A Ride Home

Randy Giusta can spot a hurting kid from a mile away.

It’s not something he learned in a manual, or in 47 years of being on Young Life staff, although being in tune with teen culture for nearly five decades has certainly helped.

Mostly, it’s because Giusta himself was once that hurting kid.

Monday night Young Life clubs at the Creekside Inn — a restaurant that converted into Miramonte High School’s club room — was Giusta’s escape as a teenager.

“I grew up in a very dysfunctional family,” said Giusta, the Young Life senior area director for San Diego North Shore. “It was such a respite from my family of brokenness that I don’t think I missed one night in the entire four years.

“It was so touching for me that ‘Mitch’ (his Young Life leader and former Young Life president Bob Mitchell) remembered my name. They cared. They heard my story. They allowed me to go to Oakbridge. They raised half of my camp fee, and that’s where I met the Lord after my sophomore year. It probably saved my life really.”

Giusta’s empathy radar went off as soon as he saw a middle schooler named Ryan Reffitt sitting on a rock in front of Oak Crest Middle School. The seventh grader looked disheveled, with a posture that suggested he was carrying the weight of the world on his young shoulders.

Giusta’s simple gesture of kindness — offering Reffitt a ride home — did more than save the teen from a four-mile walk that day in 2007.

It started a relationship that would change the course of Reffitt’s life, including introducing him to the most important relationship of all.

Wide Open

Much like Giusta’s story, Reffitt grew up feeling like anywhere was better than being at home.

He grew up with a single mother who battled alcohol dependency during his middle school years. Although the relationship is getting better now — an ode to Reffitt processing and working through the gospel’s message of forgiveness and reconciliation — things became much worse in high school.

During his sophomore year, he often wondered if his mom was still alive.

“I spent as much of my time as possible at friends’ houses, at the skate park,” Reffitt said, “just as much time as possible away from home.”

Rides with Giusta became a semi-regular occurrence for Reffitt. As providence would have it, Giusta was with a group of Oak Crest Middle School students on the way to Young Life’s Oakbridge camp when he passed Reffitt, who was walking.

Again, Giusta offered Reffitt a ride.

This time, however, it was a ride to Young Life camp.

After working past the logistical and financial obstacles, the bus driver drove the first group of middle schoolers to camp and then circled back 75 minutes to pick up Reffitt.

All of the back-and-forth driving turned out to be well worth it, as Reffitt literally had one of the best weeks of his life.

“It was a camper responding the way you’d dream they would,” Giusta said. “His mouth was wide open the entire time; he laughed, sang, jumped into every activity. He was overwhelmed by the fun, by the joy, by the people caring for him.”

It wasn’t just camp that was a hit. It was also the gospel message of God’s unfailing love.

“For someone who feels very lost or alone, that message comes through a lot louder,” Giusta said. “Someone is pursuing me. Someone cares about me. Somebody knows my name. Somebody knows my story, and He still loves me.”

The summer trip to Oakbridge was Reffitt’s first real introduction to the gospel and the ministry of WyldLife, but it was as part of work crew when the gospel clicked for him.

“At Woodleaf I saw that the camp staff were so stoked and had something in their lives I was missing,” Reffitt said. “That’s where my journey with Young Life and Jesus really started.”

But it’s not where either journey would end.

Sharing Hope

Reffitt’s faith grew even as circumstances became more challenging in high school. Things hit rock bottom when Reffitt’s mom disappeared for half of the year, leaving the teenager without shelter or security.

He stayed with a friend’s family, who invested greatly in Reffitt, by helping him get his driver’s license and meeting other needs most kids take for granted.

And Reffitt stayed close to his Young Life leader.

“One of the reasons I’m where I am today is because Randy Giusta never gave up on me,” said Reffitt, a regular at “chocolate chip pancake breakfast Campaigners” at Giusta’s house. “He was always giving me rides, mentoring me when I needed it, giving me tough love when I was messing up, fighting for me and being by my side.

“I wouldn’t be the dude I am if it wasn’t for Randy Giusta. Not having a solid foundation with a mom and dad to steer me in the right direction, I was extremely impressionable. Young Life and Randy Giusta were like the parenting I didn’t have growing up.”

In the same way Giusta had pointed Reffitt toward an eternal hope, Reffitt sought to do the same, leading WyldLife while in high school.

“I always tell our leaders the best way to grow your faith is to give it away,” Giusta said. “As Ryan reached out to his own family and peers, he probably had more of an impact on other people’s lives than I have seen in my entire time. I think his story resonated. To this day, people will talk about Ryan and what an example and inspiration he was.”

Fired Up

Reffitt is now a First Class Petty Officer in the U.S. Navy. He’s been deployed twice, and is now back in the Midwest where he completed his own basic training, teaching the next generation of Naval Enlisted Recruits how to properly put out fires.

He loves the job. And the pay isn’t bad either.

Once homeless as a teen, he’s in the process of purchasing his own home. And his dream is to one day have that home filled with Young Life kids.

Reffitt plans to add some more chapters to an already amazing Young Life story.

In the way Giusta cared for him — like Mitchell cared for Giusta — Reffitt plans on continuing the legacy.

“I just see Young Life changing lives tenfold,” Reffitt said. “It changed my life. Hopefully I’ll be able to go out one day and pick up a Young Life area director position and do something amazing with that and change my community.”