What TLF Taught Me About The Long Haul of Ministry

Over ten years ago, I was invited to a meeting with a prominent Orange County judge in the foster care system.  This judge was looking for mentors in the community to help make a difference in the lives of foster children. Concerned individuals from the community were brought together to network and brainstorm on ways to support these children, teens, and foster parents being affected by the system.  It was at this meeting that I met Lisa Castetter.

Since 2001, First Evangelical Free Church of Fullerton has hosted a Royal Family Kids Camp. As the director of this camp, one of the hardest moments was when an 11-year-old foster child looks at you with tears in his eyes, pleading to let him come back to camp for one more year. So I began asking myself, how could we expand our ministry to include teens? So when Lisa approached me with her vision to provide at-risk, abused and neglected teens an effective and all inclusive camp just for them, I was all in.

That was the beginning of an incredible journey and friendship with Lisa. How privileged we were to be on the ground floor of Teen Leadership Camp.  At our first camp we had 30 campers and 28 volunteers.  I will never forget the reaction of one sixteen-year-old boy as he got off the bus and read the sign: Alpine Christian Conference Center. He was furious and shouted belligerently, “nobody told me this was a Christian Camp—if I had known that I would not have come!” The challenge had begun. Fast forward to the following year when he came back as a camp leader, sharing his dreams for college, and his relationship with Christ.

Another one of our first campers who seemed to be heading in the wrong direction. He spoke with foul language and told inappropriate stories; he was the  “tough” guy trying to fit in. Lisa’s goal that camp included a leadership component to help empower the campers to step into more involved roles. My husband noticed he was interested in the sound booth, so, when he graduated from TLC at eighteen, we invited him back as a leader to help with our soundboard during worship and when our speakers were up front. He shined with this responsibility. He was expected to come to training and when he was recognized at our appreciation dinner after camp, he was so proud of himself. It was life changing for him. 

…I began asking myself, how could we expand our ministry to include teens? So when Lisa approached me with her vision to provide at-risk, abused and neglected teens an effective and all inclusive camp just for them, I was all in.

From the beginning, it was very obvious that the three days of camp each summer was not enough for foster teens in our county. Lisa’s goal was to connect teens and mentors together after camp who would continue to play a supporting role in their lives.  Teen Leadership Camp quickly expanded to Teen Leadership Foundation to empower foster teens, giving them tools to become leaders in their community. Beyond that, TLF helps churches provide mentoring, leadership camps, youth groups, independent living skills and housing, so that they can continue to empower and impact more and more youth for many years to come. 

Three years ago, following TLF’s guidance and vision, our church started launched The Knot – a safe space for foster teens to find community and group mentoring. 

From there, I watched The Launch Pad develop as TLF saw the need for transitional living and independent living skills needed for teens who suddenly find themselves at eighteen, out of the foster care system with nowhere to go. 

Teen Leadership Foundation continues to grow and expand as more and more churches understand the need to empower teens in the foster care system. I feel very humbled and appreciative that 10 years ago I met Lisa at a meeting in Orange…not realizing at the
time that knowing her would change my life and my priorities forever. She is one of my heroes, as she personally models mentoring and continues to make a difference for foster youth not only in Orange County but throughout the United States. Our ministry wouldn’t be where it is today without the resources, support and training provided by TLF.

Congratulations on 10 amazing years TLF. I’m looking forward to the impact you will have in the next 10 years in our community and beyond.

If you would like to give to Teen Leadership Foundation’s Ten Year Campaign, click here!

WHAT CRYSTAL TAUGHT ME

Crystal was exposed to so much in her childhood. Sex, drugs, alcohol…it was all a part of her painful story.

When Crystal was fifteen, her mom dropped her off at school and never came back to pick her, or her three younger siblings, up. Crystal had taken on the role of the caregiver to her younger siblings, like many of the oldest in abusive home settings.

 After a few years in foster care, she got the opportunity to attend Teen Leadership Camp. She told the camp director “I really don’t like leaving my house or my siblings; but for me, TLC is the most calming, caring, accepting place I have ever gone to.”

In her own words:I love the first day of camp because it’s clear that people actually care about us and want to help. It’s a weekend full of love and kindness that is impossible to forget. On Friday night the speaker told us we are precious to God and we have value and purpose. Saturday morning we do high ropes, it is a time to help us conquer our fears. I love how everyone cheers each other on. We all want to succeed.  I learned that God reveals His purpose and plan for us and we just need to have faith. Life is not always the way we want it to be, but we can still trust God and believe.

 

THAT FIRST SUMMER

That summer, we launched two camps with two different churches; roughly 60 kids were given the opportunity to experience camp for the very first time…

Reflecting now on that summer I see how much we, as an organization, have grown and how much we have learned, but yet some core values still remain like:

planting seeds of hope

creating a safe environment for learning and growing

being one consistent thing in a foster youth’s often unpredictable life.  
The Lord took what was once small, my five loaves and fish, and created something sustainable, lasting, and forever impacting these lives. I came faithful with a small hope to impact the youth’s I met at camp, and the Lord has been faithful to impact more and more and more youths as the years go on and Teen Leadership Foundation continues to grow. Ten years later, that three-day weekend is still a safe place for teens in foster-care to be given seeds of hope that they can carry with them for the rest of their lives. Today, throughout the country, thousands of kids gather through churches to spend a weekend feeling valued, loved, safe and respected. 

ACCEPTING THE GIFTS

I had just left a lucrative career with just a year’s salary in the bank. Surprisingly I did not feel anxiety or a hint of worry. I was completely assured I was in God’s will and completely surrendered.

