The Human Heart

Interesting thing about the human heart… it’s an organ essential for “life” but it’s also an organ essential for life. One can go an entire “life” with a heart only used for pumping blood or one can allow the Holy Spirit to work and open the heart to allow life.   The difference being simply getting by with a pulse or allowing the soul to open, thus being a conduit of the Holy Spirit in the world.

A word of caution though; allowing life allows a heart to be broken, crushed and yet allows the possibility of being tenderly massaged, stretched and grown at the same time.  A paradox only God can properly navigate within each one of us.

I have been a counselor at Teen Leadership Camp for several years.   This past year I spent several hours in prayer sessions prior to camp asking for protection for campers and counselors, prepped hearts, willingness to hear/grow and (here’s the dangerous part) connection with campers.  Holy Schnikies did I get more than I bargained for…

I’m not sure if it was what Christ was/is doing in me, doing in the kids, prayer over the camp or some other divine circumstance (sneaking suspicion it’s a combination of all the above and more…) but last year’s camp wrecked me in a beautiful way.  I have never had more kids hug me or have the desire to hug more of them.  From thirteen to seventeen it was magnificently clear these kids are starving for care and affection from safe people and my little heart is overwhelmed at the opportunity to provide a sliver of hope in that arena.

I went into the weekend open to the idea of mentorship “or something”.  With the weekend over, I’m in awe of the need and in desperate need of prayer for which way to go.  Group help, monthly gatherings, one-on-one-mentorship… There is so much need…  And we serve a God that wants to bless us by being engaged in their lives.

I’m reminded of the story on a poster in a friends bathroom which read something along the lines of; “There were millions of starfish washed up upon the shore.  A little boy was saving starfish by picking them up one at a time and throwing them back into the ocean.  A “grown-up” asked the little boy what he was doing; to which he replied in a boyishly firm declaration, “I’m saving the starfish!”  The man said, “Boy, look at all these starfish, you can’t possibly make a difference.”  To which the little boy responded by picking up another starfish and throwing it into the ocean and said, “I made a difference to that one.”

William Wallace said, “Every man dies.  Not every man really lives.”  I’m saying this as much to myself as anyone reading.  Are you willing to make a difference even in a single younger person’s life?  Will you allow the Holy Spirit to pour His blessings through you?  Will you choose life?


…TLC Camp Counselor

Mentoring in a group home

I signed up to volunteer with TLF, unsure of what I was really getting myself into. I had a bit of previous experience with foster youth, but the prospect of working with teenagers brought about a whole collection of fears and insecurities. However, from the moment I met Emily at camp, God reminded me what I was there for–to show her that despite anything she has ever been told before, she is precious and loved. Seeing Emily and all the other campers preparing for a weekend of fun away from home first made me see them as just a group of teenagers, but in that moment God reminded me what it was that set them apart from other kids their age. That quiet thought helped me focus on pouring love/kindness into the campers and give them positive and happy memories.

From that point on, I was blessed to see the work God was doing in Emily’s heart and mine through our growing friendship and through the camp as a whole. I was amazed by the little victories and planting of seeds that occurred throughout the weekend. After chapel service the first night, Emily told me, “I don’t know why but those songs were making me cry. I couldn’t help it.” In this moment God opened such an awesome opportunity for me to share with her the ways He touches our hearts, and even though she didn’t make a life decision to follow Christ at that moment, I know the tears at service and the time I got to share with her right then was something God is going to use to continue working in her heart.

I saw Emily opening up and beginning to trust me over the weekend in a way that I never expected. It started on the bus ride to camp after we had some time to chat and get more comfortable with one another. We were getting along really well and there was a lull in the conversation in which Emily interjected, “So I have this boyfriend and I think I want to break up with him; what should I do?” I couldn’t help but laugh as I told her that I had broken up with my boyfriend the day before. It was so amazing to see the way God brought us together at such similar times in our lives and then use that as an opportunity to give her advice gain her trust and respect as we drove to camp. I think God presented this opportunity to show me that beyond all of the things she had faced, Emily was just a teenage girl who on top of everything else, was dealing with all the things I felt to be mini-tragedies when I was her age. The conversation about our boy problems allowed Emily to see that I was not afraid to be honest with her and treat her like the young adult she is (within reason of course!) by telling her the situation I had just gone through and the way it affected my life. This bit of opening up led to Emily sharing about her abuse and later letting me hold her as she cried for all of the things she has had to face in her young life. Seeing her confidence grow as she overcame fear as well as her joy and pride in her abilities brought tears to my eyes on more than one occasion, because this is what camp is all about. It’s not about the huge victories; it’s about all the little ones that slowly chip away at the painful and scarring pasts of the campers.

