The adult leaders who guide them have to be willing to do silly things, sing nutty songs, goof-off on stage and be right amongst the kids in their gooey, edgy, at times, silly activities.
All the while they must maintain a sobriety that strikes an eternal cord in the child’s soul. It’s a balancing act that requires the leader to be comfortable with kids (but not familiar) and more importantly, at peace with him or herself.
That’s what being a WYLdlife leader is all about — and retired teacher and coach, and current middle school and kid’s wrestling coach, Steve Rounsaville, is a natural as the ministry’s local leader.
WYLdlife is the middle school arm of the Young Life high school ministry, which was introduced to the island by Lloyd and Val Benton in the 1970s.
By the time it got started, Rounsaville was in college. He heard about the program’s success from his parents, who were volunteers, siblings and friends.
The Bentons, who had kids of their own, expressed a key principle of Young Life by saying that one must earn the right to share the Gospel with kids. Rounsaville and fellow leaders continue to promote that concept.
“If you really want kids to listen to you,” Rounsaville said, “you’ve got to listen to them, respect them and show that you care first.”
WYLdlife and Young Life meetings and retreats are not as much about proselytizing as they are about informing and introducing kids to the love of Jesus Christ.
“We don’t try to convert or baptize kids,” Rounsaville said. “We want them to think about making good decisions. Part of making good decisions is having a biblical foundation and a concept of Christian principles.”
Rounsaville and his leaders have found that what really works with kids is a lot of activity and food. Sometimes the two blend together.
“Kids don’t like to sit around,” Rounsaville said. “We have lots of snacks which we try to keep as healthy as we can afford. We go through a lot of snacks and juice.” And there are plenty of activities that help the kids burn up calories consumed at snack time.
Some games like Capture the Flag and World War II are rough and tumble; some are messy, such as sticking faces into bowls of jelly and feeding each other pudding, blind-folded.
Besides regular monthly club meetings, WYLdlife sponsors weekend retreats, ski trips and trips to national Young Life camps in Oregon, Colorado and Arizona in the summer.
On spring break, Rounsaville and chaperones take a group of kids to the mainland for a ski trip at Hilltop Ski Resort.
Inserted into the fun, adventure and engineered chaos of WYLdlife events is a message that challenges kids to contemplate the Gospel and apply it to their lives.
An event does not end “without a word from the Word,” quipped Rounsaville. Often the Gospel text, which is explained by Rounsaville or one of the volunteers, is used as a springboard to discuss current issues that are facing kids. For instance, Rounsaville, when talking about blind Bartimaeus who came forward to be healed by Jesus, addressed kids’ fears about talking to people they may not know.
Kids are taught Christian values, such as accepting each other, learning the power of prayer and giving to the needy. In one of many food distribution programs, WYLdlife kids gave five-dozen homemade cookies and 60 cans of food to the Kodiak Baptist Mission Food Bank.
Rounsaville said that attendance at monthly WYLdlife meetings has averaged between 50 and 60 this past year — a pretty hefty number considering the organization competes with other events around town.
Roughly half of the kids that go to WYLdlife meetings are un-churched, he said.
“We want kids that don’t go to church to come. We want them to hang out together so they can have a lot of fun” and learn biblical truths together, Rounsaville said.
Even some of the churched kids have learned biblical stories at WYLdlife meetings.
“One kid didn’t know that the Ten Commandments came from the Bible,” Rounsaville said. “Another knew the story of David and Goliath, but was surprised to find it came from the Bible.”
Now that WYLdlife is established in town, Rounsaville hopes to start youth groups in the villages. This spring he introduced the program’s concepts during Alutiiq Culture Week in Akhiok.
Entertaining and challenging a large group of kids is a daunting task, and Rounsaville is thankful that he has help. His mother, Sara Babbitt and her husband, Jerry Babbitt, are right beside him, taking care of necessary tasks.
Others in the community have also stepped up to the plate to help Rounsaville perform the juggling act so that kids “will have fun in a safe environment where they feel loved and their hearts are open to the Gospel,” he said.
Besides those who help with on-site activities and transportation for the kids, there is a host of invisible volunteers who pray for the success of WYLdlife, that it may accomplish its mission of reaching kids for Christ.
Through e-mail, Facebook and word-of-mouth, Rounsaville asks for prayer support before activities. There are many things to pray for -- everyone's safety, good weather, boats and outboards that work for WYLdlife retreats, and, most importantly, hearts open to the Gospel.
As Rounsaville seeks to reach kids with the Gospel, he takes inspiration from the late Jim Rayburn, founder of Young Life.
In Rayburn’s sunset years, when he was ill and frail, someone asked why he kept trying to start new Young Life clubs.
“There’s still kids out there who haven’t heard about Jesus and I can’t stand that,” he replied.
When Rayburn was deathly ill and bed-ridden, he said, “Don’t ever let them quit talking about Jesus.”
No matter how fun, chaotic and messy WYLdlife activities can get, it is Rounsaville’s hope that the message of Jesus Christ will strike a chord deep within the hearts of the kids who attend.
Mike Rostad is a freelance writer and longtime Kodiakan who writes a weekly column examining the in-depth stories of Kodiak residents. You can read more about other Kodiak islanders in Rostad’s book, “Close to My Heart-Writing and Living Stories on Kodiak Island, Alaska.”