An Opportunity at Life

According to Young Life Area Director Mariah McCleary, Tauna Nelson was "my first-ever Young Life kid ... ever. I only knew one Bible verse. I was pregnant. I was crabby. I would tell her when she made me mad."

Tauna admits that didn’t make it easy when they first met during her freshman year in high school. “I pretty much avoided Mariah. The Young Life leaders would meet in the parking lot before they came into the high school. After they were done praying, they would rock-paper-scissors to decide who was going to talk to the blonde spiky-haired girl that day.”

Tauna grew up in the small town of Rainier, Washington, knowing nothing about Jesus. “All I knew in reference to Him was Young Life, and it was positive. And I hated all things positive.” She used anger, drugs and alcohol to mask her emotions, but one day, during her sophomore year, she hit rock bottom. As she stood swearing and punching her locker, the one person standing in the otherwise empty common room was Mariah. And Tauna had to walk by her to leave. Mariah asked if she was OK, and inexplicably, Tauna unloaded all her pain.

“There was nothing about her that was afraid of me,” said Tauna. “This was the first time in my entire life that I had ever verbalized my emotions. It wasn’t when I gave my life to Jesus, but that was the first time I met Him, through Mariah.”

A few months later, Tauna did experience that moment when she gave her whole self and life to God. “I literally cried for 10 straight minutes,” she said. “From there, God completely healed me of everything. I never drank again. I never touched drugs again. I went from being this kid who was always in trouble to reading my Bible in my room every night.”​

Throughout the rest of high school, Tauna was fully involved with Young Life. During her senior year, God gave her a picture of a house full of kids who were alone, misunderstood and had no one to love them. “All I knew was that God had created me to fight for those kids and be someone who would give them a place.” After graduation, she became the first person in her family to attend college. At Northwest Christian College in Eugene, Oregon, she continued leading with Young Life, became the “crazy, small-town white girl” who started a Young Life club focused on the Latino kids at the high school, referred to as Vida Joven. But she also held on to the dream God had given her.

Fifteen years later, Tauna is walking out that dream. As the program director at Hosea Youth Services in Eugene, she goes beyond developing programs for marginalized, chronically homeless kids, and creates relationships that address the real stuff. “The way that Young Life does incarnational ministry and the emphasis on relationship above everything else ... that’s what Young Life has given to me,” she said.

Tauna and Mariah have stayed close, although they haven’t lived in the same town together since Tauna’s freshman year in high school. “She’s busy,” said Tauna. “But if I need her, she is there at the drop of a hat. She gave me the opportunity at life. I didn’t have life before she dropped into my life. She’s my family.”