Springing Up in Springfield

In 2002, Gary Bernice was a college student double-majoring in economics and business management. He turned in a paper for a business law class about his passions. First on that list was God. Second was education. The paper, which received a B, only mildly impressed his professor, but it changed Bernice’s life forever.

“It was a kind of a lightning bolt moment,” said Bernice, the director of bands at the Springfield (Massachusetts) High School of Science and Technology (Sci-Tech). “At that moment, I knew I needed to be a teacher. I left the class. I gave my family a call, and said, ‘Hey, I need to be a music teacher.’”

In 2008, Don and Glenna Ryan were dropping off their youngest daughter in Washington, D.C., to start her first semester of college. Glenna’s cell phone rang. It was an administrator from Springfield Central High School, offering her a teaching position.

“I was going to go back to school to become a physical therapist,” said Glenna, who had passed her teaching certification exams and reached out to a few area schools. “No one hired me that summer, but we got a call the week before school was going to start. The principal at Central offered me a job. I had never taught high school before.”

Fast forward to 2016. Not only are Bernice and Ryan decorated teachers at neighboring high schools — Central and Sci-Tech are one and a half miles apart — they are also Young Life leaders.

The two educators are having an eternal impact on students like Princess Gomez and countless others in the Springfield area.

“They’re both very talented in different ways,” said Don Ryan, the committee chair. “They know they are not just there to teach their subjects. They are there to reach out to kids.”

Change of (Lesson) Plans

Don recently finalized orders for two buses to transport all the Springfield kids signed up for camp this summer.

“A few years ago,” he said matter-of-factly, “we could have all fit in one van.”

The camp trip isn’t the only sign of growth. Club, which regularly consists of 40 to 50 kids, has finally outgrown the Ryan home.

Much like the mustard seed parable, Young Life in Springfield had extremely modest beginnings, but things have exploded quickly.

In 2000, Don was serving as a Young Life committee chair in Rhode Island, when he followed his job 90 minutes west to Springfield, Massachusetts. With no Young Life in his new city, involvement with the ministry seemed like a door that was closing.

The Ryans’ newest Young Life journey, however, was only beginning.

In Springfield, Glenna began working as a youth director for a church. The pastor of the church became a Christian through Young Life on the West Coast, and he suggested sending a couple of the kids to Young Life camp.

“Those two boys came back saying, ‘Mrs. Ryan, we have to start Young Life here,’ even before I started working at Central,” Glenna recalled. “So we started doing clubs.”

Don and Glenna went out to dinner with a couple to pitch the idea of Young Life teacher staff to them. The man they were considering for the position informed the Ryans that he had just turned in his letter of resignation to the school.

Ironically, that teaching void opened up the door for Glenna to teach at the school.

“There’s just no way Glenna could be a teacher and just leave everything there at the end of the day,” Don said. “She’s going to get to know the kids and she’s going to care for them.”

Glenna’s own struggle in navigating the teen years well has created a great compassion in her heart for teenagers.

“I made most of my mistakes as a teenager,” she said. “I understand the pain from those choices, and it’s such a critical time in your life. It made sense to work with Young Life, because of the aspect of fun. And it made sense to do it where I worked, because I’ve always said I want to minister where God puts me.”

More than the Music Man

On Jan. 22, 2007, new band director Gary Bernice walked into a classroom of 20 kids. He wrote a single word on the board: ownership.

“This isn’t my band,” he told the students. “This is your band.”

Seventeen kids ignored him. But three kids listened.

This would begin a remarkable journey where the band would grow exponentially from 20 kids to 500 kids under Bernice’s guidance. The astonishing story of the band has been turned into a national documentary, SCITECH BAND: Pride of Springfield. The band program has been featured on the local ABC, NBC, CBS and FOX news channels, and the band received a personal handwritten letter from President Obama.

Awards like the 2012 Yale Distinguished Music Educator award have flown in for Bernice. He was a Grammy quarterfinalist for the inaugural music educator award in 2013. And as much as he has poured into the kids at Sci-Tech, he still felt like there was more he could offer students.

That something turned out to be Young Life.

Four years ago, Don Ryan was trying to drum up interest for a Young Life committee at his church. One church member in particular, Bernice, perked up at the idea of Young Life, but not in the way Don and Glenna expected.