After camp I could not just walk away from what I had been a part of there and join my old life. Hearing the stories of all these teenagers who had been broken and abused by the people closest to them was hard enough, but knowing that all of this was going on in my community, by my church and my house really struck a chord. There’s always that weird feeling after a mission trip where you see such devastation and poverty that makes you realize all that you have, but it’s so easy to forget once you get on the plane and go back to your comfortable life. This camp showed me the emotional devastation that resulted from the horrible abuse these teenagers have faced, and there was no flying away from it. I knew that when I drove home after camp I would pass by areas where certain girls from camp lived, and when I went any number of places I would be so nearby these kids who so desperately need God and need to feel loved. God stated it so plainly in my heart during and after camp that this isn’t finished, so I started the process to begin visiting the group home where Emily lives.

Even in the everyday conversations about life while I visit the group home, I can see the evidence of Emily healing simply in her ability to trust and confide in me. I got all the updates on friends, school, books, boys, and life at the house while we took goofy pictures and painted picture frames. It was such simple fun, but it was obvious that Emily and the other youth loved the chance to hang-out with each other and adults who only want to love them and invest in them.

~ TLF mentor


Words From a Counselor…

“I wonder if the disciples were as speechless as I am??  How do I put into words what amazing miracles my God did, how it shook me to the core, filled me with joy, and wrecked me at the same time?

God was highlighted throughout the camp in an undeniable way. Two of the campers and myself came together and wrote a worship song called “Breakdown Into Your Arms”. There were late night breakthroughs during small groups with my boys, Scott, Ben, Andrew, Brandon and Sean, that really brought the barriers down in the other guys, if only for a minute. Late night UNO games led to building relationships with campers like Chris and Toby. One of the most inspiring moments was watching the tenacity in Tracy, she continued to bring hope to her fellow campers.

Then there was the Domino’s skit where the love of Jesus was displayed through the art of theater. In the skit the boys would be picked up by Jesus to form a cross, time and time again Satan would swoop in to knock one of them over, creating a domino effect that left no man standing. Jesus was always there to pick up his children, restore them and put them back where they belonged. It was incredibly touching and beautiful.What a blessing to partner with Jesus to love on His kids!!”

-TLF Camp Counselor

The List

“Two weeks ago I participated in Teen Leadership Camp and saw first hand how tangible and easy it was to help youth in foster care. When I first met my camper, Juan, he was wearing a red Anaheim Angel’s hat and sweatshirt. He seemed like a pretty normal kid. On the bus ride up to camp he shared  with me the very unfortunate story of his father’s public murder. After his father’s death, at the age of 12, Juan was placed into foster care where he had been for about a year. He explained that his brothers were now back with his biological mother, and that he did not want to go back with her for a variety of reasons. Although he cares for his foster parents deeply, they also thought it was best for him to live with his biological family. They asked him to come back from camp with a list of reasons why he felt staying with the foster family would be best. That list became our special project and we continued to work on it all weekend. I asked him questions and helped him articulate eight reasons why it was better for him to stay with his foster family. These reasons ranged from school stability to physical abuse , verbal abuse, mental abuse and everything in between. As simple as this task was, my prayer is that our work at camp will help him stay in a loving and supportive family. These kids need to feel Christ’s love through our words, time, talents, and resources.”

…TLC Camp Counselor

Camp Miracles

Told from the eyes of a camp counselor…

“All, I have wonderful news and want to shout it from the rooftops so I apologize for the overly wide distribution.

What an amazing experience I had this past weekend with 30 other counselors at the Teen Leadership Foundation Camp (TLF) that the Grove Community Church of Riverside held for the Foster kids in their community.

Our weekend was packed full of awesome events and opportunities to bless all the kids with affirmation, kindness and life skills.

I was paired with my camper from Friday morning until we left Sunday afternoon.  We went very deep into his story and current challenges. This event allowed me to share some wisdom from The Bible about love, 1 Corinthians 13, and identify some positive steps he could make in building a healthy foundation in his life.

