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Youth ministry in the marketplace


Mentors give teens life skills

By Mary Sisson | Presbyterians Today

The Rev. Matt Overton and a crew of teenage Mowtown employees rest their shovels and rakes after spreading a pickup load of barkdust. Mary Sisson

The thunk of metallic weights, the roar of a lawnmower and the “Claire, you need to unmute!” of a public school Zoom class are the sounds of a different kind of youth ministry that is thriving at Columbia Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, Washington.

The Columbia Future Forge, better known as simply “the Forge,” is a church-based nonprofit that takes ministry beyond the church’s 700-member congregation, helping youth from a variety of backgrounds gain life and job skills through training and relationships with mentors. Participants in the Forge go through five skill trainings a year, are paired with a coach/mentor and are either given direct employment or certification so that they can get a job interview at various businesses around Clark County. Mowtown Teen Lawn Care, Utmost Athletics and a public high school partnership are all under the Forge’s umbrella.

The program has its roots in a “junker house,” as the Rev. Matt Overton calls the home he and wife Anne bought in Camas, a city 10 miles from the church where he serves as associate pastor for youth and family ministries. He hired some teens to help remodel the house. Then adults started showing up, and Overton noticed how easily conversation flowed as the teens and adults worked side by side. That sparked the idea for a ministry where teens could learn job and life skills while earning money. When Overton checked youth labor laws, he realized construction was out of the question. But landscaping was a definite option, and in 2015 Mowtown Teen Lawn Care was born.

Mowtown workers get expert advice from Jerry Hofer, retired owner of a landscaping service, second from left. Teens Nathan Blondino and Dillon Galicia and adult employee Erik Irish get their instructions. Mary Sisson

When Overton began Mowtown, “I knew just enough to get started,” he said. Church member Jerry Hofer, who ran a landscaping business for 20 years after a forest service career, advised him. “If you’re going to have clients who depend on your service, you have to have equipment that will hold up and get it done,” Hofer said. They turned down offers of used lawnmowers and, through connections, got Stihl equipment donated. Mowtown employs two adults full time to supervise the students.

Overton saw Mowtown, which provides basic lawn care from mowing to leaf blowing, as a way to attract teens that might never show up at a traditional youth program. Overton, 41, who had worked since his first paper route at age 8, understood the life skills gained through employment.

Reflecting on his first 15 years as a youth minister, Overton saw that the traditional ways of doing youth ministry weren’t necessarily producing lifelong disciples. “To get someone to engage and understand the Gospel, you have to invest time in them,” he said. Youth ministry, he added, starts with showing a deep caring for the minutiae of students’ lives. That’s where The Columbia Future Forge comes in.

“It’s ministry, for sure,” said Marc Hartquist, a retired engineer who has been serving as a mentor with the Forge from the start. “In mentoring relationships, very important conversations about life happen way beyond the life skills training. The relationships continue on for years.”

Bryan Ableidinger agrees.Ableidinger, a retired aeronautical engineer who owns a hardware store, is no stranger to volunteering with teens. He has been active in the church’s traditional youth group for three decades — since his own sons were teens. In mentoring teens to master life skills, the conversations are ripe to become more honest. He recalled one youth he mentored who came right out and said, “You do know I’m an atheist, right?”

“You meet them where they are and try to be an example,” Ableidinger said.

A goal-setting framework Ableidinger’s family uses each year inspired part of the life skills training the Forge offers. A finance unit covers budgeting, investing, checking accounts and other realities. There’s also a training unit on professionalism, interviews and taking responsibility. Finally, students participating in the Forge ministry explore their own gifts and abilities.

“The skills I learned as a 15-year-old are even more relevant and important to me now,” said Alexandra Neal, 21, one of the first teens to join Mowtown. “Budgeting isn’t my strong suit, but I shudder to think where I would be if the concept hadn’t been introduced to me years ago. On a more introspective note, I believe the Forge really helped me understand myself — my strengths and weaknesses, my motivations and the way I function in relation to others. That made me less afraid and more excited to take risks and do what I think is right for me — like move across the country to go to art school.”

Overton has come to realize that what the Forge stands or falls on is how well the adults are trained. Practical mentoring skills, theological concepts that connect with mentoring and Scripture that underpins it all are at the heart of mentor training.

