A Long, Bold Mission

The same summer Neil Armstrong descended the lunar module to step foot on the moon, another man took “one small step” off a bus to quietly embark on his own epic adventure. This was also a giant leap for mankind, or “kidkind” if you will, when viewed through the lens of eternity.

In 1969, RD Wilkes introduced his first group of kids to the unforgettable experience of a week at Young Life camp. It was the first of 49 annual trips RD would take, and today thousands of kids can point to him as the one who walked alongside them during “the best week of their lives.”

Along with these yearly trips to camp, RD and his wife, Donna, have served on numerous summer assignments (an opportunity where staff spend a month at camp serving while leaders from other areas bring their kids to camp). When you combine both camp trips and monthly assignments, it’s a conservative estimate RD has spent at least two years of his life at a Young Life camp.

Of course camping, while a critical part of Young Life’s work with kids, represents but a fraction of time in a typical staff person’s year. A much larger piece is the day-in/day-out discipline of going to meet kids where they congregate; it’s the foundation upon which everything else rests — and an essential piece of RD’s calling.

“Last fall I came home and told Donna, ‘That’s 50 years in a row!’” RD said. “‘Donna asked, “Fifty years in a row of what?’ I said, ‘It’s 50 years in a row I’ve been at a high school the first week of classes!’”

Add to this the untold number of club and Campaigners meetings, one-on-one conversations with kids and volunteers, committee times, area banquets, basketball practice as a coach and on and on, and you have a couple expertly versed in the mission of Young Life. From their own introductions to Jesus in their high school clubs (he in Pittsburgh, she in Teaneck, New Jersey) to the present day, their Young Life footprint is profound.

​Launching

It was in the summer of 1968 at Frontier Ranch, while serving on work crew, that RD met Donna, who was there for leadership training. The two realized they would both be attending Albright College in the fall and became excited about working together to start Young Life there in the Reading, Pennsylvania, area. Once they arrived, they met up regularly to pray, recruited others to the team and within months launched Young Life at Wilson High School.

A romance blossomed and RD and Donna married in 1974; three children, Shawna, David and Michelle, soon followed.

RD came on Young Life staff the next year.

Anyone involved in ministry learns there’s an art to “juggling” family life with a job where there is always something to be done. “We struggle to balance out work and family like any couple does,” RD said, “but Donna has always had a huge heart for the mission, so there were never times where we were really in trouble.”

While RD has worn the “area director hat,” Donna has stood by his side, serving wherever needed, whether it be through leadership, administration, providing a welcoming environment in their home for leaders and kids, etc.

Discovery

Being on staff, however, doesn’t mean the Wilkes only spent their time with other Young Life people; in fact, being part of a larger community has been one of the keys to their longevity on staff. “There’s lots to be said about the wonderful fellowship you can have within the mission of Young Life,” Donna said. “But it’s significant to be with other people where you can talk about things other than Young Life. To remain healthy it’s important to take a break from the work and enjoy things that allow yourself to be refreshed.”

Of course, few people who come on staff can envision themselves continuing on a half century later, and RD and Donna are no exception. Admittedly they’ve had seasons where they questioned whether to continue with Young Life. What’s kept them in it, when most people don’t last a third of the time they have on staff? “We haven’t felt God call us out,” RD simply replied. “Back in the late ’70s, I had been on staff about five years. We were questioning whether we would stay with Young Life or look at seminaries or jobs. We were unsettled and thinking we might be moving on.”

While he was on a camp trip at Saranac, he had a revelation. He ran to the pay phone and called Donna and said, “Don’t worry about it. We’re not going anywhere.” So she asked what this was all about. He replied, “I can’t imagine finding anything to do that’s more important. If you’re the world’s premier brain surgeon, that of course would be important, but it wouldn’t be more important. So that’s been our marching orders: why would we go do something less significant?”

Another reason for the couple’s longevity can be found in their versatility. Serving in multiple areas over the years (see sidebar) has given them an education like no other. They’ve worked with kids in typical suburban communities, in the urban streets of Pittsburgh, the rural Appalachian mountains of Philippi, West Virginia, and the historic and ethnically diverse surroundings of Oxford, England.  Their time in such a wide variety of cultural and socioeconomic situations made them aware of the needs of kids everywhere.

“The starting point for a kid in the city, suburbs and small towns is pretty much the same,” RD explained. “They’re kids who have grown away from seeing any relevance in God, the Christian faith or the Bible. On the outside they may look different, but on the inside the same kind of malaise has settled into their heart, the disinterest about the things of God.

“Young Life people get terribly bothered by this reality and so they jump into it. We do what we do. We love kids. We go back and we go back and we go back. Gradually we see walls break down, we see God grant opportunities. Every Young Life person, no matter what venue it’s in, wants to share the majesty of Jesus to help kids see they can gain real life. At present they’ve barely even tasted it. It really is the same story, each Young Life staff person or volunteer leader just puts their own unique twist on it.”

Tranquility

RD officially retired from Young Life staff in July. When asked what advice he’d pass along to those looking to serve long term in Young Life, RD emphasized the tremendous value in being an older area director in a community — or several communities — over time.

“That’s the transition in thinking people need to come to if they’re going to stay on staff for the long term. You still work with kids, but you also pour into volunteers, who multiply the kid work. Then they (the kids) go on Young Life staff, or become pastors or elders in their churches, or have influence in the business world. There aren’t many other professions where you can have as much of an impact on the Kingdom of God as in the area director role. It’s a position that affords you the opportunity to do great things.”

There’s a personal element there as well, continued RD. “If you want a relationship with the Lord that grows ever deeper and ever more personal across all your years, there’s no better way to gain that than to be a Young Life area director. The ongoing non-stop challenges associated with giving every kid in your little patch the best possible opportunity to meet Jesus and follow Him — combined with the continual encouragement to spiritual growth via the teaching and fellowship afforded within the Young Life mission — keep you on a path of daily vibrancy in your relationship with the Lord.”