Western Great Lakes Young Life

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Category: Grand Rapids SouthWest YL

Learning to Let Go at Castaway [Summer 2017 Series]

Submitted by Maddie Stalheber, Mission Staff with Grand Rapids SouthWest Young Life

Taylor* had signed up for camp early on in the semester and had been eagerly awaiting the trip to Castaway. It seemed nothing would stop her from boarding the bus to camp, until just five days before she was to leave.


On the Monday before camp, Taylor tragically lost her best friend. Taylor attended her friend’s funeral on Friday yet still boarded the bus to camp on Saturday night. In her grief and sadness, she trusted that Jesus had a plan in this confusing and shocking time.

Our week at Castaway was magical and full of surprises for Taylor, but it was also a time for her to process her deepest loss. All week long, Taylor was pumped about any activity involving water but every time we walked past the climbing wall she would look me in the eyes and say: “Don’t you even dare make me try that.”

0FE8DF85-BCD3-458B-8FD5-B0253F5321E1Eventually, it was our cabin’s turn to do the climbing wall. We sat on the bench looking up at the wall. I begged Taylor to just put a harness on and try climbing up to the green line. (The green line is around five feet from the ground is used as a way to test the automatic belay system.) Finally, Taylor agreed to climb to the green line.

What happened next was a moment only our Father could orchestrate.

Taylor courageously climbed to the green line. Upon realizing she would need to let go of the wall, lean back and gently fall to the ground, she froze in panic. For thirty minutes the summer staff volunteer and I tried to persuade her that she was fully capable of coming back to the ground safely.

At one point the summer staffer said: “Hey, Taylor, you never thought at the beginning of the week when you heard the phrase ‘Let Go and Let God’ that you might have to physically let go of this wall.”

Taylor began to cry and the summer staffer realized something bigger was going on.

Clinging to the wall from five feet above ground, Taylor spoke what was so heavy on heart: “If I let go it means she’s really gone. If I let go it means she’s never coming back.”unknown

The summer staffer and I continued to encourage Taylor through this defining moment and slowly she took her hands off the wall, leaned back and let the automatic rope system bring her gently to the ground.

When she was standing safely on solid ground the summer staffer was able to share with her that he had tragically lost his brother a few years back. He shared: “Taylor you can’t do this on your own. You have to let Jesus in.”

What a powerful moment. It was so evident how that summer staff volunteer was so clearly hand-picked to be working the climbing wall that day, in that hour. As he shared his own experience of losing someone close, his words brought Taylor comfort and a created a moment of divine connection by revealing painful parts in both of their stories.

Thanks be to God for the way He orchestrates moments just like these at camp, and for how He uses our painful stories to encourage and comfort others in their grief.

* Name changed for privacy

Wyoming Young Life, An Answer to Prayer

When Chris Hall, a pastor and church planter from Wyoming, MI, first heard about Young Life, he called it “an answer to prayer.”

Chris Hall serves as the preaching and teaching pastor at Elevation Church, a new but growing church plant located near Wyoming’s Lamar Park. Hall and his wife have called Wyoming home their whole lives. The Hall’s three children are now the fifth generation to grow up in and love the city

As the largest suburb of Grand Rapids, the city of Wyoming is also one of the fastest growing cities in the state of Michigan. There are seven school districts in the city of Wyoming. The halls of these schools are filled with hundreds of adolescents who reflect the diverse neighborhoods they come from.

Elevation Church had been praying for opportunities to engage with the local schools ever since their beginning when they held weekend services in the local junior high school. At that time, they observed a spiritual need in the schools and saw a huge opportunity to bring the Gospel to young people.

Meanwhile, discussions about starting Young Life in Wyoming had been taking place between Matt DeHoog, Young Life’s Associate Regional Director for Kent County, and Eric Zoodsma, Area Director for Grand Rapids SouthWest Young Life. Matt invited Chris Hall into the conversation; it didn’t take much for Chris to jump on board.

“Matt began to walk me through the basics of Young Life,” Chris described, feeling as though Matt was “speaking his language.”

“Instead of reinventing the wheel, why not join this Young Life thing,” was Chris’s first thought.  

This connection wasn’t accidental. God was clearly at work in this startup process, pulling the right people together. “We are just stepping into what God is already doing,” shared Chris.

To establish a Young Life presence in the Wyoming schools, Grand Rapids SouthWest YL took a step and hired Rebekah Blair to serve as Mission Staff for Wyoming.

Rebekah Blair YL pic

Rebekah Blair (pictured center) with a few Young Life girls

Rebekah joins her husband Casey Blair, who already serves on Young Life staff in the same area. Previously, the couple served Young Life in the Kalamazoo area while studying at Western Michigan University. In this new role, Rebekah will focus on starting up new clubs at both Lee High School and Wyoming Middle School.

