Prior to attending a week-long camp with fellow friends and Rainier Hills Young Life (RHYL) youth leaders last summer, Jorgen Harjo admits he was on the "fast track to loserville."
Without ambition or motivation, "it was a downhill slope" for Harjo. According to Area Director Mike Iversen, Harjo's mother approached Young Life after he had been expelled from school and told them her son was in trouble. The organization was able to cover about 1/3 of the $700 cost to send Harjo to Malibu Camp in Canada.
The day before the bus departed, mom, who had been a Young Life participant herself, told Harjo where he was going. "He wasn't stoked he was here in the beginning," recalled Iversen, though the young man was compliant.
A week later, Harjo said his life changed. Camp activities like wake boarding were fun, but for Harjo, what stood out was that he was surrounded by people who were building him up. "Nobody was tearing you down," he said. It was like Disneyland - it felt good."
Whereas he once made a number of bad choices, Harjo proudly announced "I am led by the Lord!" Sunday to nearly 300 people at RHYL's annual Epic Adventure fundraising dinner Sunday at Thunder Mountain Middle School.
There are many stories like Harjo's that come from Young Life and in particular from the youth who are fortunate enough to attend the five to seven day-long summer camps, leaders says.
Rob Seims, the Western Washington Associate Regional Director for Young Life shared a story about working with a young man named Nick whose initial resistance to participating in Young Life activities was deeply rooted in a troubled home setting where his mother was largely absent and where he was often left to fend for himself.
When he was finally able to attend camp and found himself at the top of an elevated ropes course, Nick was not happy, joked Seims.
But the leader turned serious with the poignant observation, "he never learned to trust." Seims himself choked up as he recalled watching Nick's transformation as he slowly completed the course, crumpling up toward the end from exhaustion and then watching everyone surround him with congratulations, praise and love.
Sunday's Epic Adventure dinner was an opportunity to share these stories with the many community members who have invested time, money or both with RHYL. According to Iversen, the local chapter will be starting up a new program in the Tahoma School District in January 2013 and a head leader has already been selected for Tahoma High School.
Whereas group leaders estimate about 5,000 kids in the Enumclaw and White River School Districts who could benefit from Young Life, the addition of Tahoma brings that number up closer to 8,000 high school and middle school students, Iversen said.
Even without the additional school district, the need for strong, Christian adult role models and volunteers is growing, Iversen said. This past school year, attendance at the summer camps was up 43 percent and at least 460 middle school and high school students took part in at least one RHYL event. That latter number is admittedly unscientific, said Iversen, as it's usually hard for Young Life leaders to track the youth who may drop out at any time. But 460 club cards, which everyone completes at their first event, were filled out and submitted.
He attributes part of this to the state of the economy and the stress that job loss and tight budgets puts on families, particularly in the last three years. Families "are in crisis or dissolved," Iversen said.
Youth leaders see the repercussions on the kids. "There's no tangible measure but more kids are hurting," he said. "They need an adult who cares about them, walks steadily alongside them and tells them 'you're not in this alone.'"
Sunday's event was an opportunity for the community to show its generosity through monetary donations in support of RHYL's many programs.
The cost for sending a child to camp ranges from $475 to $700 depending on their age and which camp they attend, said Iversen.
RHYL as an organization has a targeted yearly budget of $174,503 in the 2012-13 fiscal year. Prior to Sunday, $66,000 had been committed; $108,503 still needs to be raised.
There are also other ways to help, including serving on the RHYL Leadership Committee or becoming a volunteer leader yourself.
As Seims told the audience Sunday, a recent youth volunteer who the kids absolutely loved was 74 years old. "If you're not dead, you're not done," Seims said.
To learn more about Rainier Hills Young Life or find out how you can help, visit http://rhyl.younglife.org