Dennis Roach: 40 years of working with young people
Youth Outreach Director Dennis Roach is retiring at the end of June after 13 years with the Union Gospel Mission. Before coming to UGM, Denny spent 25 years as a social worker in the Juvenile Justice System. Denny has dedicated his professional life to impacting the lives of at-risk kids. He has collaborated with churches, youth pastors and schools to reach children in poverty and broken homes. For literally thousands of children, Denny has been the conduit by which they have been introduced to the great outdoors, risk-taking, trust-building and, most significantly, the unconditional love of Jesus Christ.
Denny’s love for God’s wild and beautiful creation has also impacted hundreds of participants in UGM Recovery. He has taken numerous groups of men on camping trips, hikes, and other adventures. He has generously made himself, his skills, and the camp available to all departments of the ministry.
UGM Director of Ministries Sonny Westbrook said this about Denny, “We have come to know Dennis as a man of integrity, a man with a deep love for our Lord Jesus Christ, a man with a strong desire to make an eternal difference in the lives of children and young people. He has passionately shared the message of hope with young people who might otherwise be forgotten. The camp experience has been a turning point for so many. The foundation he has laid is a solid one which will serve as a legacy for many years to come. He is greatly loved here and will be greatly missed.”
And now, a few reflections from the man himself:
How are you a different man today than when you first came to the UGM 13 years ago? How has this experience been different from your previous work experience in Juvenile Corrections?
As I look back after 40 years of working with kids and families, there is a deepening of a confirmation that I have lived what God called me to. Simply put, He used my story in the lives of young people.
The world of Juvenile Corrections was a rigid and punitive one in which teens bore the consequences for their actions. It was all based on simple logic, the law, and their crime “score card.” There was no concern for their soul, the suffering they had gone though, how all the events and experiences in their lives had impacted them, nor was there any mention of a Creator Father who loves them unconditionally. That is the missing link!
The UGM has allowed me to add that missing link and introduce even the most wayward youth to the One who redeems. God used my years with the juvenile court system and detention as a training ground for this often uncaring and arrogant man. He has used the UGM to create a deeper passion for others. This is a caring community where I could give up my self-protected ways, an environment where I could prosper because of the emphasis on living out the person and work of Jesus Christ.
I am a much better man with a deeper awareness and compassion towards the poor and broken than I ever had before. I am very grateful for the “gap” that the UGM fills in our community and in the lives of those it serves.
What do you want people to know about UGM’s work with children and youth?
I believe the UGM and its church partners are just beginning to understand how we can impact and influence the youth culture of this day. We are also just beginning to understand how we can become involved in their lives and their parents’ lives and truly give them a view of hope in this dreary and hostile world.
It’s a slow process holding back the tide of culture and rampant sin, but it is possible. The newly hired Youth Outreach Director will, I believe, become a dramatic force in leading the way towards influencing the lives of children and teens.
UGM will continue searching for open doors to establish after-school programs in every school in the area, to train the upcoming generation of youth to be leaders and to focus more intensely on the issue of homeless teens and providing shelter for them. The UGM is very concerned about what is taking place in our culture and will continue seeking ways to care for youth.
How is the UGM’s summer camp different from other camps?
I would say that upwards of 90% of camps nationwide operate off the fees they receive for providing youth summer camps. Statistics show that the vast majority of these camps do not have programs for economically disadvantaged youth, which translates into the fact that the children of poor families will never have an opportunity to attend summer camp. Tragic.
A powerful and unique experience like summer camp is not available to the neediest children. At the UGM, we have kept to our mission of reaching the poor in whatever capacity the Lord leads. We provide an entire summer of free camps to children ages 8-11. In a typical summer, 400-500 kids will get to spend a five-day period at UGM Camp supervised by Christian churches that seek out kids from lower socioeconomic areas.
During those nine weeks of camp, we build the element of trust between the church team and the youth, hoping that after camp the children will become involved in the children’s ministry at that local church. There is a lot of the “programming” that happens at a typical church camp, but at UGM Camp it is about experiential learning and adventure for the children. That translates into a lot of fun, challenge, and involvement – something most youth never experience in inner cities.