“Young Life meets kids where they are,” Rebekah shared when asked what Young Life is all about.

Instead of waiting for students to show up where we are, we go to them and get to know them in their own space, whether that’s at lunch, sports games, or before school. Students don’t have to go out of their way to make our program work, we meet in their neighborhoods and in their schools. I think there’s a lot more authenticity because we’re going into their spaces,” she continued.

As Young Life works to get its feet on the ground in Wyoming, Rebekah and others are praying for leaders to step up—leaders with both a passion for the community and a commitment to seeing kids come to know Jesus.

“Historically, we’ve not been a community that breeds leaders,” reflected Pastor Chris. “We tend to be the ones who carry a lunch bucket to work and leaders tend to come [to us] from other communities. They have some tie to the city, but don’t live here.”

Those from the community who have heard about Young Life seem eager to embrace the model of relational ministry. The hope is for more churches in Wyoming to be open to the idea of coming together to reach more kids at Wyoming Middle School and Lee High School.Wyoming YL Quote

“I’m praying that kids will see Christ through their Young Life leaders even before we start running club,” added Rebekah. 

Wyoming Young Life has plans to have leaders walking the halls of both schools by Fall of 2017.

For more information about the partnership between Elevation Church and Young Life in Wyoming, click hereTo partner with Wyoming Young Life financially, click here.

You can follow along with Young Life in the Grand Rapids SouthWest areaon facebook.


“The big deal is we think the power is in us individually. The power is in us collectively. It is in the church.” – Dr. John Perkins

Rebekah and Casey Blair


More about Rebekah Blair: Rebekah is from Bloomfield Hills, MI where she attended Southfield Christian School. She is a graduate of Western Michigan University with a degree in Organizational Communication, though she says the best part about Western was meeting her husband, Casey. In her free time, Rebekah enjoys hanging out and talking with friends, reading, eating and being outside (preferably by a lake).

Welcome, Rebekah! We give thanks for how God has prepared you for this role with Wyoming Young Life and are excited to see His Kingdom grow through your leadership and ministry. 

New Staff Brings Fresh Start to Caledonia Young Life


Maddie (pictured right) with a YL student.

Madeline Stalheber grew up near Houston, Texas and attended the University of Texas at Austin. She’s a Lone Star State girl at heart, but God had a way of drawing her to the Mitten State through various roles at our region’s Young Life camp, Timber Wolf Lake.

Maddie was involved in Young Life as a high schooler and then chose to lead Young Life at Dripping Springs (part of Young Life Austin) while she was in college. Later she interned, not just once, but three different times at Timber Wolf Lake: two summer-long internships followed by a year-long internship. “Working in the kitchen was so fun, but I realized how much I missed the relationships with kids.”


Maddie (bottom right) with the YL Interns at Timber Wolf.

This longing to return to direct ministry is what led Maddie to accept Area Director Eric Zoodsma’s request for her to help get Young Life started again at Caledonia High School. Maddie agreed and came on as Mission Staff for the Grand Rapids SouthWest area this past June.  

Young Life had existed in Caledonia up until a few years ago. Recently, Jamie De Vries, Director of Worship and Student Ministries at Lakeside Community Church, began asking Eric what it would take to rebuild a Young Life club in Caledonia.  

Over the last few months, we’ve had more and more interest from parents and the community about how they can support Young Life at Caledonia High School. We have a few leaders in place, and Maddie has been doing a great job,” says Eric.

Right now, Maddie and the GRSW Young Life staff are hoping to rebuild Young Life in Caledonia from the ground up. This means working hard to build community around their team, recruit more leaders and cast a vision for a thriving Young Life ministry in Caledonia.

Maddie’s desire is for Young Life to be known in Caledonia as a ministry that cares deeply for kids in the community. Caledonia High School is a small community and Maddie hopes to know everyone and for Young Life to be familiar to all.

“God led me to a town I had never even heard of. The Lord has already been opening doors; He is so faithful,” shares Maddie.  


Maddie and the Caledonia YL Team

Please give a warm welcome (as she’s still getting used to our cold MI winters!) to Maddie and join us in praying for her in this new role as Mission Staff for Grand Rapids SouthWest Young Life. Pray also for Young Life in Caledonia to take root and to be a great blessing to adolescents and families in that community. If you feel led to give financially to help support Maddie and Caledonia Young Life, you can do so at giving.younglife.org/Caledonia.   

