘Nah, I don’t want to be there.’ I felt like I wasn’t good.”

A pivotal moment came when Flores went to a camp that Gibbs had suggested to him. The two-week camping experience is when the Gospel really clicked for Flores, but when he started to slide back into an old lifestyle, Sanders was one of the people who showed up in his life.

“Greg and Charlie (Berlin-Burns) were a good influence in my life,” Flores said. “Being around them has made me more comfortable to be open on what I am struggling with.”

Flores is one of many students who have impacted the Young Life leaders in the Hollenbeck House.

“He has taken his faith to the next level,” Gibbs said. “It’s literally been encouraging and sanctifying for all of us. Sometimes it feels like he’s teaching us more about faith than we’re teaching him.”

Winning at Woodleaf

Chico’s story is just one of the amazing stories that has stemmed from Young Life ministry at the Hollenbeck House. Last summer, the team took nine kids from Boyle Heights to Young Life camp at Woodleaf.

Not a single person on the trip — leader or camper — had been to a Young Life camp before.

Sanders vividly remembers returning from camp to Boyle Heights and debriefing with his teammates.

“We sat in our living room, and said literally, ‘What just happened?’” Sanders recalled. “And we were sharing stories, laughing together and crying together. We were up until 3 a.m. or so. And we were like, ‘That was the most amazing thing that has ever happened!’ It was like a little slice of heaven.”

The Boyle Heights kids really bonded with camp musician Mike Edel, who even came back and did a special house show at the Hollenbeck House months later.

The fact that he came to them in their neighborhood was the biggest deal,” Gibbs said. “It proved that Mike meant what he said that he wanted to hang with them.”

As long as there are kids skateboarding through the streets of Boyle Heights — kids who just like Chico are waiting for a caring adult to invest into their lives — Smith hopes that there are leaders in the Hollenbeck House lovingly pursuing them.

“We’re in it for the long haul,” Smith said. “I’m 67. I can’t imagine retiring from teaching, and I can’t imagine dropping Young Life. The Lord is really doing some miraculous things here.”​​​​