Building a Bigger Tent

​Alex Martinez and her team entered Sandy Springs Middle School to start a new WyldLife club with plenty of enthusiasm and calling, but it didn’t take long for the college-aged leaders to realize there was a significant segment of the school population that they were struggling to reach. Thankfully, they didn’t stop after identifying the problem, and they didn’t try to fix it on their own.

The story of how a group of Georgia Tech students helped create a diverse club that reached a broad range of Sandy Springs students is a testament to the power of community partnerships and ministry innovation. It’s a reminder that no one organization has cornered the market on reaching lost kids, that sometimes two groups with the same vision can be better together.

A Closer Look

Two years ago, WyldLife clubs at Sandy Springs, and at other middle schools in Northwest Atlanta, were comprised primarily of white students from upper-middle-class backgrounds. Those students were eager to attend events, and their parents were quick to step in whenever needed. But as the leaders took a closer look at Sandy Springs they noticed a sizable population of Latino kids, kids who had never embraced WyldLife as something that could be available to them.

As Northwest Atlanta Area Director Alan Corder considered strategies to help them make a bigger WyldLife tent at Sandy Springs, he remembered that he had recently been connected with Felix Lora, the executive director of Sandy Springs Mission. Felix has worked with the Christian after-school program for underprivileged children in the area for nearly 20 years, and he had developed relationships with many of the students at the middle school. Felix had known about Young Life’s mission and tried to connect for years; after meeting Alex and the Sandy Springs WyldLife team, he was convinced joining forces would have tremendous potential for the Kingdom.

“We talked about what we’re doing, the kind of kids we’re hanging out with,” Alan said of his initial conversation with Felix. He had an idea of Young Life and WyldLife, and he wanted some sort of connection. He had all these kids and he wanted them to know the Lord, but he didn’t necessarily have the resources and the programs to do it.”

“I said, ‘Hey, we’ve got the kids,’” Felix said. “The problem is not the kids, we just have a hard time spiritually connecting the kids to college students who have the passion to see these kids come to Christ and walk with Christ. That was an easy fit.”

A Different Vibe

Felix invited the WyldLife team to start coming to the afternoon tutoring program run by “Mission,” as Sandy Springs Mission is known, and soon they knew kids by name and jumped at the chance to run a WyldLife club meeting every other week at Mission’s headquarters. For a while they ran two different clubs — a traditional one for the suburban kids who were already part of WyldLife, and a group on alternating weeks for the kids they met at Mission. “We bring a little bit of a different vibe to their tutoring,” Alex said. “Some of them would literally walk up to us and say, ‘Who are you?’”

The friendships they made during those afternoons allowed the leaders to invite those Sandy Springs kids to summer camp at Southwind in the summer of 2018. Alex and several of the other leaders were nervous about taking kids from such different backgrounds to camp, but when the team looks back they see that trip as the most significant pivot point in the growth of their club. “I was convinced that they weren’t going to be a fan of anything we did,” Alex said. “I thought they were not going to like me, and talk about me behind my back in a language I didn’t understand. But it was so much fun. It was one of my favorite camp experiences ever, because it was such a different task. They were surprisingly so open to the gospel. They’re so open to trust you when you show them that you genuinely care about them.”

After that camp trip, Alex and her team felt walls crumble between them and the Sandy Springs students who had previously seemed marginalized. Suddenly they had as much ownership in WyldLife as the kids who had been coming for a while, and soon the leaders made the transition from two separate biweekly clubs to one combined meeting. And the most encouraging aspect of the leaders’ journey, Alex said, is the way these college students have gone from nervously showing up at Mission to seeking out opportunities to spend time with the Latino kids from Sandy Springs Middle — both at the tutoring center and in the community.

Bringing the Faith

Georgia Tech is an extremely rigorous university known for its engineering program, and the conventional wisdom among Atlanta Young Life staff has always categorized it as a difficult place to find committed leaders. But Alex, now on student staff in northwest Atlanta, and her fellow leaders have defied that stereotype by doggedly pursuing other kids even when academic obligations are pressing. Many of their WyldLife friends play in a recreational soccer league on Saturday mornings, and even though the fields are on the other side of Atlanta and the games start at 7 a.m., it never fails to be rewarding when they get up and make the trip.

“Once we really got to know these Mission kids, they will tell you, ‘I really need to hang out with you today,’” Alex said. “They will tell you everything that’s on their mind. It’s so hard to miss things, because they really, really care that you’re there.”

With 80 middle school kids in his center every school day, Felix is always looking for volunteers, but over the years he has noticed that many of the well-meaning people who come to help aren’t approaching their relationships with the kids from a faith perspective. The WyldLife volunteers are young and the middle schoolers are drawn to them, he said, but more importantly they are believers who are approaching the kids with a genuine desire to see them know Christ. And Felix knows that when they have significant experiences with WyldLife, chances are better that they will stay connected into high school with Young Life, giving them more exposure to the gospel.

“For us, the challenge is connecting the kid with believers, to people who have a heart and a passion to work with youth,” Felix said. “WyldLife provides that for us. That’s how we get the most help from WyldLife; their passion and their whole vision is getting kids to know Christ and to walk with Christ.”