ELKHART — Screeches of laughter and the “thwack” of a football hitting sweaty hands filled the air late Thursday afternoon, Aug. 29, in a grassy field behind the YMCA in Elkhart. It was the first club meeting of the year for the junior high boys in the Lifeline Youth for Christ program, and if smiles are any indication, things were going well.
It’s been almost a year since a fire destroyed the Lifeline building on State Street, but the loss of the building hasn’t stopped the program from growing. Instead, program attendance has grown by 50 percent over the last year, according to executive director Darrell Peterson. The free, open-to-all after-school programs that incorporate fun and faith-based character building now happen at two elementary schools and the YMCA in Elkhart. The partnership with the YMCA and three new staff members — all former interns — have caused Lifeline’s growth, Peterson said.
“We are able to touch more kids’ lives and we are able to see more kids having fun,” he said. “Right now it’s an inconvenience to be in three or four different places, but we’ve seen such positive results with the collaboration with the YMCA.”
Erick Cardoso, 13, and Alberto Aveilno, 12, have been going to Lifeline for about three years. They said they come to play sports and hang out with their friends, but they also enjoy the Bible-based lessons that Lifeline staffers teach. “If you go to church, it’s boring,” Aveilno explained on Thursday, taking a break from his soccer game. “When you come to Lifeline it’s interesting and not boring. They (Lifeline staffers) try to make it interesting.”
He added that lessons are interesting to him because the staff “likes to crack jokes, and we watch videos.”
The boys added that Lifeline’s two new male staff members — Christian Attlesey and Brandon Maxwell — are “pretty cool guys.”
Attlesey came from New Jersey in 2012 to intern at Lifeline. He first heard about the program from his college basketball coach — Darrell Peterson’s brother. Attlesey was so interested in what he heard about Lifeline that he decided to move to Indiana six weeks later.
“I had worked with kids before, and I heard the opportunity to share the gospel (through the Lifeline program) was really good,” Attlesey said. “I knew the basis of the program and I just thought, ‘I’m going to go with it.’”
He added, “I wasn’t 100 percent sure what I was getting involved in, but I am 100 percent glad I’m out here. I’m seeing kids’ lives change and my life is changing too.”
Attlesey studied health and physical education in school and had planned to be a gym teacher. At Lifeline, he said one of his most enjoyable tasks is coaching basketball for high-school-age boys.
“It’s cool to see relationships grow and deepen because of the amount of time we get to spend together,” Attlesey said.
Maxwell also started with Lifeline as an intern in 2012. He is from Pennsylvania and played basketball in college with Attlesey. He said Lifeline appealed to him because he has “a passion for people.”
“When (Darrell Peterson) was telling us about the youth in Elkhart, that kind of lined right up with what I want to be doing, which is impacting youth who are at risk,” Maxwell said.
Maxwell studied biblical counseling in school and said he wanted to be involved in Lifeline because the programs center on teaching from the Bible. He added that he and the other staffers try to show the kids they are truly interested in their lives, outside of weekly programs.
That kind of support, said Maxwell, is important to the boys who attend Lifeline programs.
“Us being here for them every week gives them a sense of stability,” Maxwell said. “And we are not only at the clubs, we are coming to their events and showing them that we really care about what they are doing. A lot of our guys don’t have parents at home. Most of them, it’s a single mom or even an aunt or grandma who takes care of them.”
The meals provided during Lifeline programs are important too, Maxwell said. He said he knows of one boy who usually doesn’t get meals outside of what he eats at Lifeline. If they can, Maxwell said, Lifeline staff sends leftover food from the evening meal home with the kids.
Jessica Maxwell, a third Lifeline intern who is now a staff member, also heard about Lifeline while in college in Pennsylvania. She decided to move to Elkhart to intern for the organization.
“I heard how much kids need a positive role model in the Elkhart area,” Maxwell said. “I didn’t even visit (Elkhart) first. I just looked it up on Google Maps.”
Maxwell is the only staffer who works with the girls groups, though she said she has a lot of help from volunteers.
She said most of the club meetings throughout the week focus on learning how to apply biblical principles to real life. Sometimes the girls will go get a snack from McDonald’s or Dairy Queen.
“We try to also work on building relationships outside of club meetings,” Maxwell said. “It’s good for (the girls) to have attention from a female role model ... and to have someone who is dedicated to them the whole time they are there.”
Maxwell added that since she started working at Lifeline, she’s learned the importance of compassion and unconditional love.
“(The girls) know that we care about them not for what they have, but for who they are — and they don’t have to pretend to be anyone else,” Maxwell said.
She said the program has grown in the last year because children involved tell their friends about Lifeline.
“A lot of the new people are friends of kids already coming,” Maxwell said. “They are excited to do fun events.”
Maxwell said that since the Lifeline building burned, she’s felt support from the community.
“It’s been really unique to see the people of Elkhart come together (in support of Lifeline),” Maxwell said. “Lifeline has been really blessed by the people of Elkhart.”
Ultimately, though, Maxwell credits God with the program’s growth.
“Everything that we do, we couldn’t do without Christ,” she said.
To find out more about the Lifeline program in Elkhart, visit the group’s website at www.yfcministries.com or call 574-294-7407.