Why We Do Camp

When Jim Rayburn suggested Young Life purchase its first camp property back in 1946 (Star Ranch), no one would have imagined that over the course of seventy years the camping program would grow like it has.

Young Life reports that each year, more than 100,000 kids around the world spend a week or a weekend at one of 29 owned or leased Young Life camps around the United States plus a number of international locations.

At every camp, and for every kind of kid who attends, the vision is the same: to get kids away from the pressures of everyday life, provide them the opportunity to think deeply about what really matters in life and give them an experience of a lifetime.


All images courtesy of GRSW Young Life.

With another camping season approaching, staff and leaders often ask: How do we get kids there—how do we fill our buses? And kids are asking: What is Young Life camp really like?

In Part 3 of our series on the 5 C’s of Young Life, Staff Associate Casey Blair from Grand Rapids SouthWest Young Life tells us Why We Do Camp.

Western Great Lakes Region (WGLR): Casey, many refer to camp as an experience of a lifetime. For someone who’s never been to Young Life camp, how do you begin to describe it?

Casey: I start by saying that it’s completely indescribable. With that disclaimer, Young Life camp will truly be the best week of your life for reasons you can’t understand until you’ve experienced it. Kids from across the country come to the most amazing camp imaginable to not only hear the story of Jesus, but also experience the joy of Jesus. Everything from the food to the music to the unpredictable events each day point kids to the extravagant love that only Jesus is capable of. And you do this with people that become some of the best friends you’ve ever had.


WGLR: What happens at YL camp to make kids feel so celebrated and loved?

Casey: Everything that happens at Young Life camp makes a kid feel like a hero because that’s how Jesus sees us. Kids get to play games with hundreds of people cheering for them whether they win or lose. Kids get to conquer their fears in a safe and supportive environment. It’s a full week where kids are loved by the people around them without any judgment or expectations.


WGLR: What is it about getting kids “out of their world” that provides the perfect environment for them to hear Christ’s message and come to know Him?

Casey: Life has so many distractions; it’s hard to avoid them—especially for high school and middle school students. Young Life camp takes kids away from the routine of life, which includes drama with peers, conflict within the family and so many other adolescent pressures. In this place of relief from life’s craziness, they get to hear the message of Christ and have the time of their lives.

WGLR: Some kids say that camp stretched them spiritually and physically. In what ways does this happen?

Casey: Camp stretches kids spiritually because, regardless of their upbringing, they are hearing about Jesus in a new way and wrestling with spiritual questions. Physically, camp can be an exhausting experience, which opens up room for a group of kids or leaders to really support each other. There are opportunities to face fears (like the high ropes course) and complete tasks that can only be done with a group. This not only pushes kids physically and helps them grow, but also builds community, breaks down walls and makes deeper conversations possible.


WGLR: What are the most important things leaders must do to get kids signed up for camp?

Casey: Building a relationship is the most important thing, and then committing to go to camp with them. It’s one thing for a leader to say, “Hey, there’s this awesome camp you should go to this summer; you will have so much fun!” But it’s a whole different story when a leader spends months at club, Campaigners, Wendy’s, basketball games and school plays becoming friends with a kid and then says, “Hey, I’m going on this amazing adventure to camp this summer and I want you to come with me.” That invitation is much harder to turn down.

WGLR: If camps are staffed with work crews, summer staff and assignment teams, what is the role of a Young Life leader at camp?

Casey: YL leaders are there to be the one-on-one connection. It’s amazing how many workers all participate in the great experience for kids, but Young Life leaders are the only ones who go home and maintain friendships with kids after camp. Leaders lead cabin time, have discussions about life and the Gospel, hear kids’ stories and have one-on-one talks with kids on a deeper level. Leaders are the closest, most consistent example of Jesus’ love.


WGLR: What kind of follow-up happens after camp?

Casey: Praying for kids as they return from camp is one of the first priorities. Oftentimes, teams will start a Campaigners group after camp to continue the conversation about Jesus. Leaders also make it a point to have conversations with kids as they continue to process their experience. Follow-up is so important because Jesus doesn’t just exist at camp; we want to help kids integrate their camp experience with the rest of their lives. For kids who make the decision to follow Jesus at camp, we welcome them into the faith community and walk closely alongside them as they begin their journey of following Jesus.

WGLR: What’s your favorite Young Life camp story?

Casey: It’s actually a story that Eric Zoodsma, area director of Grand Rapids SouthWest Young Life, shared with me. Here’s the story:

Michael came to Castaway with us in June and had the best week of his life. However, after club on our first night, I wasn’t sure that would be the case. Michael found everything he could to complain about—mainly that the music in club was too loud. He told me he was not coming to club ever again that week. One of our other leaders pulled Michael aside and talked with him. He offered him a pair of earplugs he brought for sleeping at night and told Michael he could use them during the singing at club. Throughout the week, we watched Michael open up and meet Jesus in a way he never had before—largely in part to some twenty-five cent earplugs, and a leader who cared enough to meet Michael right where he was at.



