Life as a Youth Counselor by Dan Stirling

A little over 20 years ago my good friend Mark Burnett was the youth director at First UMC, and he occasionally asked me to help take the kids to the beach or to Magic Mountain during the summer. In 1995 he invited me to become a Senior High youth counselor, joining Ben and Karen Ing. I was noncommittal but enjoyed coming on occasion. After a few weeks Mark asked me to make a more sincere commitment, noting that it was important for the youth to know that I would be there consistently.

And so the adventure began. I never imagined that I would still be a counselor 20 years later, but at the end of each year I knew I was eager to begin the next, to reunite with the continuing youth and to meet new ones.

Over the past 20 years I have had a myriad of experiences, and developed countless relationships with youth and with their parents and other counselors. I recall trips to miniature golf, broom hockey overnighters, snatch breakfasts, midnight hikes to Inspiration Point and photo sessions at the Camp Colby waterfall. I remember sacred songs in our chapel and intense discussions about our Christianity and many other topics. I remember fundraising drives, and eight weeklong service project trips, and many candlelit devotionals that I wished would never end. And I remember so many unique individuals, whom I impacted in some way and each of whom in turn had a tremendous impact on me.

My primary goal has always been, as our YMC Mission Statement says, to help youth “gain tools to help them explore and grow in their faith.” I want them to know God’s presence as I feel it, and to be able to intelligently choose their own path in this amazingly complex universe. But most of all, I want them to know that there are people who care about them, personally, enough to share in their joys, their sorrows, and who want them to understand what is important in life.

To quote and to paraphrase my old scoutmaster: Time has an alchemy all its own. It transmutes glum defeats into joyous victories with the passing of years. My own twenty years have been nerve-wracking and scar-producing and sweaty. They have been sprinkled with unruly kids and upset parents and emergencies, and programs that didn’t work and more and more to plan. I think I’ll do twenty more.

This article was originally published Decemer 2015 Sentinel: UMYF Celebrates Dan Stirling.

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