Offering adults a place to share their skills that they’ve developed over a career is a powerful call to discipleship as well. “It’s allowed adults to say, ‘Here I am; send me,’ ” said Overton.

For example, Hartquist, a retired engineer, ran a drone program for three years to prepare students to get an FAA drone-flying license, required for commercial use. According to the Forge’s Facebook page, Hartquist is currently creating an engineering course for Hayes Freedom High School in the Camas School District, where the Forge is already working on life and job skills with students in the district. Overton said of the adult volunteers that they are the “mission within the mission.”

“We find adults in our community that care deeply about teens and then deploy their incredible gifts and talents on behalf of those teens. And guess what? The adults find that experience to be meaningful, too. Life transformation is the heart of the Forge, and we want to transform students and adults,” said Overton.

Working spiritual muscles

Athletes of all abilities find encouragement and camaraderie in Utmost Athletics’ outdoor gym, configured for COVID-19 regulations. The gym sits in the parking lot of Columbia Presbyterian Church. Courtesy of Mary Sisson

About 125 young people a year participate in various Columbia Future Forge initiatives. All participants meet as a group throughout the year for reflection and guidance. Overton has recently seen an influx of first- and second-year college students interested in participating. The teens and young adults can join in several startup enterprises that include Mowtown Teen Lawn Care as well as Utmost Athletics, which provides supportive coaching for cross-training that’s rigorous but far removed from the machismo of some gyms.

Utmost Athletics director Ty Singleton calls the coaches “missionary coaches,” training them not only in safe weight training, but also in pastoral care. A Division 1 college coach for most of his career, with a master’s degree in theology from Fuller Seminary, Singleton nursed the Utmost idea for years before opening it in September 2018 in a 1,800-square-foot storage space in Columbia Presbyterian’s office building. When the doors opened, eight athletes converged on the weight room for strength training. Participation grew, including the entire baseball team from the local community college, until it hit 118, ranging from middle school to people in their 70s. Each participant pays a monthly fee. Some come for the strength training, some for community building and life skills, and some for all that plus Jesus at the center. “Our responsibility to all three of those groups is to love them without condition,” Singleton said.

When COVID-19 hit, the gym closed for a few months. That’s where the Forge’s retired engineers came in, imagining how to create space in the parking lot where small pods of athletes could exercise together, separate from other pods. Utmost Athletics kept growing, and the engineers were at it again, designing workout space between six shipping containers with plenty of airflow, room for distancing and equipment storage.

In the midst of the pandemic, Utmost hired a second Division 1 coach, Jun Jeong, from the University of Virginia, where he had been assistant head strength coach. There are now four paid and four volunteer coaches. One volunteer, Kirsten French, works for the Northwest Association of Blind Athletes. She is grateful that someone with her training can use it to serve in ministry. “This is a really good opportunity to use sport as a catalyst for sharing the Gospel. We’re reaching athletes we wouldn’t normally reach.”

Singleton has tried to create a schedule with a biblical rhythm to it, including a day of rest. “Often times with youth sports, the tail wags the dog. Family time goes out the window.”

Entering the public schools

Pre-pandemic, Overton started talking with Kelly Johnson, career and technical ed teacher at Hayes Freedom High School in Camas, Washington, about bringing life skills training into the school. He started last fall, though not in the classroom with a mentor for every student as he’d envisioned. Rather COVID-19 meant having Overton meet with 25 freshmen on Zoom.

“It was exactly the piece I want. It seemed like a pretty good fit,” Johnson said. The fact that the Forge is linked to a church doesn’t concern him. “I don’t think that we should discount a wise person’s background just because of religion. There’s no agenda other than the tools these guys need to be successful in life.”

Overton often reaches out to schools. “I make no bones or apologies about being a minister,” he said, adding that he has only had one school push back on letting the Forge reach its students. But when Overton prodded what the objection was to a program that provides hope and life skills and is inherently joyous and life-giving, there was none. As for the future of the Forge, it doesn’t look like it will be slowing down anytime soon. Columbia Presbyterian’s session agreed early on to let Overton use four to eight hours a week to work on the Forge. Now half of Overton’s pastoral duties are “Forge-focused.”

Mary Sisson is a deacon at Columbia Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, Washington. She’s a retired journalist and toy store owner and lives across the street from Utmost Athletics.

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