Gillette's Island

Anderson Island, a breathtaking locale tucked in the southernmost part of Washington’s Puget Sound, is a mere five miles long and three miles wide. It’s home to bald eagles, sea lions, seals, whales and approximately 1,200 humans, the majority of whom are retirees.

The only access to and from the island is by ferry, which is significant for the kids here. While there’s a two-room schoolhouse for kindergarten through fifth grade, older kids must take the ferry to school.

And that’s exactly what 4 percent of Anderson Island’s population does every day. The 58 (yes, 58!) middle school and high school kids spend four hours daily commuting back and forth from school. Arriving at their bus stop at 5:30 in the morning, the kids spend the next two hours riding two buses and a ferry to arrive at school by the 7:30 bell. Just one of the unique challenges they face growing up here ...

No (Kid) is an Island

Twenty years ago, many of the kids felt trapped living in such an isolated environment. Suicide and addiction rates in the adolescent population soared as they searched for meaning, connection and care.

A concerned Jeff Gillette witnessed it all from behind his cash register in Anderson Island’s general store, which he had run since 1979. He could see things were quickly coming to a head.

“We had a 16-year-old who committed suicide in the late ’90s,” Gillette said. “At a town meeting afterward, one impassioned man said, ‘This just kills me. How could he do this? I would have loved to have sat down with him. I would have listened. I would have talked him through this.’

“The teenager’s friend looked at the man and not being obnoxious — he was serious — said, ‘Who are you? And how was he supposed to have known to talk to you?’ That planted a seed.”

The exchange revealed a distressing truth: a majority of the island’s adult residents didn’t know the kids, and vice versa. Feeling alienated, kids often erected walls and lived in self-imposed isolation and eventually, rebellion.

“Around 2000,” Gillette said, “a lot of the kids began breaking into the summer homes out here and tearing them up. They became defiant and did whatever they wanted. It was a really hard season to go through with the increase in addictions, suicides, teenage pregnancies.”

Around this time, Gillette discovered Young Life through his own kids, who “fell in love with it in high school.” They jumped into Young Life on the mainland, through friends they knew from school. Because club began at 7:00 and the last ferry back to Anderson Island left at 7:30, Gillette’s kids spent the night with friends on the mainland. Seeing what club did for them inspired Gillette to join the Lakewood/Steilacoom committee to learn what it would take to start the ministry back at home.

“I thought, if we brought Young Life here, it will give kids an alternative to boredom and feeling trapped. Within a few years maybe we’ll turn a corner.”

By the time Anderson Island Young Life began in 2005, changes came a lot quicker than expected. “Within two months of starting Young Life, the problems stopped,” Gillette said. “We were stunned at the difference.”

The first few years consisted of young staff coming in and establishing the work, with the Anderson Island committee also running club for a year. The young staff did an amazing job reaching kids, but the move proved difficult for them socially, as they didn’t have any peers on the island. Ultimately, the ones who came to help the kids fighting loneliness, became lonely themselves, and eventually left. The committee acknowledged that the time had come to hire an islander who loves kids.


“When the committee started the next search,” Gillette said, “Joyce and I had just sold our business. I’d run the general store for 30 years, with no plans with what to do next. I sold it because I thought, ‘I’m past the 50 mark. If I’m going to do something different I need to get started!’ So we sold our business and prayed.”

It didn’t take long for the committee and the Gillettes to agree on whom God was calling to the position. Jeff heartily accepted the offer in the summer of 2009.

“It’s been a good fit,” he said. “I love going to work every day.” With Joyce working behind the scenes on the administrative and creative end, Jeff was freed up to run with kids. All concerned parties — the kids, the parents, the committee and the Gillettes — were thrilled with the arrangement.

For his part, Ross Stewart, regional director for the South Puget Sound, is thankful that this is “the store” Gillette is now manning. “Jeff’s as humble as it gets. This is a calling for him; he just wants to faithfully serve on his island. In his humility and quiet nature he flies under the radar, but he’s also someone who has incredible spiritual wisdom.”

Part of this wisdom comes in reaching out to kids who spend nine hours every day off the island. Like Young Life leaders around the world, Gillette simply goes where the kids are, which for him means doing contact work on the ferry!

