The first W.A.Y event gathered 90 teens and church leaders from around southwest Michigan to play games, listen to live music and fellowship with one another Saturday evening. Submitted photo/Bret Molner

Archived Story

Area youth event draws 90 teens, church leaders

Published 4:05pm Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Southwest Michigan youth found a welcoming and exciting atmosphere Saturday when 90 teens and church representatives gathered for the first West Michigan Area Youth (the W.A.Y.) event at Crystal Springs Campground.

With plans that began almost a year ago, youth leaders from around southwest Michigan joined forces to create and claim a safe place for area youth. After arrival and greetings, connections started as Dowagiac Middle School student Hannah Headapohl recognized and connected with some of her friends. Leadership gathered the youth for prayer and blessings of fun on their evening before dismissing to two musical venues with Brothers Kerr and 2-Lo-C. Teens also played Gaga Ball, basketball and laser tag before a Firebowl wrap-up complete with s’mores. Church leaders who helped organized the event said the group setting allowed teens to ask hard questions, wrestle with life and faith, find support and fellowship while discovering ways to engage in missions.

“This was our goal, then we roasted it,” Mark Einselen, Crystal Springs director, said. “We have never seen this many youth gather at the campground. We hope it is the beginning of discovering a relevant impactful youth ministry for kids across denominational lines.”

Sacred Heart of Mary Catholic Church, in Sister Lakes, brought along teens to the gathering, something youth leader and parishioner Brad Yazel said was an easy decision.

“If you are a church in the area with a smaller youth group, this is a no-brainer. Your church should be there,” Yazel said. “It provides the critical mass necessary for youth to have a relevant, real experience that helps them to connect with other youth facing similar life issues.”

Silver Creek and Keeler United Methodist Church Pastor Heather McDougall, who served on the planning team to create W.A.Y., agreed with Yazel, saying Dowagiac churches with only four to five teens in their church could benefit from W.A.Y.

“This is the way for smaller churches in Dowagiac to do youth group in a big way with good, clean fun,” McDougall said. “Youth needs more of that opportunity.”

McDougall also said the event went off without a hitch after more than nine months of planning.

“I was pleased that we had kids from the area without a connection to church or youth group pop in to check us out,” McDougall said. “We also know that, after an event like this, follow up and continued communication is key.”
McDougall said many events like the first W.A.Y. gathering often have similar approached, but then taper off. After the activities and fellowship, church youth leaders had kids fill out evaluation forms to discern who was already affiliated with a youth group and who wasn’t. Some of the farthest travelers drove an hour and a half from Hopkins, including Hopkins youth leader Dawn Guppy Green.

“We had a girl who came all by herself from Vicksburg,” McDougall said Tuesday. “She said she came to check out what we were doing and that she was going back to tell her youth group how awesome it was.”

The next W.A.Y. event is something McDougall said he hopes will build their reach.

“We’re hoping that we’ll retain most of those we had and then add more,” McDougall said. “I’m hoping that was just a base to build on.”

The next event is planned as an overnight lock-in at the Crystal Springs Camp Oct. 26-27. Youth leaders plan to include pizza, games and karaoke, wrapping up on Saturday with a small mission project at the camp.

“This will help prepare us and begin to build a base to get these youth engaged in hands-on missions at a local level, looking towards national and international opportunities to serve,” McDougall said.

For more information on W.A.Y., call Keeler/Silver Creek United Methodist at (269) 782-7061.

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