One at-risk student + one caring adult = 2 lives that are changed
It is no secret that Farmington has a skatepark at 404 Ste. Genevieve Ave., just behind the police station. It is no secret to Parkland area history buffs that the address once was home to the Farmington Municipal Swimming Pool, which was constructed in 1935 and was repurposed decades later into the current incarnation as the Farmington Sk8 Park.
What many area residents seem to find shocking is that the former concession stand and shower facility are the offices of an active non-profit organization that serves nearly 600 at-risk public school students in a four-county area. Michael McGuire is a man on a mission who is working hard to spread education and awareness for Young Faith in Christ (YFC), a faith-based organization that strives to meet the needs of at-risk students.
McGuire has been the YFC Executive Director for two years. “YFC has been here at the skatepark since before 2009, and you’d be surprised at how many people say something like ‘I didn’t even know you existed’ when I start sharing about what we do,” he said with a laugh. “I’d love for this to stop being a best-kept Farmington secret. We minister to students through three areas–a program called ‘Path to Success,’ Bible clubs, and the Farmington Sk8 Park.”
‘Path to Success’ is a program designed for public school students and currently operates in a four-county area: St. Francois, Iron, Jefferson, and Washington. The primary goal is to connect trained adult mentors to at-risk students, offering a positive hand up and out of situations the student may be unequipped to process.
“We work with school counselors who identify students who are categorized as ‘at-risk,’ and they reach out to us. ‘At-risk’ is a term that covers a lot of important ground. An at-risk student could be a child who’s just having a hard time at school making friends or struggling with things at home. An at-risk student could be one bending under peer pressure and considering making bad decisions. And it goes from something as simple as a student who’s having a hard time with self-esteem to a student who could be potentially suicidal,” he said.
A once-weekly meeting lasting 30 to 45 minutes is scheduled between the student and the YFC mentor and always takes place on school property. For the safety and protection of both student and mentor, meetings are held in the school office or a very open location like the lunchroom.
McGuire said that there is a misunderstanding sometimes on what is expected of a mentor during these meetings and that it causes people to hesitate to volunteer. “Sometimes people think, ‘Well–I can’t really do anything to help. I can’t help with schoolwork,’ but it’s really not about them being a tutor or anything close to it. It’s just one caring adult that’s trying to make a difference. Hopefully, over time, they develop a relationship together where the mentor can lead the student on the path to success — and that’s why the program we offer to schools is called the ‘Path to Success’ program.”
Very few basic skills and abilities are required for volunteers through YFC. A background check via the Family Care Registry is conducted, and YFC covers the cost for it. Personal references are required and checked. Many of the school districts require a separate certification process before the mentors are allowed on campus. “The most important ability is availability,” McGuire said. “We ask for around an hour a week for the duration of the school year. The biggest thing most mentors do is just listen to the students, help with socialization, or even play games — no special skills required other than wanting to help a child.”
McGuire said that volunteers who pass the screening processes and are selected to be mentors receive a basic 90-minute YFC training. Part of the training covers basic groundwork and prepares a mentor for the very real possibility that there might not be an instant rapport built with the student. “Sometimes, a mentor thinks they are going to go in and serve and make an immediate and huge difference in the life of a child, and they get to the school, and the child is like, ‘Why are you here? I don’t want to talk to you.’ So, we give them some icebreakers, game ideas, and activities that they can do with their assigned student to kind of engage them and get them talking—basic ways on how to build that relationship.
“And then from there, throughout the year, we offer monthly advancement for trainings where we’ll cover specific topics like drug use, gender identity, self-esteem, suicide—whatever situations students might be trying to deal with. We want to make sure that we prepare our mentors on how they handle that situation when it comes up in the school. We encourage them throughout the initial training that it’s important to temper our own expectations about the encounters.
“The most important thing is for those mentors to keep going because we know the students are at-risk and they really need someone’s help or attention and don’t always know how to ask for it. A lot of them are accustomed to people just not being there for them. What we tell the mentor is even if you feel like the student doesn’t want you there, just keep going, keep showing up — the best thing you can do is be there every week, be consistent for that child because they’re used to people leaving,” McGuire said.
There are about 70 trained mentors currently serving in the schools in one-to-one sessions, and there is a profound need for more, so McGuire is always mindful of the need to recruit additional people to serve with them. “We have a waiting list, and there are at least 20 students–a dozen in the Farmington school district — right now whose names have been forwarded to us by counselors. It keeps me awake at night to know that we aren’t able to work with them because we don’t have a trained mentor to pair them with. And you know, for every kid we are able to help, there’s another one out there that could benefit from one of our programs, too.”
There is an underlying secret that is fundamental to the experience of a mentor, and McGuire is happy to share it. “What usually happens is that the mentor goes into it thinking they’re going to help the student, and they end up feeling like they got more out of it than the student. It’s like we say around here — all it takes is one at-risk student plus one caring adult to equal two changed lives.”
The second facet of the YFC programming is devoted to the approximately 525 students who are served through Bible club meetings at the schools. The morning clubs are held before school and last about a half hour. After-school club meetings last around 90 minutes. There is no specific universal curriculum used in the clubs, and there are a variety of theological backgrounds presented through the collection of volunteers.
“All of our volunteers are required to sign and agree to our statement of faith,” McGuire said. “It covers the basic tenets of faith and helps us ensure that a leader’s religious background is in alignment with what we want to communicate. The two most important things we want to do is share the gospel through the Bible clubs and live the gospel through our mentoring program. We hope the kids will see the love of Christ through that.
“We meet with the club leaders to get feedback on group progress throughout the school year, and it’s always encouraging to get positive feedback that things are going well, but to us, it’s all in vain if we only direct a student to success. Ultimately, we want to direct them to the person of Jesus Christ, and that can be done by just loving people and through preaching the gospel in the Bible clubs. Any success gained through the Bible clubs–academic and otherwise–is collateral positivity, which isn’t a bad thing at all.”
The third facet that YFC utilizes in the pursuit of its mission takes place at the Sk8 Park. McGuire explained that an agreement was struck with the City of Farmington that they could use the facility for their non-profit in exchange for providing supervision and oversight at the park. “Almost every evening, you’ll find Norman and Sherry Kissinger here, and they have been for the last 15 or 16 years. We provide drinks and snacks for the kids who use the skatepark. And then, once a week on Tuesday evenings, we have a Bible club meeting here at the skatepark church that we call ‘Jesus and Pizza.’ It’s a safe place for kids.”
Skateboarding competitions are held frequently at the park with prizes for participants and make an excellent focal point for the YFC ministry. “We typically do two skate competitions a year, but the biggest one each year is during Country Days.”
McGuire said there are lots of fun things that happen through YFC events and at the skatepark, but it all starts with one caring adult with a heart to make a difference, one child at a time.
To learn more about YFC, go to the YFC website at https://yfcparkland.org/ or arrange for an office visit by calling 573-747-1505.
Lisa Brotherton-Barnes is a staff writer with the Daily Journal. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.