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Christine Otte 2012“It starts with adults who are concerned enough about kids to go to them, on their turf and in their culture, building bridges of authentic friendship”.

Non-profit organization Young Life is impacting the lives of young people by presenting positive role models and a path for them to start or renew their Christian faith. Young Life’s success is embedded in the time they invest communities they serve; it’s not a revolutionary concept but one we find increasingly rare.

HOPE had the opportunity to chat with Young Life’s South Side of Chicago Area Director Kaleah Merriweather about an organization that is making an impact in the lives of youth all over the country.

HOPE:  Does it take a village to raise a child?

KM: Yes of course. I know parents need support and I know families even the best of families need people and communities to wrap around them so that they can provide their child with the best. Here is an interesting statistic: Researchers have found that a caring adult such as a counselor, coach or an academic content teacher can help to reverse the process of underachievement (Reis, Colbert, Hebert 2005: 111“Understanding Resilience in Diverse Talented Students in a Urban High School”). This is needed for every kid, especially in city schools where many students struggle with underachieving. Kids need someone to help guide them through the ups and downs of life- Young life offers that to kids.

HOPE: Was working with youth always your passion?

KM:It’s funny working with youth has always been a passion for me yet it was never what I wanted to do as a profession. Even as a teen I would always try to reach out to other teens and invite them to church or even give them life advice. During my first summer at Howard I worked as a debate coach for a summer program Howard was putting on. We coached high school students from all over (mostly inner city kids) and taught them about debate. The next summer I found myself working with 5-8th graders at a day camp at the Southeast White house. These kids lived in Southeast D.C. and some of their parents had previously been on drugs. That was a long hard summer, that is when I realized how difficult middle school students can be. Then I found myself spending a month at a Young life camp working the next summer. Even after all that I was still not convinced that I was supposed to work with young people. But two years later after I graduated from grad school and had been working part time with Young life for 2 years then I knew it was what I wanted to do.

HOPE: Your love for Young Life is apparent. What do you want to contribute to make Young Life even better?

KM: I work for Young Life because I really agree with their methods. In Young Life we pursue kids we don’t wait for them to come to us, we try to be good examples and really earn the right to speak into their lives. We are not preachy or pushy we instead try to build relationships with kids and be an extra support in their life. I love the way we go about reaching kids that’s why I’m with Young Life. It’s a great vehicle to do what I feel like I’m supposed to be doing anyways. I feel like I can contribute creativity. I grew up in Richmond, California. Went to school in D.C. and now live in Chicago all of which are urban cities that be very challenging for youth which has allowed me to gain some perspective. I also feel like I want to help Young Life grow in urban multicultural initiatives. Right now young life serves over a million kids about 22 percent of those kids are kids of color. I would love to help increase that percentage. In working with the kids you may never get a thank you or I appreciate you, but it is a rewarding job when you actually see a kids life change and know that you had a very little part in that. It’s extremely rewarding.
 

HOPE: YL Camp seems to be an annual highlight. Tell us about the camp?

KM: Camp is one of the best things we do in Young Life. When I got to see Young Life’s winter camp for the first time in January of 2007 it is what sold me on Young Life. Kids are very skeptical when they first get to young life camp because it’s so different than what they’re use to and by the 4th day most kids even look different. They are ready to embrace the experience, they are ready to share, and they are ready to live. I saw kids having the time of their life. At the end of the weekend a lot of them decided to make a commitment to a relationship with Christ. This blew me away to see teenagers really wanting God after a weekend of experiencing something great. And in the summer it’s even better.

HOPE: How can people donate to YL?

KM: People can go to this page http://sschicagoyounglife.org/giving/

 They can decide if they want to give to camp or our regular program. People can also send a check made out to Young Life to: Young Life South Side Chicago  P.O. Box 15177, Chicago IL 60615

HOPE: We want to encourage our readers to follow their passion, what moment have you had that caused you to know this is exactly where you need to be?

KM: There have actually been many moments since I moved to chicago. Moments where others have affirmed me and said I’m so glad you moved here or we’re so thankful you came. I really can’t pinpoint one but a few times a month there is a moment when I could not imagine being anywhere else. I love what’s around me. I love my neighborhood, my church the new community that I’ve found here. Even the relationships with the kids I work with are stronger than they’ve ever been. All these things at different times continue to tell me. This is exactly where you need to be. And I’m not leaving until I hear something different.

About Kaleah Merriweather

Merriweather received her undergraduate degree from Howard University and her Master’s degree in Sociology with a focus on race, gender and social justice from American University. Kaleah’s work with Young Life started during her undergraduate career and today she is the Area Director of the South Side of Chicago. Young Life recently did a staff highlight on Kaleah, check it out HERE.