“Gary goes to our church, and kids would go to camp and come back and tell their story, but Gary never said much to us about Young Life,” Don said. “I invited him to a committee meeting, and we start to talk about Young Life. I was hoping to recruit committee members. Gary looks at me and says, ‘Don, I’m not interested in your committee. I want to do Young Life.’”​

Regional Field Developer Dave Wintsch secured six spots at camp for Sci-Tech kids. With Bernice just having fathered twins, Don took the initial group of six kids to camp three years ago. That initial group has grown into a club with as many as 60 to 70 kids, as well as a Campaigner group.

Fifty Sci-Tech students signed up for camp this summer. Bernice treasures his time with kids at Young Life camp.

“Other than being with my family, those weeks have been the most special weeks of my life,” Bernice said. “Watching the students bond with each other, and watching them be able to share things they have never shared before, watching them push themselves in ways they never would have had the courage to do and to see them smile at the end of it. Then we use that comprehensive experience at the end of the day to share about life and share about God.”

The Princess Diaries

Springfield is known as the city of firsts. It’s the place where basketball was invented, and it’s the city where the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame resides. It’s also where the first commercially produced automobile (Duryea) and motorcycle (Indian) were manufactured, and the first board game (Milton Bradley’s Game of Life) was created. And it’s the hometown of Theodor Geisel, affectionately known to a world of young readers as Dr. Seuss.

Despite its rich history, the city hasn’t been exempt from many of the social ills plaguing inner cities across the nation. Wintsch happened to be present at a meeting where a half dozen of the Springfield kids were giving their testimony. The kids’ stories brought tears to Wintsch’s eyes.

“They were stories of abandonment, social services coming and separating siblings, moms and dads in prison, hard-working moms just trying to keep the families together,” Wintsch said. “Other stories were even harder to hear.”

Brokenness wasn’t the only theme running consistently through their stories.

“At the conclusion of each one of these stories, you could count on a kid saying, ‘But then I walked into Mr. Bernice’s band room. Then I walked into Mrs. Ryan’s science room, and I felt like I had family,” Wintsch said. “To a kid, that’s what they were all saying.”

That was Princess Gomez’s story. Princess was one of Glenna’s first students at Central, but the relationship got off to a shaky start.

“Glenna comes home every night that fall, and it’s tough,” Don said of his wife’s initial teaching experience. “And one name that I keep hearing a lot is this girl, Princess; always getting detentions. Always getting Saturday School. Of all the kids I heard about, I heard the most about Princess.”

Looking back, Princess knows she didn’t make it easy for the first-year teacher.

“It was very rocky,” Princess said. “I didn’t get along with her at all. I was a troubled kid. We would bump heads.”

It was an act of incredible humility on Glenna’s part that began to restore the relationship with Princess, and that act had a significant-sized ripple effect in the high school. After a verbal exchange in the classroom, Glenna sent Princess out of the room. Later, the teacher went and found Princess and apologized.

“It felt like I was acknowledged in some way, like, ‘OK, she respects me,’” Princess said.

Glenna invited Princess to Young Life, and Princess took her up on the invite. Then she came the next week, and the week after that as well. In fact, she never stopped coming.

“I liked all the games and stuff that was happening,” Princess said. “My relationship with my teacher was getting better. It was like, ‘Oh, I have a cool teacher now.’”

Slowly, the changes in Princess’s life were becoming evident to those around her.

“My principal that knew me very well — because I wasn’t the best kid — noticed that I had changed,” Princess said. “I wasn’t getting suspended any more. It was just like all this good stuff. He said if something can change her, it could change any kid.”

Princess believes Young Life ministry could change any kid, too. That’s why she started on staff in August.

“Where I live is an urban area, and our kids need it,” Princess said. “There’s a lot of kids like me or even worse. I’ve been through what they’ve been through, and I can help them. There is a better path. It doesn’t have to stay in the same circle. I just want to open kids’ hearts to, ‘Hey, there’s a God that loves you. There may not be people in your life that love you, but we love you.’”

That is the message that’s springing up in Springfield through the work of Glenna, Gary, Princess and, now, a team of over 20 other teachers and volunteer leaders.