Photography by Derek Bell and Young Life
As “good ole boys” reclaimed their financial stability, city dwellers stopped having to camp in front of soup kitchens, and our nation staggered forward through war and prosperity, in tumbleweed country, a seminary student dreamed small. In Gainesville, Texas, the 30-year-old Jim Rayburn only planned to revitalize a local parish’s children’s ministry. His unconventional strategy exchanged formality in favor of authenticity. Believing that ministry should bore no one, Rayburn utilized music, skits and simple sermons to arouse the local youth. He avoided the confines of a church structure, preferring to engage the often-disinterested students in a neutral environment, the home. This alternative approach expanded the possibilities for Rayburn’s ministry. As attendance at the gatherings swelled, the once-small dream began to blossom into what is now a worldwide passion, Young Life.
Seventy years have passed, and deep roots now exist where only a seed was before. There is still music, and volunteers still don costumes and perform skits to entertain and inform high school students about a life worth living. However, instead of home meetings with the kids from down the street, in Floyd County alone, over 300 students attend a Young Life meeting each year. The vision is simple – to give young people a reason to rejoice, to help them affirm their worth, and to host a party with a purpose.
Over a cup of coffee in her pottery studio filled with sunlight and afternoon conversations, Cabell Sweeny crafts a story of ministry, of community, and of love.
“It takes a village to care for the high school kids of this community,” says Sweeny, an active member of the local Young Life branch in Floyd County.
Sweeny has been connected with the organization since her own high school years and volunteered as a leader in the Athens area while attending the University of Georgia. “I became involved in Young Life when I was 16 years old, and even though on the outside you would think that I had it all together, my home life was hard and high school was hard,” she explains. As she began regularly attending Young Life, her passion for the organization grew. “For me, it was this place I could go and live life wide open,” she continues. “It was an adventure I had never been part of before, and it offered me life and adventure in a way that didn’t come with regret or scars.”
Dave Mahon, director of Young Life in Rome, adds, “Our style is pretty slow, very relational, and we strive to be very respectful of the dignity of each kid. We will spend a lot of time to earn the right to be heard by them.”
Similar to Sweeny, Mahon participated in Young Life throughout high school before attending the University of Georgia and serving as a volunteer leader in the local school systems. After graduation, he joined the organization’s full-time staff in Thomasville, Ga.
The ministry is international, reaching 2 million kids annually in all 50 states and in 94 countries, with directors just like Mahon from Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, to Moscow, Russia. So, just how did Young Life find a home in Rome, Ga.?
“Families banded together, who had known and been impacted by Young Life, and decided to bring the organization here,” Mahon explains. “And that’s how it comes to any new area. We get invited by people who live and work in the community.”
Floyd County Young Life currently serves Rome, Darlington, Model and Armuchee high schools, relying on the generosity of college students from Berry College and Shorter University who invest 10 to 15 hours volunteering each week. They show up at school plays, help with athletic practices and find other creative ways to connect with high school students.
“Some might say we are wasting our time playing Xbox and pick-up basketball games, but we really value being friends with them,” Mahon says. “Sometimes you’ll know a kid for two years before they come to any Young Life events, but we are okay with that and we actually like it. As a Young Life volunteer, we get to dream, ‘What adventure could I go have with a high school kid?’”
At Model High School, Berry College senior Olivia Donnelly volunteers with the track team, using that as an avenue for building relationships and, ultimately, for earning the right to be heard.
“Young Life has been one of the most rewarding things I’ve done in college, just because it is something so much bigger than yourself,” says the Young Life volunteer leader.
Unlike Sweeny and Mahon, her involvement with the organization did not begin until her sophomore year of college, but it was Mahon’s passion for the ministry that captured her heart. “I met Dave Mahon and thought he was the coolest man to ever bless the earth,” Donnelly recalls.
She describes her development as a Young Life leader as challenging and life shaping. “I think you think you’re going to walk into a high school and instantly have 50 best friends, and you’re going to be that cool person that they all want to hang out with, but it’s not like that at all,” she says.
Because the ministry’s focus is relationships with high school kids, Donnelly pursued opportunities to interact with students, but initially struggled to cultivate meaningful connections. “The first few months of being a Young Life leader, I cried more than I smiled,” she says. “I could not make friends easily. All the insecurities that you have in high school just come flooding back”
So Donnelly, who ran track in high school, boldly approached the track coach to see if she could help with practices. “I discovered that if I am kind of good at something, they will listen, and once they listen to you about one thing, they are willing to talk to you about other things,” she says. “Eventually you become friends.”
Initially, the student-athletes did not appreciate Donnelly’s instruction, such as her insistence that they “count their steps.” However, her strategy soon resulted in significant time reductions, and as they improved their overall speed and won more races, she won their hearts.
Mahon would like to see Floyd County Young Life expand to other local schools in the upcoming years. “It’s great that we have been able to get to four high schools so quickly, but we want to be there for every kid in the county,” he said. “So Pepperell and Coosa are what’s next. We want to be there soon.”
Because the organization depends on the generosity of local families, the willingness of college students, and the welcome of school administrators, the mission of reaching every student is a gradual endeavor, but worthwhile in the opinion of the volunteers.
“I think the thing that I wanted the most in high school was to have a friend older than me who wasn’t an adult – someone who could just be there for the stupid decisions,” explains Donnelly. “And I thought, I could be that person. I could make a difference.”
Sweeny adds, “We say that our desire is to reach every kid, and that every kid would know that they are unique and special and chosen, and that we would be the people who step outside of their high school value system to show them that every life is valuable.”
This passion propels Young Life as they minister to the youth of Floyd County. Using the “it takes a village” philosophy, the supporters and volunteers are partnering with others in our community to raise up the next generation. Whether it be through morning meetings with chicken biscuits, afternoon coffee runs, or evenings at high school events, Young Life leaders invest hours because their sacrifice of time leads to life-changing friendships.
To learn more about the ministry and how to participate, visit FloydCounty.YoungLife.org.