I noticed that the kids stopped coming to our after school program when they got older.
What a weird experience of growing up, the kids that were in fourth grade when I started serving were now in middle school. I still had pictures of them when I first moved into the Parks and plenty of memories of all the things that happened.
I had wanted to start a teen program ever since I moved in, but now I really felt like this was going to be the key to building leaders - by filling that gap from after sixth grade to the end of high school we could really see the youth in our programs grow into leaders. That age is such a vulnerable time for youth, and for some of these kids it can really determine if they live past the age of 25. We noticed that the victims of most of the shootings and stabbings in our neighborhood were youth between the ages 18-24. The teenage years are when kids join gangs, get pregnant, run away from home, dropout of school, start doing drugs or alcohol, start acquiring weapons, and fall away from the church - if they went to church at all. The streets in these communities are mostly unkind.
I didn’t have any money but I wanted to do something, so I decided to start a teen program in January 2019. We ran for 23 weeks, had 13 volunteers, 6 guest speakers from 6 different churches, had 106 different teens come through our program and got over 40 of those connected to youth group. And we ate a bunch of pizza. Nobody got paid. I bought the pizza out of pocket and the leaders chipped in. The potential for reaching youth in the Parks neighborhood (located on Fruit and Ashlan) was huge. All we did was hang with the kids, invited them to teen program, and ran a youth group type night with games, a message, small groups, and food. The food is key. When you show care and are consistent, the youth and families in the community see that. A few of our leaders started to invest more time into a few of the teens and mentor them. When our site at the Parks shut down, I wanted to see that mentorship become a part of what we do.
July 2019, we started brainstorming a program that would be able to reach all of our sites instead of just one and would encourage mentorship relationships between the leaders and students. We came up with a model that included a once a month teen night with all of the sites with the expectation that leaders would mentor their group of teens during the month. We have had over 50 students in our first 5 months and have started to see our leaders mentor the teens outside of teen night. We have built a team of 17 leaders. They do anything from taking kids to church, working with teens on leading in our after school program, taking them out to eat, and more. These mentorship relationships are the deepest and most impactful relationships out of all of our programs. When you take the time to spend one-on-one time with a student, learn their story, then the real growth starts to take place.
We have a fun year ahead of us with camps for the teens, a trip to Magic Mountain, service projects, monthly teen nights, and mentorship. Our dream is to be back onsite in August with teen programs at each of the sites and still have the once a month with everyone.
A few stories stick out to me - here is one of them. A few months after I started teen program, I had less than $100 in my bank account. I spent some of that taking this girl out to dinner and I decided to spend some on a few teens. They were hanging in the neighborhood and I felt this tug on my heart to spend time with them. I think God does these little tugs to see if we are listening. Luckily, I was listening this time and I decided to take the kids to McDonalds. When it was time to pay, I swiped my card and it was declined. I wondered why, I thought I had enough money. I decided to try it a few more times and it didn’t work. I checked my bank account and the wifi had been charged to my account earlier that day. I felt silly not being able to pay and told the kids sorry and we had to go home. They suggested that we just split 40 chicken nuggets. I said ok and spent the rest of my money.
As we were walking back to the apartment, one of the kids started talking about how he went to church. The week before we bugged him to go and he kept saying no and then decided to go at the last minute. I asked him a few questions about his church experience and he said he liked it and wanted to go back. The next day I got a phone call that this kid had been shot in the face. The first thing I thought was that he was dead and I was really happy I got to see him before he died but also sad. It turns out he was still alive. It took us weeks to find out what really happened. In those weeks he found his way back to church and got baptized. I love stories like these of our kids making a decision to follow Christ even when things are hard in their lives. I pray that I can listen to God more and follow his call on my life.
We ask that you pray for:
More teens to come consistently
Funding for the program so we can have paid staff
Churches that want to help start a teen night site and help get kids to church
More mentors to mentor teens
For us to continue to grow and go deep with these kids
Teens to get to know God and have a relationship with Him
Youth to become leaders when they grow up and truly live life well
God continues to bless us as we try to walk in step with Him.