Water slides, zip lines and high ropes courses — just a typical day at a Young Life camp. Except, on this day, rain pours down. As most campers find refuge in the cabins to avoid getting their hair wet, one daring group of girls sets off through the downpour toward the lake.
Distracted by the rain and the water keeping them afloat, the girls forget their responsibilities, even for just a few minutes. Except, for them, their life awaits a few yards away in a cabin amid baby toys and cribs.
While Young Life runs this camp the same as any other, it serves a different purpose. It allows teen moms from Harrisonburg High School the chance to “let loose” and “experience life” in an annual one-week trip while their babies are watched at the campsite.
Junior communication studies major Kaylin Mathes explained that this is an opportunity for the girls to gain some of their youth back since “innocence is lost” when they become moms so young.
Young Lives is a specialized ministry at JMU within the Christian organization Young Life that supports teen moms in city schools in Harrisonburg. So far, the program has helped 30 to 40 girls. They meet once a week at club, provide free childcare and visit the school nursery. Mathes even drives some of the moms to school since they can’t ride the bus with their kids and would otherwise have to take a taxi. Ultimately, though, the goal is to share the Christian Gospel.
“The heart behind Young Life is that these girls would walk away from the program knowing that there is a God who loves them and doesn’t see them as a teen mom but sees them as a daughter,” Mathes said.
When students join Young Life at JMU, they’re interviewed for assignment to a specialized ministry such as Young Lives, Capernaum to help people with special needs and disabilities, WyldLife for middle schoolers or Young Life for high school and college. Three JMU students are Young Lives leaders: Mathes, sophomore social work major Samantha Magdaleno and freshman nursing major Rachel Rogalski.
During club they all sit down and “eat as a family” since most of the moms don’t get to do this due to busy schedules or having been kicked out of their home. Then, they have a club talk while the kids are watched by volunteer caretakers, which is centered around the Gospel and provides an opportunity to ask questions since it’s new to most of them. It usually lasts only around 15 minutes to avoid overwhelming the girls and gives them time to reflect on their journey.
Rogalski relates, having been on her own religious journey. Similar to what some of the girls go through, Rogalski turned to boys and partying in high school to escape reality.
“I thought it was filling me up and I thought that it was satisfying me, but ultimately, in the end, it wasn’t,” Rogalski said.
While her situation isn’t identical to the moms’, this allows Rogalski to help them with challenges aside from being a mom. Whether it’s partying or something else, Rogalski looks to the Gospel to help the girls “turn their chair toward God” and start a new journey like she did.
Right now, there are 12 moms in the Young Lives program, some of whom have graduated and remain involved. But how they got involved may take one by surprise.
Mathes, Rogalski and Magdaleno walk the halls of Harrisonburg High School every day before they go to the nursery and look for expecting mothers — a task Mathes explains is as awkward as it seems.
A few weeks ago, the three girls were walking the halls and Mathes stopped and asked if they had all seen the pregnant girl walk by. To not bombard her, the girls casually walked behind her, following her to her class. This way, they at least knew where to find her in the future.
The typical routine is to “casually run into” the girl the next day and introduce themselves and ask what class the girl is going to. It isn’t until the next run-in that they mention they’re a part of a teen mom support group and that it’s a Christian ministry.
“I was just really interested, and I wanted to be around other girls like me,” one of the moms whom Mathes approached in the hall said. “I didn’t want to feel, like, left out or ashamed or anything like that.”
The mom, who requested to be anonymous for privacy, said it’s the “best decision” she’s ever made.
“[Kaylin] brought me closer to Jesus, and she’s always asking about me, always asking about my daughter, just making sure we’re OK,” the mom said. “She’s always making us feel welcomed in faith and making sure … we’re taken care of, too.”
Her bond with Mathes has grown through study breaks, babysitting, trips to the local children’s museum and McDonald’s. Mathes even attended her graduation and hosted a birthday party for her daughter.
Mathes has been in the program since her freshman year, but Rogalski and Magdaleno started this year. When she joined, Magdaleno found that since the team previously struggled with consistency from other leaders leaving, the girls were hesitant getting to know her. They weren’t sure if she’d stick around. However, the girls began opening up to Magdaleno when she showed she’ll be there until she graduates and opened up about her own story.
Magdaleno was born when her mom was a teen, too.
While this has given her a different perspective than the other team members, it’s also the most challenging aspect for her. Since she came from a single teen mom, she sometimes jumps to finding a solution and has to remind herself to take a step back and not assume their experiences are the same as hers.
“I may have come from a situation similar to it, but I didn’t come from that situation,” Magdaleno said.
To counteract these initial instincts, Magdaleno listens and asks the girls how they want to approach each challenge they face.
Being the support for these twelve girls doesn’t always come easily. The team was warned by Young Life staff that it’s emotionally draining and difficult at times. These moments can range from watching a girl get kicked out of her home to a custody battle.
“I just have to remember that, like, we are their support system,” Magdaleno said. “So, as upset as it must … make us, I can only imagine how upset it makes them. So, it’s really not about me.”
Rogalski has turned to prayer to get her through each day.
“Every morning when I wake up, I try to pray over every girl,” Rogalski said. “It’s really strengthened my walk with the Lord.”
Overall, Mathes sees the moms as “super women” for being teenagers and having babies while working and being in school full time, as well as dealing with high school drama.
“I think so highly of teen moms,” Mathes said. “They literally are my heroes. They’re incredible, really the strongest people I know, the most courageous people I know.”
Contact Shanna Kelly at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.