On Wednesday evenings 20 high school students gather on comfy couches chatting and laughing. Every time a new student comes in the door they are greeted excitedly. A game is started in the center of the room that involves everyone. Afterward, the group gathers on the couches to have a Bible lesson and open discussion. This week the topic was identity. Who do you see when you look in the mirror? Many answered with various versions of “a scholar, an athlete, a strong and confident man/woman.” Director Lamar Simms shares, “Many of the students feel they need to have a facade up that shows strength, but what Young Life does is offer them the opportunity and safety to be more vulnerable.” He further explains that many of the youth feel they have to wear a tough mask to survive. However, once they feel safe, the mask is able to come off and you see the true softness.
Simms grew up in the nearby neighborhood of Englewood. His passion for youth developed as a result of gaining Christian mentors as he became a young man. The need for mentoring and discipling are close to his heart. “My passion is to see them reach their goals, especially when they thought they were out of reach.” Simms spends time weekly with the students, takes them on field trips, and attends important school functions with them. Some highlights from the year were field trips to see the Black Panther movie and the Poets in Autumn Tour. Both led to great in-depth conversations.
In much of the discussions and curriculum Simms incorporates the Gospel and the importance of a personal relationship with Jesus. This is paramount to everything else. “Whatever their future holds, my greatest desire is to see them know Jesus,” Simms shares. Out of this Gospel-centered curriculum comes a focus on developing identity and working through the effects of trauma many have experienced.
Simms and other volunteers also help teens navigate their choices in high school as well as the plans for their future. It becomes natural to transition them into the College Life or Career Life programs after graduation. Collaborating with other Sunshine staff to discuss the needs of each student is crucial. Weekly staff meetings allow youth staff to share with one another the burdens, concerns, and highlights they have of the students they are working with. When students graduate 8th grade and join Young Life, Simms is already familiar with them.
As the evening winds down, students share more personal issues and their vulnerability begins to show. Simms balances fun with depth and affirmation. “There is nothing more important to these kids than the consistency of love.” The prayer of all Sunshine youth programs is that the youth will always remember the love of Christ that was shown.