In a perfect world, children and teens would grow up with the knowledge that they are valuable and loved. They wouldn’t have to ask for it, they wouldn’t have to earn it, or even necessarily understand that they have it, but they would be free to grow, safely experiment, and mature into healthy young adults ready to lead their own lives.
Ideally, this readiness would come out of simply having had those basic needs met at home. But what happens when the environment that is supposed to provide this security is broken or non-existent?
UGM’s Youth Outreach Director, Ryan Brown, knows the answer first-hand: desperation. As a man in his fifties, he looks back on his twenty-something self as a spiraling, drug-addicted young adult who wanted nothing more than to be seen, known and valued. Before knocking on UGM’s door at the age of twenty-six, however, he had no concept of how or where to get those basic needs met.
He likes to tell the story of the first time he met UGM’s Randy Altmeyer, who came up to him one day in the Men’s Shelter dining hall and simply said, “I see something in you.”
“That was the first time anybody said something like that to me.” And so began a lasting transformation in which Ryan began to see himself as God sees him and chase a life path that would provide countless opportunities to share this kind of love with others.
This week, we sat down with Ryan to learn from his experiences both as a young adult in crisis and as the ministry leader he is today.
UGM: Ryan, what are some of the challenges the kids you serve are facing?
Ryan: A lack of caring, consistent adults. Stability is a big one. Loneliness, self-doubt, regrets about mistakes. Definitely lack of good relationships. They want someone who will be there and listen, not just talk at them. They already get a lot of that. They are also very hungry to be able to be themselves.
UGM: How is UGM addressing that hunger?
Ryan: That is everything we are! While some of our programs do have ‘programming’ in them, they are all about conversation and relationship. Being in ministry for so long, I have seen so many ministries unable to connect relationally because they are so busy running programs. Our advantage is that’s what virtually all our ministry is directed toward.
What is UGM Youth Outreach?
For those who are unfamiliar, UGM Youth Outreach has several components:
The UGM Student Impact Center opens its doors three days a week and serves youth who are at risk or underserved, by providing a safe, homelike environment, where caring young adults can help with homework, mentoring, providing clothes, meals, showers, laundry help, etc. The Center is also home to college students pursuing urban ministry.
Young Club is an after-school program on site at local elementary schools, and Impact is a similar program for middle and high school students. These programs focus on academics, developing trust, team-building, community service, and even the development of individual talents and hobbies.
On Sundays and Wednesdays, the Juvenile Detention Ministry offers Bible studies, personal conversation and mentoring for young people currently spending time in Juvenile Detention.
UGM Camp provides nearly 500 disadvantaged kids with a free week of summer camp each year, while Young Club and Impact continue throughout the summer at the Student Impact Center with age-appropriate games, crafts, meals, snacks and general relationship-building.
These programs are designed to reach slightly different (if overlapping) contingents of the Inland Northwest’s eighteen-and-under population—from the vulnerable, to the abused, to those who have committed criminal offenses—but the heart-level mission of each one is the same: provide for the physical, relational, and spiritual needs of every child and teen in our sphere of impact.
In every branch of ministry, in every training, in every relationship, and at every event, the need to be known is addressed. Kids have the opportunity to let down their guard a little and safely experiment with who they are and who they want to become. And because we believe that every human is uniquely created and bears the image of God in a myriad different ways, staff members help the youth explore their various interests and talents, giving them freedom to make mistakes on this journey, too. They learn that mistakes, when corrected, build character and stronger relationships.
UGM Youth Outreach is all about relationships. First, it’s that trust relationship with our team members, then ultimately developing the relationship they crave the most: the one with Jesus.
The Need to be Themselves
UGM: Speaking of relationships, we’re coming out of a season of quarantine and social distancing. How did your area of the ministry adapt to these changes?
Ryan: At first, because so much of what we do involves picking kids up at school or from programs at school, we came to a halt. As the longevity of this crisis became clearer, we shifted. We are now hosting group video calls with the kids. Since everyone at the Center used to gather for a community meal, we are now delivering food boxes to their homes three times a week. Immediately after, the interns host Zoom calls. We are actually being allowed into homes in an unprecedented way. And we are slowly working toward a new normal. Also, we’re happy to say we are moving forward with our summer programming.
UGM: That’s amazing. How do you think the social distancing measures in place across the region have affected the kids?
Ryan: Youth are drawn to technology. Some to escape, some to connect, some to be someone else. But nothing replaces human face-to-face interaction. It’s interesting that our youth will continue to show up and some be on their phones the entire time. Yet they still show up every night.
UGM: I love that. Kids can be surprising. What do you think might surprise people about the youth of today, from your experience?
Ryan: I think in general they are more socially aware. They can access all information at any time. For a developing mind and heart, this can be confusing. But surprisingly, being aware of what’s happening, even globally, can have the effect of igniting passions about issues early on.
UGM: Tell us what excites you about youth ministry right now?
Ryan: I’m excited to grow the internship program substantially. Getting the word out to colleges and universities, and giving more college students the opportunity to develop their own faith, as well as add to their qualifications, is just a really good deal all around. The kids love the presence of the interns, and I think it’s a symbiotic relationship, one that compounds the advancement of the Gospel.
UGM: Finally, Ryan, what excites you most about this generation of kids?
Ryan: This generation is really kind of no-nonsense. They treat others how they’re treated. Instead of this complex set of expectations for how they should perform here or there, it’s just, “Wow, okay, I want to be like that,” or even without putting it into words, they’re just going to model the behaviors they see. So, that’s really exciting for us. We’re looking at the potential not only to impact the whole region through this generation, by just giving them that security we talked about, but also to impact future generations because they’re going to raise their kids differently now, and that goes down several generations at least, usually.
Eager to partner with Ryan? Click below to see how you can contribute your time and talents to help advance this vital ministry.