Hometown Hero

Natalie Carnazza was a strong student and faithful Young Life kid with a solid plan and bright future ahead of her. So it came as no surprise to anyone when, during her senior year of high school, Natalie was accepted to her dream college in Rhode Island. The surprise came just one year later, when Natalie gave it all up to walk a path she didn’t anticipate, to a place she never thought she’d go.

Called Back

Natalie spent her freshman year at a small college in Rhode Island, eager to leave her hometown and enjoy college life. She had been active in Young Life since middle school in Ridgefield, Connecticut, where she grew up, but struggled to make the same connection when she moved away.

“The closest Young Life in Rhode Island was an hour away from me. I tried to get involved there, but it just didn’t happen,” Natalie said. “I went home Columbus Day weekend and talked to my area director, and she convinced me to apply for summer staff. I went to Castaway Club (in Minnesota) that summer, and it was there the Lord completely changed my heart. I felt the Lord calling me back to my hometown.”

Courtney Boulware, area administrator for Ridgefield Young Life and the Metro North regional administrator, was one of Natalie’s Young Life leaders in high school. She said Natalie’s selfless decision to love and lead others is a picture of 1 Timothy 4:12, “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity.”

“When Natalie served on summer staff, God gave her a passion like she’d never had before for her former high school,” Boulware said. At the same time, the staff person in Ridgefield was stepping down and the area would likely not have a staff person for the coming school year.

Natalie quit her dream college, enrolled at Western Connecticut State University, and began leading in Ridgefield. Boulware continued, “It’s been unbelievable to see how God has used her obedience to bring people to Himself. She gave up a dream to obey God and is getting to see Him do miracles because of it. It’s encouraging to see a young person sold out for Jesus and willing to sacrifice so much to serve Him.”

Making a Difference

At first, Natalie’s decision caught people off guard, explained Cathleen Bearse, who was also Natalie’s leader in high school. But following Jesus mattered more to Natalie than others’ opinions.

“Natalie had a lot of explaining to do to a lot of people in Ridgefield who didn’t get why she would leave a good school where she was happy, to live at home and hang out with high school kids,” Bearse said. “It didn’t make sense without God, so Natalie got to share that with every single person who asked about it!”

Natalie’s story is one of obedience, plain and simple; of doing the thing God says and trusting He will bless it. It’s a story of faith that’s bigger than fear, especially of other people’s opinions. Bearse reflected, “I know Natalie’s story and ongoing ministry in Ridgefield will continue to encourage high schoolers and college kids and any follower of Christ to step out in faith where God is calling them and trust God always has the best plans for our good and His glory.”

Joe Paolella served as the interim regional director while Natalie has been a volunteer and said her example of sacrifice and serving is one worth following.

“I believe the mission of Young Life is built around volunteers, both leaders and committee, who are willing to serve regardless of the cost, because they love Jesus and want kids to know Him,” Paolella said. “Natalie is modeling for kids what it means to ‘seek first the Kingdom.’ She’s decided that listening to Jesus is way more important than success the way the culture has dictated. She is making a huge difference; the Holy Spirit is doing amazing things, and lots of kids are being reached and discipled.”

Better Than a Dream Come True

Natalie’s first contact with the Ridgefield kids, many of whom she knew from attending there herself — was in July 2017, when she took them to Lake Champion (in New York) for camp. The ministry has grown ever since. More than 70 high schoolers show up to their monthly club. Campaigners is thriving, 85 kids attended Winter Weekend and Natalie said there aren’t enough spots for all the kids who want to go to camp this summer.

“Christianity in general is not huge in the Northeast,” she said. “But seeing the Lord use Young Life in a small town has been amazing. He’s using this ministry in crazy ways.”

Now Natalie is a college junior, working two jobs and in her second year of leading at Ridgefield as a volunteer. She credits the strength of the area to the committee, her co-leader, Mike Rudnicki, and a group of student leaders who have caught the vision of what it means to love as Jesus loved. But the other “secret” is sincere simplicity.

“For a lot of college kids, doing Young Life looks like going to a big school and getting plugged in, but you don’t have to go that way to make a difference,” she said. “For kids to see Jesus in you, you don’t have to do amazing things — you just need to love them. That speaks louder than any words you could say.”

As it turns out, giving up her “dream” was no sacrifice at all. The loss was temporary, but the gains have been eternal.

“It’s so worth it,” she said. “I would do it a million times over in a heartbeat. I’m so happy my plans never work out. Jesus’ plans are always better. I’ve learned the best things happen when you step out of your comfort zone.”