Connections September 2023
Ten years ago Youth Unlimited established the Elevation Experience, now an 18-month leadership development program including a trip to Rwanda. Below are story snapshots from several summer 2017 team members.
Four years ago, Nevada-Lee’s future looked anything but bright. The stress of her severe depression and anxiety, triggered by unpredictable circumstances, left her a high school drop-out at 15. But after six months she became determined to return to school. Her delight when she found out she’d be attending the North Shore’s alternative school was shattered after learning her best friend had just died.
“I felt like everything was falling apart,” says the 19-year-old. “I was smoking weed all the time. I didn’t pay attention in school. I was isolated.”
Fortunately, that all changed when Nevada-Lee connected with a YU youth worker at her school. She found consistent support and a new loving social network. “They’re life-changing friends, they’re family,” she says. “I don’t know who I’d be without them.”
Nevada-Lee went on to attend camp—made possible by YU’s generous donors—where she decided to welcome Jesus into her life and make healthier choices. She radiated with life and soon reached two significant milestones: completing high school and moving out on her own. This summer she reached another one. She left North America for the first time and headed to Rwanda, further widening her growth.
“I was looking at my idea of poverty,” she says. “People there were so poor yet they were smiling, laughing and playing with what they had. My idea of poverty is not theirs. Though poor in wealth, they were rich in life.”
Program Director Laura Solberg has been the driving force behind the Elevation Experience. She developed it with youth like Nevada-Lee, Rhys and Erica in mind. She wanted to create an innovative international learning experience that equips young people to be leaders.
“There is a lack of positive adult role models within their communities,” says Laura. “We want to give our youth the opportunity to change that.”
In September 2007, Greater Vancouver YU and Youth for Christ Rwanda formed a mutually transformative partnership. The journey since then has been one of learning equal give and take.
“We have so much to learn and so much to receive in this relationship,” says Laura.
Laura explains that one of the key ways youth grow while in Rwanda is through genuine friendships with Rwandan youth. “They realize that there’s more that connects us than divides,” she says. “We’re all made in the image of God. When they see that others have value, it helps them to see their own.”
For his ninth birthday, Rhys and his parents decided his party should be one that made a difference. Rhys had learned about the challenges Rwandan children face, from his father, a longtime YU partner.
“I remember realizing that I had a lot of toys and wanted to share with kids who didn’t have any,” he says.
Rhys asked friends to bring donations instead of presents to his party. The money raised supported children in YU’s Rwandan school sponsorship program.
Today, the 16-year-old’s desire to make a difference is deepening as he recently accomplished his lifelong dream of visiting Rwanda with YU.
“I think that God had been nudging me towards this trip,” says Rhys. “It was a once in a lifetime experience. I had always been interested in the ‘land of a thousand hills’ and it was a dream to visit.”
Twenty-one-year-old Erica is an artist with a joint passion for photography and baking. Through mentorship in YU’s Creative Life arts program Erica has transformed from a girl who didn’t think she could do anything, to a confident young adult willing to support others.
“Youth Unlimited has had a big impact on me,” she says. “I’ve pushed myself to accomplish my goals and they’ve encouraged me in great ways.”
For Erica, joining the Elevation team was both exciting and terrifying. She was keenly aware of the lack of financial resources and reliable adult support in her life. However, for 6 months, Erica courageously persevered in fundraising and in 2017 she reached her target!
This fall, Erica will continue down her courageous path as she puts on a solo art show, made possible by a grant from the Vancouver Foundation.
YU Participates in Canada 150’s National Art Mural for Display in Airports, Subway Stations and Billboards across Canada
Three years ago, Baz Bedejim, 14 at the time, immigrated to Canada from the Philippines. While adjusting to life in Canada was initially a struggle for him, Baz’ involvement in Youth Unlimited’s Creative Life program in East Vancouver helped to ease the transition and enabled his artistic talents to flourish. Earlier this year, YU was invited to participate in the 150+ Reasons We Love Canada mural project. With coordination from their youth workers, Baz and nine other Creative Life kids had the honour of creating the painting entitled, “We Love Canada Because of Beautiful British Columbia.” The mural was on public display in Toronto subway stations, at 15 airports digitally and on more than 300 Pattison Outdoor billboards across Canada, all summer long.
They Sing, they Dance, they Act: Summer Camp with Jesus Theatre
All summer long, North Valley Baptist Church in Mission was overrun with actors-in-training singing, dancing and acting out scenes from fairy tales. Jesters Theatre, YU’s theatre program, ran five camps for over 100 teens and children over the course of the summer. Their aim was to provide kids with a safe place to enjoy theatre, build confidence and have fun, as well as to build resiliency among those who may be at risk.
“Theatre can transform kids with anxiety and confidence issues,” says YU Artistic Director, Sharon Wiebe. “Students dealing with difficult circumstances feel loved and cared for through healthy relationships when they’re at Jesters.”
I will never forget my first experience of an African country. The sweet smell of jasmine was carried on the air of a thousand cooking fires as I stepped out onto the Tarmac. Rwanda is a tiny slice of paradise, a beautiful land inhabited by beautiful people with a dark past. It was hard to imagine that in 1994 one million people were butchered to death in this place affectionately known as “the land of a thousand hills.”
I’ve been back to Rwanda a half dozen times now and each experience is like looking into one of those magnifying mirrors revealing both beauty and blemishes. Connecting with my Rwandan friends exposes some of the ugly things about me. Rwandans are wonderfully generous in their relationships, taking in orphans, supporting widows or simply giving what little milk and eggs they have to a neighbour in need. Seeing this with my own eyes has mirrored my poverty of relationships and community. We all long to be known and loved by God and others. We all long for the kinds of relationships that help us to become our true selves. I also believe we are called to create communities where our most marginalized and vulnerable are cared for and given the same opportunities that we have. I/We need to do a better job of this.
Jimmy Carter once said, “The measure of a society is found in how they treat their weakest and most helpless citizens.” And it was Jesus who told his followers that when they were loving someone overlooked or ignored they were also loving him.
This is what I love about our Youth Unlimited staff. Our team works hard to create healthy communities across Greater Vancouver. One of the ways they do this is by giving the youth in their programs the opportunity to experience relationships with people in places like Rancho Milagro (Mexico), Skatin (BC) and Rwanda. Through these trips and experiences we give young people the opportunity to look long into the mirror and to see themselves and humanity in a new way.
In this edition of the Connections, you will meet three of our youth who are involved in YU’s Elevation Experience, a leadership development program where young people discover Jesus’ heart for both the poor of Rwanda and Canada. It has the potential to be life-changing for them personally and for their communities.
May it be so,