Program makes transition

FAIRMONT – Change can be a scary thing, so when two of three leaders at Martin County Youth for Christ announced they were leaving the local youth program, panic might have been the natural reaction for the one remaining person.

“It’s definitely a time of transition, which is never easy, but I’m really excited about what God is going to do here,” said Shelly Larsen, who was recently promoted from the program’s high school director to executive director.

“I’ve been with Youth for Christ almost four years,” she said. “I started as a volunteer.”

Larsen is stepping up to replace Mike Johnson, who helped found the local Youth for Christ chapter 12 years ago. The program started in his basement, then moved into the Salvation Army, and finally settled into a Downtown Plaza building called The Lighthouse.

The youth center is open to middle school and high school students, providing a safe place for them to hang out and have fun without getting into trouble.

The Lighthouse also provides a means for staff and volunteers to talk to students about Jesus and the Christian faith.

“Kids really want someone to listen and care,” Larsen said. “… When they share their problems with me, I always share what God’s Word says, and that opens a door. … I’ve found all students are seeking to fill a void, this area of emptiness, and a lot of times they look for immediate gratification.”

As Martin County Youth for Christ moves forward, continued growth in every community in the county is the goal.

“Only 25 percent of kids are actively involved in a youth group, which means 75 percent are not,” Johnson said. “… What we do is similar to a youth group, but we focus on kids outside the church. We’re not meant to be a church. We’ve never claimed to be a church, but … there should be a growth in churches as a result of this ministry.”

Over the years, Martin County Youth for Christ has developed a positive rapport with area churches and schools. Two years ago, Larsen formed a breakfast club at Granada-Huntley-East Chain High School. It draws in more than a third of the student body on a weekly basis. In Fairmont, more than 60 kids attend a similar weekly breakfast club.

“In any community, people are interested in seeing organizations like Youth for Christ take root before they feel comfortable backing it,” Johnson said. “They don’t know a lot about it, and they want to see that you’re here to stay. Once they see that, they’re more apt to come along and partner with you.”

Both Johnson and middle school director Sam Kautzmann had been praying and asking God what they should do with their lives, and without knowing what the other was planning, they both started looking into other ministry options.

Kautzmann has been with Youth for Christ two years. He and his wife, Katie Kautzmann, are moving in early July to Minot, N.D., where he accepted a position as youth pastor at First Baptist Church. Katie Kautzmann was the youth pastor at Fairmont’s United Methodist Church for six years.

“We’ve both felt so blessed to be here,” Kautzmann said.

As a missionary kid, Kautzmann didn’t have many non-Christian friends growing up, so his time with Youth for Christ gave him experience connecting to students who were outside a church circle.

“My heart for kids who are struggling has really grown,” he said. “… I’m excited to reach out, and help the kids in my youth group reach out.”

Johnson will remain with Youth for Christ when his family moves in late July to Colorado Springs. He will be focusing his attention on a juvenile justice ministry, which helps formerly incarcerated kids create new lives when they complete their sentences.

“We don’t want them to just to back to the same friends,” Johnson said. “We’ll try to create a new network of people for them.”

Martin County Youth for Christ’s board is in the process of interviewing candidates to find replacements for the middle and high school directors. During the transition, the students will still have the comfort of familiar faces of volunteers who regularly assist at The Lighthouse.

“We’re committed to the mission of reaching youth, so we know Martin County Youth for Christ will be here for many years to come,” Larsen said.