  • Timber Wolf Lake is a Young Life camp located in our region. Situated in the beautiful Northern Michigan woods, thousands of Young Life and WyldLife campers experience the best week of their lives at TWL each summer. Timber Wolf is used the rest of the year for Fall and Winter weekends and other retreats and conferences.
  • Young Life provides sponsorship opportunities to ensure that every kid has the opportunity to go to camp. Contact your local area to find out how you can help send kids to camp this summer.


  • Join us in praying boldly for even more kids to sign up for camp this summer.
  • Read the other articles in this series: Why We Do Contact Work and Why We Do Club
  • Share this post using the social media icons below or subscribe at the top of the page to receive notifications in your inbox whenever there is a new post.

Staff Spotlight: Casey Blair

We’re pleased to introduce another new Young Life staff member in the Western Great Lakes Region. Casey Blair serves as Staff Associate for the Grand Rapids SouthWest area. Let’s take a moment to get to know Casey and welcome him.

During his freshman year in high school, Casey Blair became involved in Young Life. The summers that followed brought him to camp two different times—once to Windy Gap and then to Castaway. “My trips [to camp] were the first time I really heard about having a relationship with Christ, and I eventually realized I wanted that. Thanks to Young Life and a couple of older guys from my high school, I am still following Jesus today.”


Casey grew up in Wheaton, IL with a set of pretty amazing parents, an older brother and a younger sister. After high school, Casey moved to Michigan to attend Western Michigan University. “I came up to Western for the Aviation program, but graduated this past December with a degree in Organizational Communication after realizing I didn’t really have a passion for flying.”

WMU helped Casey hone in on his interests. Aviation wasn’t one of them. He’d always liked reading books handed down from his dad. And sports also topped his interest list—whether watching or playing them. But at WMU Casey also met and became engaged to Rebekah. They are planning a wedding for this coming August after she finishes at WMU.


Casey also had a growing interest in Young Life, which led him to become a YL leader at Mattawan High School during his four years at WMU.

One fall at Mattawan, Casey and the other leaders felt like they had done everything possible to get kids signed up for Fall Weekend. After some persistent prodding, they had eight guys agree to go—half of them only because their parents made them. They were expecting an awkward connection with the guys since some of the group hadn’t even met until that weekend.

Despite a rough start, they had a blast hanging out together at Fall Weekend. The next Monday morning, Casey and two other leaders got a text from one of the kids that read: “I haven’t seen you guys in 12 hours, I miss you.”

They all just looked at each other, smiled and said, “This is what it’s all about.”


Young Life is all about authentic friendships. Take a group of eight guys who barely know each other, put them together for a life-changing, whirlwind-of-a-weekend at Timber Wolf and they end up friends. They shared an amazing experience; they had a mutual encounter with God. They’ll never be the same. This same group of guys and leaders plans to go backpacking together this summer and will experience Jesus in a whole new way.

“I love that Young Life is all about relationships,” Casey remarked. “Young Life leaders make it a goal to love everybody equally whether they have a relationship with Christ or want nothing to do with Him. The way YL works, every time a kid experiences the Gospel it is truly an invitation into something beautiful, with that invitation coming from a good friend.”

God had been preparing Casey during his years at Mattawan for a new role as Staff Associate for Grand Rapids SouthWest Young Life. Casey now leads the YL team at South Christian High School and hopes to continue building a dynamic ministry there, comprised of students, parents, faculty and other members of the community.

Casey also works with Area Director Eric Zoodsma to strengthen and grow their entire area and develop healthy ministries so that kids in the Grand Rapids SouthWest area have the opportunity to meet Jesus.

“My hope is that adolescents would experience a love like nothing they’ve experienced before,” Casey shared, “and that that love would transform into a desire to get to know Jesus more for the rest of their lives. I hope that we as an area can continue to grow in supporting leaders in their own relationship with Christ, so they can’t help but be excited about inviting kids into the same thing.”

Please join us in welcoming Casey to this position and pray for him and for Young Life in the Grand Rapids SouthWest area.

You can follow Grand Rapids SouthWest on facebook here.

Reflections from the Wilderness

A guest post by Kyle Roskamp, Young Life leader from the Grand Rapids SouthWest area.

Whoever invented Wilderness Ranch is stupid. But also amazing.

