Those who work with students both inside and outside school walls know that supporting students can be key to their success.
So it is likely not a surprise to find bus driver Stephanie Malloley volunteering for an area youth program.
“Two years ago, there were a lot of suicides at Cedar Springs, and one was one of the students on my bus,” Malloley said. “It broke my heart — those kids are my precious cargo.”
Malloley has driven a school bus since 1988. “I have driven in different districts as well and believe me, I have seen it all,” she said. “Lots of heartbroken children and lots of sadness.”
She is a volunteer for Refuge Youth, which meets every Tuesday evening for food, fun and inspiration at the Cedar Rock Sports Plex near M-57 and Northland Drive, just a few miles from the middle and high schools.
The program is an outreach of Crossfire Church. As its name implies, it functions as a “refuge” for those who attend.
The program is designed for students from grades six through high school. Numbers have been gradually increasing since it began in September, with more than 25 attending in mid-October.
Attendance at Refuge Youth and other community-based youth programming is encouraged by the district as part of its mission to provide students with positive life experiences.
‘OK to Be Who You Are’
“We want to see kids succeed at every angle: appearance, character, education and integrity,” said Refuge Youth leader Randy DonGiovanni, who is also an author and youth evangelist. He is founder and president of RandyDon Ministries and travels around the nation with his message for young people.
The local chapter of Refuge Youth, an organization that got its start in Pennsylvania, was brought to the area in September by DonGiovanni and Pastor Keith Hemmila of Crossfire, located adjacent to the Sports Plex.
“The objective of the ministry is to partner with area church youth program leaders to provide an evening where youth can hang out, eat and play together, while having positive input from adult leaders,” Hemmila said.
Added Malloley: “Anything or any place that gives them words of encouragement is a good thing. The message here is ‘It is OK to be who you are.’ The kids need to be here. We all need to be here.”
The district actively encourages partnerships with the community in order to help students find a way to succeed, said Superintendent Laura VanDuyn.
“We do believe that any way to bring support to our most fragile kids is worth supporting,” VanDuyn said. “This program is one more way the community is coming together to offer our kids hope. It’sone more way to tie in the research that it takes one caring adult to help a child succeed.”
Students say they attend Refuge Youth for a variety of reasons: some to get in on a competitive volleyball game, some for the religious message, others simply to socialize with their peers.
“She was so shy,” said sophomore Madison Berridge of her friend, freshman Destiny Sanders. “But now she talks to people. She has really gotten out of her shell.”
“It has really helped open me up,” agreed Madison. “It is good, because if you have a bad day, it really cheers you up. And sometimes it is really funny.”
‘A Heart Issue’
On a recent evening, adult volunteers sat among teens at dinner, sharing what they were good at or wanted to accomplish. There were laughs all around during “tell the best joke” and “share a funny personal story” contests.
Then they gathered for a short talk from DonGiovanni about how they could choose to “take off their masks” and be themselves. Small group time to discuss feelings about the night’s message was followed by a variety of indoor sporting activities.
Schools are “loaded with needy kids today,” and having a place to get together is more important than ever, Hemmila said. “It isn’t only a school issue, it is a heart issue.”
Superintendent VanDuyn agrees, and believes that it takes an entire community to address needs of young people.
“The SportsPlex is doing a lot of great things to make the Refuge Youth Network happen,” she said. “(Refuge Youth leaders and the Sports Plex) have all been here as community leaders to serve the youth and make a difference in their lives.”