Young Life Lite

​With Your Heart on Your Sleeve

Jason Talley was a volunteer leader for five years before becoming a Young Life staffer in Dallas, Texas. As a volunteer he experienced firsthand Young Life’s gift for gifting. “When it came to leader retreats or parties,” Talley said, “I was always excited about the ‘swag’ we got.”

So he felt a little gift-giving anxiety last Christmas when, as the new area director in the Garland, Rowlett and Sachse communities, he became the giver-in-chief. With a limited $30-per-leader budget, he settled on Young Life string backpacks stuffed with assorted Young Life tchotchkes. Not a bad gift, but Talley was unenthused. “I wanted to go big, but I felt like I was going home.”

His disappointment kept him awake on a Saturday night until he remembered a conversation he’d had a year earlier. Talley had met a man who noticed the Young Life logo on his shirt and wanted to know more. When the man learned Talley ministered to high school kids, he gave Talley his card. Then Ken Gilmer, CEO of Custom Chenille Embroidery, Inc. (CCE), one of the largest letter jacket producers in the U.S., added this: “If I can ever do anything for you, let me know.”

First thing Monday morning Talley gave Gilmer a call. It took little to remind Gilmer of their conversation, and he agreed to meet with Talley at his CCE offices. After a tour of the massive facility, Gilmer invited Talley into his office and to the one chair that wasn’t draped in jackets or piled high in chenille patches. The office was humming. Phones were ringing, folks wandered in for signatures, papers were strewn everywhere. Then, as if a switch had been flipped, “Ken stops everything, leans forward and asks the question every staff person loves to hear, ‘So, what can I do for you?’”

“I said, ‘Ken, I have a crazy idea. You're going to think I'm foolish for even asking such a thing … ’” Then Gilmer leaned back in his chair, put his feet on his desk, closed his eyes and said, “Go!” Talley proceeded to tell him about his 35 leaders — volunteers who give their lives away to kids all year, going where kids are and telling them the greatest story ever told. “I would really love to treat them this Christmas with a custom Young Life letter jacket.”

Gilmer’s reply? “We better get on it if you want them by Christmas!” Talley stopped him. That wasn’t exactly the crazy part. So Gilmer closed his eyes again, and Talley floated his all-in budget. $1,000. Motionless for a few (long) moments, Gilmer then bounded out of his chair and said, “Follow me.”

Gilmer took Talley to a back room with blank letter jackets as far as the eye could see. He asked questions about names, logos, Bible verses and colors. He’d need everyone’s name and size by the following day — or sooner. Which is when Talley reminded him that he still didn’t have a price on the jackets. Gilmer paused. “How about $33.33 each?” (Now that was crazy. Talley figures the largest patch alone cost $36.) The letter jackets were over-the-top, extravagant gifts, but Gilmer loves a good story. And he loves to help tell them.

Gilmer and his 50 employees appear to be in the custom letter jacket business. But it’s more than that. Gilmer would tell you that the patches CCE has designed for decades, and the jackets they decorate tell a story. “At CCE, we give kids the opportunity to tell their story. A letter jacket is their canvas.” Now 35 leaders in Dallas have their own canvas. They are identified by the story that unites them, the one that leads them into schools and games, coffee shops and concerts — and into the lives of kids.