“It’s the one central point where you can see every kid,” Gillette explained. “We know every kid, we know where their homes are and we have their contacts.”

Often Gillette and the other leaders will show up and greet the kids in the morning with hot cocoa, breakfast bars and sometimes even homemade breakfast burritos. They may organize games and mixers on the ferry ride in, but more often than not, they’ll simply spend time in friendly conversation. On some evenings they have pizzas ready for the kids’ return.

“Young Life in a place like Anderson Island takes ingenuity,” Stewart said. “It’s unique in that it isn’t school-based ministry, it’s island- based.”

Finances and Friendships

As with many small areas, raising funds for ministry costs as well as the kids’ camp trips was a challenge. (Last year, 85 percent of the kids were on free or reduced lunches, so they spend a lot of time working to raise money for camp.)

Gillette discovered, however, that financial obstacles would be the very tool the Lord would use to help knit the community together.

The turning point came as Gillette and the committee planned a golf fundraiser. After hearing their heart for helping kids connect with the adults, the man advising them said, “You have to decide whether this will be a relational tournament or strictly a fundraising tournament.”

“It became a big prayer item,” Gillette said. “We decided we’re going to choose ‘relational’ and God honored that.

“One complaint I’d heard from adults was, ‘Who are these kids? We don’t know them. We don’t know their names.’ So we went to the golf association and explained, ‘We want to have a golf tournament. If you want, the kids can caddy for you and you can contribute toward their camp funds. But I keep hearing you say you don’t know who these kids are anymore. If you want to golf with them, I guarantee by the end of the tournament, you’ll know who these kids are.”

The golfers voted unanimously to play alongside the kids, none of whom had ever golfed before. Part of the fun was the challenge for kids to find out things about their adult counterparts that Gillette didn’t know. For every fact they could stump him on, their camp funds increased. The adults were tasked with the same challenge, and the facts they learned about the kids also helped the kids with their funds.

At the awards dinner afterward, Gillette was blown away by what he witnessed. “When I walked in, all the kids had chosen to sit with the adults they golfed with instead of their peers.”

Buoyed by this success, Gillette and the committee resolved every future fundraiser would have a relational aspect.

“Once we did it this way, people started taking ownership of Young Life and getting involved. We started with three leaders and a handful of kids, but now locals refer to it as our Young Life program.”

The fundraisers continued, with different opportunities set up for kids to make money toward camp while building relationships with adults all over the island. Kids worked wherever needed — at senior citizens’ dinners, ice cream socials, on trails clearing paths and spreading bark, picking up litter, and on and on.

The result, Gillette said, is that “now the community takes pride in the kids and kids take pride in the community. Because a kid who cleans up the park will not take his pick-up truck and do figure eights on the lawn! The kids went from feeling trapped to proudly thinking, ‘This is our island.’”

For those kids more comfortable in quietly serving others, Gillette and the committee offer other options. “Not every kid loves club and big crowds. We take some teens to Washington Family Ranch [Young Life’s camp in Oregon] to be YoungLives nannies. We’ve also taken a group of kids to Lost Canyon in Arizona to be buddies to Capernaum kids. We try to offer something for everybody.”

Kids These Days!

The last dozen years have of course offered challenges, but Young Life is firmly entrenched in the hearts and lives of the residents of Anderson Island. The adults have wrapped their arms around the small, but vibrant population of kids here.

Stewart said, “I heard John Vicary [Young Life’s executive vice president of U.S. Ministries] say, ‘Young Life only comes to places where it’s invited and wanted by the community.’ That’s the case for Anderson Island — they were adamant they wanted Young Life and they made it happen. I’m so proud the community and our mission have come together to reach these kids.”

“When I worked at the store and a kid walked by,” Gillette remembered, “the seniors would say, ‘Kids these days. They don’t do anything, they’re lazy, etc.’ I got so tired of hearing ‘kids these days.’ Now it’s, ‘Kids these days! Thank you for bringing them to this event. We’ve got some of the most amazing kids!’ Now, it’s a glorious statement!”