Ordinary Hero

​Nina Ricca considers herself an ordinary citizen. By day, she answers phones, tracks stats and budgets, and makes the occasional pot of coffee in the Deutschland, Austria and Switzerland (DACH) regional office for Young Life Europe. But like any superhero, this is just a ruse to conceal her true identity. Once she steps onto the campus of the Free Evangelical School in Lörrach, Germany, she’s transformed.

Ricca uses the “ears of her heart” to listen to the hurts of students around her. She wields games and service projects to break down barriers to friendship. And with the love of Jesus, she’s learned to “fly above the walls with Him,” shining the light of the gospel into darkness.

From regional administrator to direct ministry volunteer, Ricca is one of the everyday heroes God is using to move the mission of Young Life deeper into Europe, proving that man-made obstacles are no match for the power of Christ at work in a Young Life leader.

A Familiar Place
It all started in 2011 when Dave Martin, senior regional director for the DACH Region of Young Life Europe, connected with the Free Evangelical School, a 1,600-student middle and high school, in Lörrach. He asked Ricca to join him for a campus tour so she could “listen with a German ear” to the conversations between them.

Once on campus, Ricca realized she attended the same church as many of the teachers and staff there. She also felt a connection she hadn’t expected.

The school, she said, “felt strangely like home, like a familiar place to me, even though it was two years before I started doing direct ministry. At this point I was working 100 percent at the regional office. I hadn’t even thought of doing direct ministry.”

In 2013, the staff switched their focus from Lörrach to ministry in Basel, Switzerland, a city 30 minutes away on the Rhine River. But Ricca wasn’t quite ready to move on.

“I could not get peace in my heart knowing that nobody was loving kids at this school anymore,” she said. “I kept thinking that somebody needs to go to this school and get to know kids. So finally I asked Dave if he would be fine with me going there one day a week to hang out with students.”

But, she admits, “It was God telling me to go. I didn't want to do it.”

The first time a Young Life leader steps onto a high school campus — whether in the plains of the Texas Panhandle or the foothills of Germany’s Black Forest — the experience is the same: “purely awkward.”

“There is no other word to describe it,” Ricca said. “I was standing in a room filled with teenagers who didn't know me, and I wished for something to hold in my hands, something to do or a role to fill. It reminded me of being the outsider at school, and I was not comfortable with it. Finally, I sat down at a table and grabbed a deck of UNO cards. But nobody wanted to play cards.”

Still, despite the not-so-warm reception, Ricca said she had peace.

“Strangely, in my heart I had the deep knowledge I was doing the right thing,” she said. “All of my human ‘Ricca-senses’ wanted to leave campus, go to McDonald’s, grab a newspaper and have a latte, just to flee from the awkward feeling. I knew God was telling me to stay and that was great for my faith.

“I remember telling Dave in a meeting that I don’t have a ‘go’ to give up, but don’t see any sense in me being there yet. He said, ‘Ricca, it’s the rule of showing up. Trust me, I’ve been there, they will get used to you.’”

Playing Her Cards Right
Ricca was three weeks into her commitment to show up when one day, somebody else did too — “Paul,” a 13-year-old boy who recognized Ricca from church. She picked up the cards and started dealing. Before she knew it, she and Paul had a Wednesday routine: every week during second recess at 11 a.m., the pair would sit down and play UNO. And Ricca would pray: “I just kept praying that one day a Young Life staff member would come and find a school ready to start ministry.”

Slowly, more students joined them. Ricca learned Paul had Asperger’s syndrome, which made her even more committed to their “date” and sensitive to bringing new students into their routine. But by the end of the school year, 10-15 students were playing cards with Paul and Ricca.

At the start of the next school year, Ricca was invited by the school to be an official volunteer. During her training, she learned about the possibility of starting a service club on campus, and finally received permission to start one for the following year. By now, Ricca was three years into her showing-up, card-playing commitment. But this had become so much more.

The service club started small but strong: “Each week we ate and laughed and learned more about Jesus. We painted colorful murals at two homeless shelters, went bowling with refugee teenagers and took 15 kids to a weekend camp.”

Ricca was soon out of ideas, but the club was growing. So she and her 15 kids met with the city’s mayor to find out where their efforts were needed most. That meeting was significant for more than one reason.

“That day, the mayor addressed me as the leader of the group,” Ricca said, “and I remember thinking on my way home, ‘I guess I am the Young Life leader that I wanted them to have!’

“To be very honest, up to this day, I don't know why God would give me the key to those wonderful kids’ hearts. I did nothing ‘the right way’ during my teenage years. I keep telling Jesus there must be a person out there who has more experience in being a Christian, in being a leader, in thinking strategic or structured or whatever. There is no way I would be the best He can give them. And still He chooses to let me love them, to open their hearts, to let me be their friend and mentor and sister. I’m very grateful and at the same time, I know it’s undeserved.”

“The Leader In Me”
Today, Ricca is not only the Young Life leader and official school volunteer, she is also on staff as campus chaplain, where she leads all the faith-related activities at school together with a teacher. And the Free Evangelical School has officially become a Young Life campus.

Ricca leads a weekly Campaigners Bible study, and more than 30 students now come to Young Life service club each week, including Paul. And, they are still playing UNO on Wednesdays.

“Our Young Life club is filled with the love of God and He is sending us the wildest, weirdest and most wonderful kids to hang out with,” Ricca said. “I believe Young Life is a powerful tool and that because it is awkward and we stay, that is how we fly above the walls with Him. He is teaching us the awkward feelings teenagers have all the time.”

“My vision for Lörrach is that we reach every kid in this city, and this school is a great place to start. As a human I would not think this is possible. Thanks to this experience of the last three years, I have learned to believe nothing is impossible. He started this and it is His vision to call the teenagers into His family. I know that God is the leader in me.”