When Young Life mentors roamed the halls at Lake Fenton High School ten years ago, Jake Kirk, now 28, remembers making fun of and avoiding them.
“Ten years ago, I was rebellious, and I made fun of them and I teased other teens who talked to them,” says Kirk, who now, ironically, serves as Young Life Associate Area Director and visits high schools such as Linden and Lake Fenton, where he tries to reach out to teens in need during their lunch period.
What are today’s teens in need of, you ask?
Something authentic. Someone authentic.
According to Young Life Area Director of Genesee County, Sue Frownfelter, Kirk and dozens of other Young Life mentors like him work on making authentic connections – no preaching allowed, either – with middle and high school teens in the Linden, Fenton, Lake Fenton, Grand Blanc and Flint areas who are hurting, isolated, brokenhearted, lonely, depressed and sometimes, suicidal.
Senior High Young Life, Middle School Wyldlife and Multicultural Young Life comprise a global organization of screened, background-checked, caring adult believers ranging in age from 21-80, who reach out, connect and introduce young people to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, in a non-judgmental and loving way.
“I have a heart for kids like me who were
rebellious but really hurting inside. My goal,
my ministry is to get them at the foot of Jesus.”
Jake Kirk, Associate Area Director
“Young Life meets kids on their turf, such as sporting events or during their lunchtime – we go to them, and we work on getting to know them, break down barriers, build trust and basically just walk with them through life, invite them to Young Life events, all while slowly pointing them to Christ,” explains Frownfelter.
Jamilyn Blaine-Snyder moved from Nevada to Michigan when she was 12 after her mother passed away from cancer. “I lost my mom, flew on an airplane by myself while my dad drove a moving truck across the country to Michigan,” explains Blaine-Snyder, now a sophomore at Grand Blanc High School. “My dad and I attended my half-sister’s wedding, and shortly after that, he didn’t even say he loved me and went back to Nevada without me. He said, “Hey, see you later, kid,” and left me with my newly married sister. My sister and brother-in-law went to court and became my guardians. When I started middle school, I came from a life of poverty, had no family memories, no friends, I didn’t belong anywhere. I was quiet, and I honestly just felt so lost.”
After becoming involved in Young Life, Blaine-Snyder’s outlook was transformed.
Today, she has more confidence, gets noticed and “has so many friends and is bubbly all the time.” She’s in the marching band, color guard and choir – those groups are now safe zones in her life. She never misses Young Life Weekly Bible Study and attends weekend events and summer camp in North Carolina where she met more friends from Texas, Tennessee, North Carolina and other states.
In addition, she has a grateful heart toward the courageous sister who took a hurting teenager into her own home. “She’s my sister, but she’s also my only mother-figure,” says Blaine-Snyder. “She’s helping me everyday to become successful and learn about life.”
“I attended Young Life meetings and I’ve been involved ever since. Young Life taught me to take all of my negative experiences and find the good in them. I know now that God had this planned for me all along. Now, I share my story with other young people and they tell me I inspire them, I give them hope. I want to continue this. I want to remain active in Young Life and I want to become a leader one day.”
Blaine-Snyder is actively carrying on the torch of faith which the late Woody Skaff, owner of Skaff Furniture, started after he attended a Young Life camp in 1944 and came back to establish a local version of it in the Genesee County area. “There are many families, individuals, churches, foundations and businesses supporting Young Life with their time, labor and donations,” says Frownfelter. In fact, recently, the Nartel Family Foundation gave a gift of $5,000 to support expansion of Young Life and its efforts to assist Genesee County teens in crisis. The organization also received a $75,000 donation from The Hagerman Foundation in January 2018.
Teens like Eddie Hahn, a sophomore at Carmen-Ainsworth, who doesn’t know where he’d be without the support, care and sense of belonging he receives from Young Life.
