LIMA — Latisha Baker started out attending Lima-Allen County Young Life meetings as a high school student with her cousin. She kept going because of the acceptance she found there.
“I liked that you could be yourself and how nice everyone was to you,” she said. “Every summer, I went to camp. That’s why I stayed with Young Life — they accept who you are.”
Baker became a leader after she graduated from Lima Senior High School in 2013 because the organization made a big difference in her own life. “That’s something I want to be as a leader,” she said. “I want to love on kid and accept them for who they are.”
Connecting with teenagers is what Young Life is all about. The youth program was founded by Jim Rayburn in 1941. A part-time youth pastor in Gainesville, Texas, Rayburn started the organization to reach teenagers who were disinterested in church by going to them.
“He got a group of old ladies to start praying,” said Billi Dray, area director for Lima-Allen County Young Life. “It’s amazing how God came through.”
Young Life has over 1,000 different clubs in the U.S., and is also in 90 different countries throughout the world. They minister to an estimated one million kids each year in the U.S., and over 378,000 internationally.
Young Life is funded primarily through private monthly and annual donations, foundations and grants. They also have a 5K run and Golf Scramble as annual fundraisers.
The 5K race for the Lima-Allen County Young Life clubs will begin at 9 a.m. May 17 at the Lima YMCA. Registration is $25, but if participants register by May 12, the cost is only $15 and includes a T-shirt.
The organization focuses on five main areas to reach kids. The first focus is Club. Dray explained that Club is basically a party with a purpose. During weekly meetings, which start in September and go through the end of the school year, teenagers participate in games and activities. Food is provided and during the last 15 minutes, the Gospel is presented. This is the first point of contact for a teenager with the Young Life volunteers.
The second focus is contact work. “The basis of Young Life is relationships,” said Dray. “We have to form a relationship before we can tell them about God. Contact work is the essence of what we do. It’s where the mentoring takes place.”
The other big focus is camp in the summer. “We go over the top for camp,” said Dray. “It’s like Club Med for teenagers.”
Each night there is a speaker and during cabin time at the end of the day, kids can process what they are learning. “For a lot of the kids in our group,” said Dray, “the greatest thing about camp is that they can get out of town.”
The fourth thing that Young Life does is have Campaigners. This is where kids can do Bible studies and talk about deeper life issues.
Finally, every chapter has a committee. “These are people in the community that support the volunteers,” said Dray. “As a staff person, they are my accountability. They help to take care of the volunteer leaders. One of the coolest parts of Young Life are the layers of ministry even with the adults and volunteers.”
Dray, who herself accepted Christ through Young Life meetings in Worthington, Ohio as a teenager, has been involved with the organization since high school. “In college I volunteered in camps in Colorado,” she said. “I felt God calling us to start it here.”
So, in 2008, Dray began Lima-Allen County Young Life. Her focus has been primarily urban and multicultural and they run around 30 to 40 kids each week in Club but have had up to 60. “We have started to branch out into Spencerville and Shawnee,” she said. “It has grown a lot slower than the suburban focused groups elsewhere.”
Although there are other teen-focused ministries in the Allen County area, Dray said that she does not see much overlap in who they reach. “We want to get all the kids to the table, so if there are still unreached kids, then there is room for more ministry,” she said. “The way I saw it was that you throw out different kinds of nets to catch different fish.”
Dray also explained that while the primary goal of Youth for Life was to lead kids to Christ, there is no time table for that to happen. “For some kids, it takes the whole four years,” she said. “If they don’t respond, we continue to love on them and spend time with them.”
Dray said she sees Young Life as an arm of the church, helping kids to get into church that might not otherwise ever attend.
“We don’t think we’re the Savior,” Dray said, “We just want to lead them to Him.”
What: Lima-Allen County Young Life 5K
When: 9 a.m. (registration at 8 a.m.) May 17
Where: Lima YMCA, 345 S. Elizabeth St., Lima
Registration by May 12 is $15 and includes a T-shirt. Registration after May 12 is $25.
Visit www.alliancerunning.com/race-entry.php?id=47 to register, or visit lima.younglife.org to find out more about Lima-Allen Young Life.