That might be a difficult phenomenon to process, but if you’ve ever watched JR Smith play basketball or listened to the new Justin Bieber songs, you know what I’m talking about. Some things are just amazing and stupid at the same time.

How can Wilderness Ranch even happen?


Logistically, how can 15 people survive together in the woods for five days? I mean, it took the settlers at Jamestown about 19 seconds before they were like, “Wow, sleeping outside isn’t awesome, let’s build a legitimate shelter really quick because there are things like bears and gnats and cougars outside and not dying sounds very fun.” How am I, an embracer of the 21st Century, supposed to deal with such travesties as no toilet paper, no clocks and no 4G LTE wireless data? How can I trust myself to clean my own water, cook my own meals and traverse a landscape whose price for tomfoolery is a 5,000 foot drop to my death?

Emotionally, how can it happen? I’m an experienced attender of slumber parties, and one thing I’ve learned is that after spending ten hours straight with someone, things get weird and tempers get short. How was I supposed to spend a week with these people, while trying to have positive interactions with them while climbing a 14,000 ft. mountain in a state of constant hunger and exhaustion? How can you possibly have room for Jesus when all you can think about is eating another coconut Clif bar?

But it happened.

I can only compare waking up on the first morning of Wilderness to the first time I heard Call Me Maybe by Carley Rae Jepsen on the radio. Transcendent moments are usually retrospective. The gravity of significant moments is usually lost until those moments are gone. Their absence creates a gap, and the desire to fill that gap is what truly makes these moments beautiful in hindsight. However, once in awhile you fully understand the significance of a moment while you’re experiencing it and in the midst of it, you understand what that moment means to you now, and what it will mean in the future.

When I poked my head out from under that tarp on the first morning in the woods—much like when I heard Carley Rae belt that hook for the first time in the Spring of 2012—I knew it. This moment was something special. This week was going to go triple-platinum.

Did it ever.


Wonderful things can happen when you take distractions out of the equation. Having to look nine people in the face for an entire week while they laugh and bleed and cry and struggle and sweat is something special. These nine people, stripped of everything they usually hold dear, were left with the most raw, unencumbered versions of themselves. There’s nothing else like it.

I used to think Jesus was far away. I used to think “being the face of Christ” was a cliché metaphor that just meant I was supposed to be nice to people. But I’m wrong.

Asking me about my favorite time I saw the face of Christ on the trail is like asking me about my favorite star in the night sky because there is an endless amount of perfect, beautiful stars.

I saw the face of Christ sixty-five thousand times in the mountains. And the face of Christ is the best:

It’s Tony and Connor passing out Crystal Light packets. It’s Jake telling the same stupid Magic Owl joke over and over. It’s Katelyn and Erin pulling each other to the top of the mountain when they’re both about to puke.

It’s waking up and making the classic “OH MY GOSH I MISSED YOU GUYS SO MUCH” joke to your friends because you’ve seen them every second for the last four days. But then you realize you actually did miss them, because the moments you spent in your dreams with your heads eight inches from each other are moments you didn’t get to spend together.

It’s eating breakfast under a sky that you thought couldn’t possibly be painted that blue.


It’s incredible what loving nine seemingly random people can do to you.

It makes you say things out loud that you haven’t told anyone but your pillow.

It makes you hope things for them that they haven’t even considered for themselves.

It makes sitting in the back of a bus for 29 hours listening to Taylor Swift songs seem like the best party in the history of western civilization.

We did a lot of cool stuff. We climbed around a waterfall for lunch, we climbed across a knife’s edge, we peaked a 14,000 ft mountain. Those things were awesome. But those things really don’t matter to me.

What matters to me is the people. It’s seeing the way we are all consistently blind-sided by the Holy Spirit and the work He does in our lives. It’s developing authentic relationships—beyond the photo edits, the subtext of social media posts, the outfits, the pressure of the universe. People who show me everyday why I love Jesus so much. All because of those stupid mountains.

Nine of my 15 best friends are teenagers now, which is weird because I’m a 23-year-old dude about to graduate college. But, whatever.11144957_705713589560651_1344893772149921972_n

I know it’s probably strange, the love I have for those nine weirdos. When you get back into places that have running water and wi-fi and toilets, it gets complicated. In the real world, I have much less in common with those kids than I did in the forest.


But it doesn’t matter. Because every time I see these clowns for the rest of eternity, after a minute and a half of awkward silence, we remember. We remember that we don’t have a ton in common, but we do have in common the only thing that really matters.

Jesus had some of those people. People who loved and cared for each other regardless of circumstances. People whose only goal was to make each other the best version of themselves, a version that served the Lord, served other people and brought joy to everyone they met.

Jesus had 12.

I have nine.

That’s more than enough.