Initially I was worried about spending too much time with him and burning out, but we were grouped with 3 other pairs of one-on-one campers to counselors. There were 8 total in our small group where we ate together, did team building activities, high ropes (30-100 feet in the air), skits, songs, group discussions, made s ‘mores and played fun games. At the end of the camp today, my camper made the decision along with 8 other teens to commit their lives to Christ!! It was truly an amazing experience and the Grove leadership (Stacey Syrocki) did a wonderful job picking out two powerful speakers who spoke to the camp about grace in their own lives. The environment at the Alpine Camp in Lake Arrowhead had a perfect mix of events, staff, and food to fill our weekend with great memories. It was awesome to experience.”

-Josh Gladness

Change a life.. yours

It has been 6 years now since we heard about Teen Leadership Foundation’s summer camp program, Teen Leadership Camp “TLC”. I thought it would be a fun experience. My husband, on the other hand, was extremely hesitant to say the least. He was worried he wouldn’t know what to say to a foster kid or at-risk teen, let alone counsel them for a whole weekend. With some prayer… and a lot of nudging, however, we were off to camp! Little did we know that it would become more than just a weekend, it would be the beginning of a journey that would change us forever!

We were touched by the amount of deep relationships we began to form in just three days. We grew to understand the heartbeat of a teen in the foster care system, a kid just like any other kid, simply wanting to live a normal, happy life. The impact the volunteers had on these teens was affirmed by the joy expressed on their faces during the team building activities, ropes courses, and outdoor activities.

Shortly after camp we became mentors to two brothers and their sister (all campers at camp) who have been in the foster care system for the majority of their lives. Their stories, filled with unfathomable pain, broke our hearts. Almost five years later this young family remains in our life. It’s been so fulfilling to journey alongside them every step of the way. Every summer they ask about camp and look forward to their time away from the realities of their everyday life. They are truly like family to us now.

That’s our story. Let us leave you with this challenge: Once you see that you CAN make a change in a foster teen’s life, it really changes YOUR life forever.

– John & Rosalind, TLF Board Members

A Weekend Full of Love

Before I get into my experience at camp, let me tell you a bit about me. My name is Crystal (at camp they call me Chris). I was born and raised surrounded by alcohol, drugs, and sex by the time I was 5 years old and was basically the mother of my 3 younger siblings (so I felt).

One day my mom abandoned me at school. My teacher took me home, and after a few days called child protective services. I was sent to foster care. That was 9 years ago!

After some time being in foster care I got the opportunity to attend Teen Leadership Camp. I really don’t like leaving my house, but for me, TLC is the most calming, caring, accepting place I have ever gone to.

At TLC you can be who you are and everyone accepts you the way you are. On the first day of camp I was excited. My camp counselor was the same one as last year. Her name was Jan.

Jan was kind to me and made me feel safe.

We started with low ropes. It’s a great way to get to know everyone at camp. It’s a time to build trust and develop relationships with counselors, too. We learn that whatever task we are given, our counselors are there to help us.

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.

Saturday afternoon we have pool time where everyone laughs and enjoys themselves. Then there’s the zip-line…words cannot express the thrill and excitement of the zip-line!

Saturday night at chapel the lesson continued. 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 but we can still trust God and believe.

I learned that even though I do have doubt, God still loves me. I am going to remember camp TLC as long as I live!!


– Crystal, TLC Camper


Be There

This past year I was given a 17-year-old camper to lead for  Teen Leadership Camp “TLC”  weekend. We’ll call her Sherrie.

Sherrie was a particularly complicated girl. At times she was so mature, but could suddenly switch over to reveal the broken heart of a very needy child. She told me how much she hated the team building exercises at camp because she never likes being touched without her permission. As Sherrie talked more about this, she revealed her years of sexual abuse to me and how difficult it is for her to be touched by anyone.

Sherrie told me she considered herself to be a Christian, but she didn’t believe God existed. I told her it wasn’t possible to have it both ways… that being a Christian required faith in God. Then she explained that she didn’t believe He existed because He never answered her when she called for help during those years of abuse.

I momentarily wondered if I should have somehow better prepared myself to answer this deep theological conundrum. You see, before camp, I found myself worrying I wasn’t spiritually “fit” or “adequate” enough to lead these teens.

