A Lifelong Calling

In 1975, Bobby Canupp walked into his first Young Life club. His friends, volunteer Young Life leaders at the time, told him he needed to come “check this out.” “OK, I can do that,” he replied. During this first club, he thought, This is crazy … I sure do wish I had something like this when I was in high school! “I always tell leaders that Young Life isn’t just something you decide to do,” Bobby said, “it’s a calling.” Now, 44 years later, Bobby continues to faithfully answer God’s call to build relationships with teenagers and love them exactly as they are.

The Stuff of Legends

“I love my hometown,” he said. “I haven’t found any other place I’d rather live.” Born and raised in Gainesville, Georgia, Bobby has worked at the same job, frequented the same restaurants and led Young Life at the same high school his entire adult life.

“I’ve been here so long, people accuse me of knowing everyone,” he said.

“We all joke that if he ever decides to run for mayor, it would be no contest because he’s known and beloved by so many,” said former Gainesville Area Director Skip Ecke.

Bobby’s steadfastness has made him the “stuff of legends,” said Susan Peterson, Young Life board member and former club kid of Bobby’s from the ’80s. “He is simply a caring adult in our small town who loves the Lord and cares deeply about high school kids. In my memory, Bobby was a leader to ALL kids, no matter what school, background or demographic — he was available and a true friend.”

Bobby has now walked two generations of Gainesville High School families through countless Young Life clubs, Campaigners meetings and camp trips. “I’m a leader now for kids whose parents were in my first club,” he said. Recently, Bobby was having lunch at a restaurant when a former club kid approached him with his family in tow. “I want you to meet the man who introduced me to Jesus,” he told his children. These are the moments that remind Bobby the time he has invested has been worth every minute.

Showing Up

Bobby admits he isn’t the up-front, entertainer type you might associate with many Young Life leaders. “I can’t play the guitar, I can’t sing, I can’t carry a tune in a bucket. But I had one area director tell me, ‘Yes, but you do love kids. They can tell when you’re genuine.’”

While you may not find Bobby playing the guitar at club or doing program at camp, you will find this 67-year-old man showing up at Gainesville High School — walking into the lunchroom, sitting in the student section at a football game and frequenting high school plays. “The old definition for commitment as a Young Life leader is going to a JV track meet in the rain,” said Skip. “You’re going to be the only one there. That’s Bobby. He’ll be at that track meet. He’s that kind of guy.”

Learning New Tricks

Leading in the same area for four decades has certainly had challenges, including staff turnover. “I keep thinking this is going to be the last area director I’m going to train,” Bobby laughed. While he’s only joking, he truly has played an important part in equipping the eight area directors he’s seen come and go over the years.

Leanne Kinney, also a former club kid of Bobby’s from the ’80s, said, “As area directors come and go, Bobby is the glue that holds it together. He knows the committee, he knows the kids and he knows the leaders. He models relational ministry and Christlike love.”

Bobby said, “I always tell them you’ve got resources here and you need to use them. Don’t come in thinking you’re by yourself.” But he also realizes he has a lot to learn from each new staff person. “I never want to think that I know better than they do. These new people that come along have a lot to offer. I need to be willing to let them teach an old dog new tricks.”

One of those new tricks is social media. Bobby remembers the days of handmade Young Life club flyers. “I used to draw maps, print off a bunch of them, cut them in half, go to school lunch and pass out my maps,” he said. “That’s how we told kids about club. Now it’s all social media.”

Bobby has embraced technology as another way to build relationships with kids. “I never thought I would have adapted. All of a sudden every kid in the world had Myspace and then Facebook and now Instagram.” A few years ago, the area director took some high schoolers on a road trip. One of the high school guys asked Bobby to follow them on Snapchat. “I grabbed my phone and the next thing you know, I had Snapchat on my phone. I don’t think I’ve ever sent a Snap but that app is still on my phone.”

Shifting Roles

From 24-year-old eager leader to 67-year-old faithful follower, Bobby claims he can’t do everything he once did (like climb 14,000-foot mountains). But there’s something special about the many different roles he’s played in teenagers’ lives.

“When we first started as leaders in our 20s, we were the fun older brothers,” Skip explained. “Then we became the dads many guys never had. Now, Bobby is in the role of a grandfather — this fun old man who isn’t ashamed to get a pie in the face. It also makes a statement that following Jesus is not just some fad you do when you’re young. It’s a lifelong commitment to Jesus.”

Inspired by Jim Rayburn’s commission to never stop telling teenagers about Jesus, Bobby has braved all of these seasons with humility and purpose. “Things have changed a lot over the years,” Bobby said, “but one thing that hasn’t changed is that kids still need Jesus.”

This fall, you’ll find Bobby in the same places he’s been for the past 44 years — at Gainesville High School, eating lunch with teenagers, cheering at basketball games, reminding high school kids they’re seen, known and loved by the God of the universe.

“Volunteer leaders need to be prepared to give their lives away,” he said.

And that’s exactly what Bobby is doing. People often ask him how long he’s going to keep leading Young Life. “I don’t know how to answer them,” he said. “It’s something God has called me to do. I think probably when it’s not time for me to do it anymore, He’ll let me know that too.”