“Before Young Life, I was always angry, I bottled up my emotions and I was depressed,” says Hahn. “I had a lot of family issues. I met Jake Kirk in the lunchroom, and he took me under his wing. He goes the extra step to show others how much he cares. I’ve learned how to cope with my anger and now, I turn my anger over to God to help me resolve it and deal with it.
I began to open up and talk about my situation, because Young Life leaders accept me as I am. I get mad a lot less now. But, the best thing about Young Life is it’s a comfortable place to learn about God and it’s so much fun.”
Sometimes, the fun means “no phones.”
“Attending Young Life camp means no phones,” says Blaine-Snyder. “At first, I was thinking ‘how could I survive without my phone?’” she laughs. “But, now, I really don’t miss it at all. We’re so busy having fun, meeting new people and doing activities that I don’t even think about checking my phone. It’s been so beneficial for all of us.”
Frownfelter sees firsthand how teens are healed and when their interior life has peace, their exterior life improves. “Social media has made us all lonelier,” she says. “These kids are hurting in so many ways. When they know they’re cared for, loved and supported, they respond. They’re hungry to be loved. Young Life is like a family. Back in the 1970s, I walked the halls of my own high school as a wild kid; but a friend introduced me to Young Life and I’ve remained connected to this day and serve this area with enthusiasm. Young Life is ‘caught’ more than it’s taught. People bring other people to it.”
That’s what Hahn is busy doing.
“Young Life has been nothing but joy and I want to share it as much as I can with others,” says Hahn. “They’ve impacted my life so much, I don’t know where I’d be right now without their influence. I’m a completely different person and I even had the courage to go up to Kalyjia, the new kid at school, who didn’t talk to anyone. I was the first one to introduce myself to him. We’ve been friends ever since that day.”
In college, Kirk reached “an all-time low-point and returned home as a 21-year old, struggling with alcohol, without much of a future,” who happened to live near a Young Life leader. The neighbor he intentionally avoided invited him to chaperone a special-needs youngster at a Young Life teen event. His heart was softened, and he immersed himself in reforming his old habits and helping others face their trials and troubles.
“I have a heart for kids like me who were rebellious but really hurting inside,” says Kirk. “It’s easy to see those kids, and my goal, my ministry is to get them at the foot of Jesus.”
Young Life gatherings for high school teens meet Mondays at 7:11 p.m. at Linden Presbyterian Church, 119 W. Broad Street; WyldLife meets at 7:11 p.m. Saturdays at Lake Fenton Middle School and Multicultural Young Life meets at 7:11 p.m. Mondays at Bethel United Methodist Church, 1309 N. Ballenger Hwy., in Flint – where everyone is always welcomed and accepted.
“Young Life meets kids on their turf. and we work on
getting to know them, break down barriers, build trust and
basically just walk with them through life, invite them to
Young Life events, all while slowly pointing them to Christ.”
Sue Frownfelter, Genesee County Area Director
Andrew Petts, 21, a Wyldife Middle School Leader, recalls how Young Life coaches, speakers and events changed his life.
“Wearing glasses and being chubby in middle school is almost a guaranteed combo to be the target of bullies. I was the kind of kid who was seeking attention. Then in high school, I was 240-pounds and used my weight as a football lineman,” says Petts, who later slimmed down, but still struggled inside with the need for attention.
Everything changed after Petts heard a Young Life camp counselor speak at the annual Fall Weekend event at Timber Wolf Lake in Lake City, MI.
“He came out with a cardboard cut-out of a human with a giant hole in the heart-stomach area,” says Petts. “He explained how, without Jesus Christ in our life, we can find ourselves filling that hole with all kinds of things – drugs, possessions, alcohol, sex, pornography, gambling, violence or I thought to myself, the need for attention. He then showed us another cardboard cut-out with the same hole, but this time it was covered by a cross. The cross fills the hole. The cross is Jesus and only Jesus can make us whole.”
To learn more about Young Life visit genco.younglife.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photography by Jennifer Hodney