What would you like to say to the parents of youth today?
I am not sure parents want to hear what I have to say because the mainstream thought is to isolate your child and protect them from the culture.
My first thought is to raise them with incredibly strong boundaries: Respect for the law. Let them know they are not the determining factor of their lives.
Secondly, I encourage parents with young children to expose them to many facets of the culture and have them involved in caring for poor and broken people. I encourage families of young children to serve a meal at a homeless shelter, buy someone on the street a meal and sit down with them to have a conversation. Buy practical gifts periodically to give to a homeless person.
Thirdly, parents must not be afraid of culture. Avoid labeling people and judging them because of what they look like or how they act. Kids pick up on that.
Lastly, pay more attention to the heart and soul of your child, rather than focus on what the outside looks like and does. Teens are in transition. The outside changes as the inside does, all of it down the road, so to speak. So allow your kids to help you grow up too!
What are the “extracurricular” parts of your job?
I love integrating departments at the mission, at my church, in whatever arena I find myself. My life is not just about kids. I have other abilities and skills that I have learned and developed over the years.
In my family of origin, my dad was fairly absent emotionally, and as a result, he did not teach me much. I have always had a growing curiosity for learning about life. Recognizing that people have much to offer each other and that people have a multitude of gifts, it's been a no-brainer to help out in areas of the mission that I can.
I enjoy butchering wild game for UGM because not many people know how to do that and the Mission receives a lot of game that would otherwise be wasted. I can’t stand wasted food. To give you an idea, last year I butchered 21 deer, three elk, four moose and two pigs. That represents approximately 2,500 pounds of meat ready to be cooked.
I also have 50 years of outdoor experience under the soles of my boots. I have been an avid mountaineer since I was 16 years old, climbing and hiking most of the mountainous regions in the surrounding states. I really enjoy watching the men on the 18-month recovery program get out for a day or a weekend and open up about their lives, to have some fun and exercise, and to experience creation in all its beauty, all without alcohol, drugs, and craziness.
Another way I find to help others is to lead team-building exercises with the UGM staff of a few departments since the Challenge Course and experiential learning are such a big part of my life. I also teach parenting classes to staff who have the need and teach volunteer mentors for the program residents after they graduate from the UGM. I don’t look at my position as a job, I see it as an integral part of helping people become whole people.
One poignant moment/memory?
After 13 years, only one poignant memory? Impossible. But one will always stick in my memory.
A 10-year-old boy came to camp with a full regatta of gold necklaces and assorted jewelry, and he became fairly disruptive while on the challenge course the first day of camp. I grew a little impatient with him and decided I would take the entire group to the creek and just wander upstream from the camp. After all, little boys love to do that sort of thing!
At first he was all for the idea and even took over the leadership of the group. He said he was stronger and better than anyone so he would lead the way. But as we traveled a little further, the current became stronger and the creek deeper. He panicked and began to yell for help. I slipped up to him and when he saw me he slipped his hand into mine and asked if I would stay with him. I assured him I would and during the trip back down to camp, he became very talkative and friendly.
His tough-guy demeanor dropped like a rock into the creek, and we became good friends for that week of camp. I want to think he found value in someone who helped him and would consequently be more inclined to ask for help.
What will you miss?
Everyone and everything associated with the UGM.
What is your prayer for the future Youth Outreach Director?
- That the new person does not become overwhelmed at the tasks ahead but has courage and determination to make an impact in the world of many youths.
- That the foundation that was laid over these 13 years would be strong enough to hold a burgeoning ministry to the next generation of lost and hurting youth. A homeless shelter for teens would be way cool. A street ministry to kids is also needed, and continued efforts to support churches that are willing to be out in the culture and not huddled in their sanctuary.
- That they would have a large capacity to love people and follow the lead of the Lord Jesus Christ!
All the best in your retirement, Denny!
Denny's 13 years of ministry were made possible by the generous partnership of a caring community. Please consider sending a child from one of the area's low-income neighborhoods to camp. You might just change a life!