There I sat paying bills one night  – It was getting close to 9:00 at night—and I felt God’s gentle voice nudge me, “Lisa, go tithe.”  I remember going online to do so—and the prompting felt stronger: GO tithe.

I lived 20 minutes away from my home church—but I got in the car and drove to drop off a check that night in the offering box in the main sanctuary. The doors were still open and there was an event happening.

That marked the beginning of a diligent response to the gifts God brought to TLF over the years.

THE FIRST FEW MONTHS…

There I sat, four months after resigning from a career path that I had set goals and aspirations towards, at my desk in my home office…I remember praying out loud, “God…I can tell people all the ends and outs of the apparel industry, but this? You’re going to show me how to do this, right?”

This…this….thing; this mission, this call that I just could not walk away from.

All I knew was that God had given me a vision of bringing the local church into an awareness of the crisis of foster care in our country.  I didn’t think I was suppose to be on the front lines—I had a plan for someone else to be in the messy parts.  

I sat on the phone with a friend who was telling me about a foster parent she knew; I met with him a few days later and he introduced me to churches, donors, people I needed to know to make this “this” happen…He mentored me, coached me and was a champion for this new mission. Quickly, things started falling in line: 

Churches were saying, without hesitation, “we are in”  and started taking part in summer leadership camps.

The Department of Children and Family Services began giving referral agreements to send foster teens in their system to our camps. 

A family used their foundation to commit to sustain Teen Leadership Foundation the first five years of growth and development. 
Friends and family were praying and there was no denying that God was on the move.

MY LAST TRIP TO VEGAS

In February of 2007 , I found myself driving to Vegas for a trade show. God was continuing to do more and more in me-speaking to me about my passions, my career choice, my next steps…I put in a CD mix a friend had made to listen to as I drove the 4 hour trek. Then these words came on:
I have followed the ways of the world – forgive me of my transgressions – Lord have mercy on me! 
A defining moment – I cried as I pushed “replay” on the same song for the entire four hours. I arrived to Vegas with red swollen eyes as I looked for the team of people I was meeting. We discussed strategy of the show and game-planned for the next morning, but I could not shake the feeling that something needed to change.
I sat quietly with my team and spoke:
I have something to tell you. I am resigning… 

A NEW MINDSET

After some time I met a friend who would become a spiritual mentor for me. She was used to bring me into a season of growing in faith. I began to see the child welfare system differently and saw more and more the Church’s role-not just one church or my church, but the global Church…God’s Church. God began to place visions in me of bringing the Church into awareness of the crisis of foster care. What would it look like to replicate the good work of one church and package it to build a bridge between other churches and government?
It was just a “wonder” – I loved my career…the travel, the fast pace, the creating of new things, but something was stirring in me and I couldn’t silence it.

KELLY

During this time while leading another camp I met Kelly – a shy and reserved 12 year old. She was failing school.
One day, her guidance counselor had called me-she had helped Kelly go to camp and had seen the impact it had on her. She asked about finding a mentor for Kelly. With mom being gone she was struggling in the home and her academics.
So, I sent her the name of a few people…but no one was responding.
I couldn’t just stand by and let a youth fall through the cracks. So, I began mentoring her.
I soon learned she just needed an outlet – someone to help guide her in school, in life, in teen years…etc. With someone to listen and, from time to time, give advice, she enrolled in a college prep program and graduated high school with an AA already in college.
I taught her how to drive – she reminded me how scary teenagers are behind the wheel (just kidding!).
I helped navigate doctors appointments, school functions, homework, college, her first car, and, in the midst of all the mundane, there were a whole lot of good talks about life. 
Today she is turning 25 and getting her masters in Psychology — the first in her family to go to college …. because someone noticed , someone saw her. I got to be a part of that.

HOW I LEARNED HELPING FOSTER YOUTH IS NOT THAT SIMPLE

Time went by and I began learning the complexity of the system and the pain behind the faces.
The teen years my mentee faced living in a group home taught me about the common, everyday issues foster youth faced: self harm, living on the streets selling her body for money…and family cycles of spiritual, emotional, and physical poverty.
With each struggle she would call me at some point, inviting me into her story-sometimes it would be after weeks of being on the streets and being caught. I would see her and we sit over a meal as she cried through the hurt she was carrying…and I knew nothing other then to pray.
While she was under 18 and leaving the group home to sell her body…the police found her she would be returned. But once she hit 18, an “adult” by legal standards, no one cared to look for her.
But I did – along with a few unhealthy and terrifying family members.

THE NEXT STEP: FROM LEARNER TO LEADER

While still in my career in the apparel and textile industry I began a journey of volunteer leading and creating ministries for foster youth over the course of the next seven years within my home church. I lead camp weekends, Christmas parties, mentor outings, and continued to mentor youth I’d met at camp, as well as strategically helped design new ways to reach kids in need.
I remember one year in particular leading a Christmas party of around 600 kids and caregivers and 300 volunteers. Someone from my team let me know a caregiver was looking for me…me? I thought to myself what is she going to complain about? What did I miss?!
As I went to greet her – she and her soon to be 18 year old foster child youth thanked me…He said this was his last year coming to this event, as he was aging out of the system. He went on to tell me that he had been with this particular foster family for the past five years and the one thing he remembers as a constant every year was this holiday party.
With tears in our eyes I gave him a hug…I have tears in my eyes typing almost a decade later.
This is the start of the journey towards TLF. You see, TLF is really a tapestry, a weaving, of small, but significant stories. Each thread matters. Each play an important role in the coming together of the big picture God had in mind as he brought small…but significant…events, relationships, and circumstances my way.
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