I took a breath and told Sherrie that I don’t understand why God doesn’t always rescue us when we ask, but I did know that He had a plan to make something beautiful out of her life if she would let Him. Sherrie became extremely angry at that moment and began to shut me out. I told her I would be praying that God would reveal Himself to her and that she would experience the great peace He has to offer. She responded, “Whatever floats your boat,” and walked away.

Our next activity was chapel. I found Sherrie sitting alone so I sat by her, making sure to give her plenty of space. As chapel went on, she slid a little closer and a closer to me until she was right next to me. Then she held my hand.

Then she leaned.

Then her head was on my shoulder.

Finally, her other hand found its way into the front pocket of my sweatshirt where she clutched tighter and tighter onto the fabric to the point where I’m certain her knuckles were white. I wrapped my arms around her in a big bear hug, rocked her, and told her I loved her.

Sherrie and I stayed in the chapel and I never let go. I hugged and cried. That was my job. That’s what God put me there for at that very moment. I told her I was so sorry for all the pain she had gone through. She never pulled away once. It reminded me of holding my own girls when they were toddlers.

Later after all the campers had gone home, one of the other counselors told me that Sherrie had shared with her about our time in the chapel where we had held each other so tightly. Sherrie told her that it had meant more to her than I would ever know because she’s never felt that safe around someone, someone who could hold her, listen to her, and love her in her most honest and vulnerable state. That truly was my job that weekend. Not to be a spiritual encyclopedia, but to be the hands and feet of Christ. To love with Christ’s love. To be available.

– Cheryl, TLC Counselor

A mentee’s perspective

My first time going to camp I was in tears begging my aunt to let me stay home, when I arrived everyone was so nice and so caring that I automatically felt better about going to camp.  My first experience was so amazing because there were no judgements about where you came from and it was a safe zone with all of the counselors.  And three days later I was tears again, but this time because I didnt want to leave.  This past summer was my fifth time going to camp; the reason I keep going is because even though I already know the schedule and the activities planned I never get enough of just being able to open up and share my story with other campers. Going from having a counselor at camp only to having a mentor outside has really benefited me. I can count on my mentor Tina to give me advise, guide me, and help me grow in so many areas. When Tina and I hang out, outside of camp we have alot of laughs and meaningful conversation. I can talk to her about anything and feel I am not being judged just loved.  I can honestl say I have grown so much by having Tina in my life.

– Sydney; TLC camper and mentee

A mentors perspective

My first summer going to camp was “interesting.”  I didn’t want to go originally, but a friend kept bugging me over and over again to go.  Eventually I caved in and signed up.  I met Sydney and immediately noticed how outgoing she was…which was REALLY good because I was nervous.  Throughout the entire camp she led a small group of people (campers and counselors) around the low ropes course.  I didn’t have to think hardly at all because she just did it all.  I remember the first camp FLEW BY WAAAY TOO FAST and I was really bummed to say bye to Sydney.  I had so much fun completing challenges with her, rushing to breakfast together, getting beat in card games, and hearing pieces of her story.  As I drove home I was already thinking about the second year and hoping she would show up.  I wanted to beat her at cards, learn more about her, and scream louder as she tackled the high ropes and zip line.  When she showed up the second year I got a HUGE hug and it was hard for me to not to think about how quickly camp would end.  By the third year we kind of just expected to see each other and running jump-hugs ensued.  Our third camp was held at a different location so we were able to “explore” the activities “for the first time” again.  I started thinking about mentoring Sydney outside of camp after our third camp ended. .  The last two years at camp has been very different for us.  Other counselors are meeting their campers for the first time, and mine already knows I need coffee ASAP when I wake up.  Other counselors don’t know what to say to their camper, we have inside jokes…from three years ago.  Over the last five years, I have met many kids through Teen Leadership Camp, but Sydney will always be my munchkin.  Since our first camp I have watched her heart grow so much.  When she was twelve she struggled trying to find explanations for her situation, now at sixteen she isn’t consumed by those reasons.  She focuses, instead, on her future goals and college plans.  When she was twelve she got along with everybody because of her bouncy personality, now she gets along with everyone because she listens to their stories and shares in their pain.  Sydney stands out from other kids in many ways.  She is very self motivated and thoughtful.  She always helps to take care of her little sister and at camp she looks out for other rookie campers.  She isn’t swayed by peer pressure and she isn’t intimidated to stand up for what’s right.  She has found an obvious inner peace with GOD and that brings SO MUCH beauty to her face and joy to her voice.

– Tina; TLC counselor and mentor