Meet Spencer, a Young Life kid-turned-leader. Never in his wildest dreams did he envision himself paving the way for a brand new Young Life club to emerge in the Western Great Lakes Region. Especially one bursting at the seams and reaching over 100 kids each week.
Here’s how it happened; it’s an amazing story that only God could’ve orchestrated.
Spencer grew up in Grand Rapids and came to love Young Life as a student at Calvin Christian School, where he later became a YL leader. He says Young Life helped him “make sense of this crazy world we live in.”
Enter Kenowa Hills.
After graduating from Hope College, Spencer took a position as a special education teacher at Kenowa Hills High School, a growing public school located in the NW suburbs of Grand Rapids.
While teaching at Kenowa Hills, Spencer was still regularly involved in Young Life at Calvin Christian; the two schools were located on opposite ends of town. A group of students from Kenowa began following Spencer on social media and noticed he posted a lot about Young Life. Eventually they asked him what this Young Life thing was all about.
“You just gotta come and see,” replied Spencer.
One night, they did. Two kids from Kenowa Hills showed up to club at Calvin Christian.
As Spencer reached out to these students, he invited them golfing, unsure if anything would happen, but it was worth a shot.
It seemed to work because they came to club again the next week. This time they brought friends. Spencer gave the club talk that night. These kids were hooked.
The following week, eight kids from Kenowa showed up. 16 showed up the next week, then 24. “What’s happening here?” was Spencer’s reaction.
And their numbers multiplied.
What a great problem to have, right? Some Young Life clubs would give anything to see their club grow exponentially like this, while others long for the diversity this club was experiencing: kids from different schools and diverse backgrounds coming together for club each week.
The differences between the groups were striking. Spencer observed that kids from the Christian school often had a ton of great things going for them. In many cases, they had teachers, youth pastors, parents and other family members looking out for them, caring for them and training them up in the faith. Many kids he knew from Kenowa often had nobody in their life doing that.
“It was very eye-opening for both groups,” Spencer noted. “But it got to a point where having the Kenowa kids at club was suffocating Calvin’s own growth as a club and it became clear that Kenowa would need to form their own club.”
So one club became two.
But Kenowa had no committee, no leaders, no YL staff and no plan in place. A new Young Life area typically forms from a group of interested adults who want to bring YL to their community. At Kenowa it was happening backwards. They had a dedicated teacher who simply made himself available and invited kids into what he was doing, and they had a group of kids who wanted to belong and be loved.
Spencer knew Kenowa needed a leader. He followed his heart to be that leader, even though it meant leaving a community that was comfortable and close to his heart.
As things took shape at Kenowa, Kevin Eastway, Associate Regional Director for the Western Great Lakes Region, provided direction to Spencer. Kevin shared that “having a teacher who loves and respects kids goes a long way in starting a new YL area. Spencer is always outside of his classroom, greeting kids and inviting them into his life and the lives of the leaders.”
Outside of class, Spencer started “Bro-time” (similar to Campaigners) every week—two hours of real talk about life. And then in the Fall of 2014, Spencer took those guys to Fall Weekend at Timber Wolf Lake as an unaffiliated group.
They forged ahead as a developing area.
Without a committee and without funds Kenowa moved forward, trusting in God’s perfect timing. The next step was to meet with the students to discuss the future of Young Life at Kenowa. Spencer recalls 55 kids showing up that February night to express their interest in meeting.
The weeks went on and kids kept showing up. 60-70 kids were now coming to club—kids who had never heard the Gospel. Kids who wanted to go to church, but knew nothing about church.
Momentum was building and news kept spreading. An interest meeting held that spring with Regional Director Chris Theule-Van Dam, Kevin Eastway, Spencer and others helped cast a vision to the community. Soon after, a YL committee was formed.
That summer, thanks to a generous donor, Kenowa brought their first group of students to Timber Wolf Lake for summer camp. Sixteen students—each with unique backgrounds and perspectives—were able to experience one of the best weeks of their lives and wrestle deeply together about life and faith.
As club started up that fall, Spencer planned for a dozen kids to show. Instead, 100+ kids showed up and literally crammed into someone’s basement. For many of the kids at club that night, they were hearing a brand new Story that would certainly change their lives forever. “I was so humbled,” reflected Spencer after giving the club talk that night.
The second club, 180 kids showed up. “What is happening?” Spencer laughed, knowing deep down that this type of growth is nothing but the work of God. “We’re trying to figure out how to control the beast.”
As they quickly outgrew the basement, a barn became available for club so they could spread out. The next problem was figuring out a sound system so kids could actually hear. To Spencer, these were “beautiful and incredible problems.”
As Kenowa YL grew, God brought more leaders. “We now have great leadership from Jake Wielhouwer and the committee; they care for leaders well, care for each other well and invite people into the story of Jesus with bravery,” reported Kevin. “Kids love to be with the YL leaders at Kenowa—their excitement has been contagious.”
This past fall, Kenowa Hills became an official Young Life area and took eighty kids and leaders to Fall Weekend at Timber Wolf Lake.
For one student named Alex, fall camp was life-changing. Alex was a lonely, confused teenager. Trouble pursued him at home and school, with the law, with girls and gangs. Feeling hopeless, he said to Spencer one day, “I’m not sure if I even want this [diploma].”
As Spencer spent time with Alex and showed how much he cared, he helped Alex see what a diploma could mean for him and why it was important.
One day, some YL kids were hanging out in Spencer’s classroom. Alex was there too. Out of the blue, one guy went over, gave Alex a great big hug and invited him to eat lunch with them. Something about that hug connected these two guys and for the first time ever, Alex didn’t eat lunch alone. He had friends. They invited him to fall camp and Alex found himself there. But even better, Alex met Jesus.
“God is up to some inexplicable things in Kenowa Hills,” reports Kevin.
And it all started with a teacher who made himself accessible to kids, who cares enough about them to open up the door to his classroom and to his own life and faith.
And now with 50 kids signed up for camp this summer and over 100 kids being reached at club and by 6 leaders each week, they attribute this growth and success to God. Only He can do a work like this — to God be the glory!
Spencer Vanderheide, in addition being a teacher and Young Life leader, is also a singer/songwriter who blends pop music with his own unique style. S. Martin is known and loved as a Young Life camp musician and has performed at a variety of YL camps and venues. You can listen to his music here or follow him on Twitter and Facebook.
You can follow the unfolding story of what God is doing at Kenowa Young Life on Facebook and Instagram. Take note of the infographic below designed by Young Life which tells more of their story and join us in praying that camp costs would not be a barrier for any student desiring to go to camp this summer.