Last week Katelyn Chapman completed three years with SFC’s Walltown Aspiring Youth, where she served as coach, creator, and listener among middle school girls in our neighborhood. She is a gift–especially because she’s been able to see and name the gifts that these girls are and the incredible possibility of beloved community among them, even as they make their way through adolescence. Reilly O’Hara, who’s working with us this summer, sat down to interview her for The Everyday Awakening.
What has the WAY taught you about kids in Walltown?
I have realized how brilliant the kids are that live here. We have a Bible study each time we meet and it has been really refreshing to read through the Bible with the girls, many of whom are not churched and have never read it before. I have had the opportunity to see through their eyes; I’ve learned so much about the world, the practicality of Jesus’ life, and the hope he has to offer. That has been amazing.
These kids have hard lives, but they are incredibly strong. Especially with the girls, they need to know that someone cares for them and loves them as they are and right where they are. It’s really invaluable for them to know that someone is there that they can depend on.
Between these difficult things, they are in a tough place. The WAY has been an alternative for them from a destructive path they could easily go down. It has been a place where they hear that God says who they are is good enough and that they don’t need to be perfect the way that society dictates; they are accepted, and enough, and beautiful. We try to have a lot of fun and create an alternative community for youth in the neighborhood to belong to.
What has the WAY taught you about Walltown?
I already knew that my neighbors were awesome, but I’ve realized that they are even more wonderful than I could have imagined. So many neighbors love and believe in these kids. They have been so supportive of me working with the girls. They have donated food, their time, their wisdom, and their hearts. It has been really cool to see the way that everyone rallies around when they see someone standing up to advocate for and disciple their youth. They get it. They know what the girls are going through, and they know it’s tough. They’ve been absolutely wonderful.
My role has allowed me to come alongside the families of our participants. Parents have been gracious and welcomed my relationship with them and their daughters. I have had the opportunity to be a bridge of sorts between the family and their teachers, and it has been rewarding to go that deep into the lives of the kids. It’s been special to enter into these families and feel like I’ve almost been adopted in.
It’s been really great to be an advocate for the girls. The teachers have a really difficult time with a high number of students with major educational and emotional needs along with overcrowded classrooms. So often my girls are type-casted and there is no way for their teachers to know the truth of who each child is. I’ve been able to go in and help the teachers understand the girls a little better. It has been significant just to tell the teachers that this specific student who is struggling wants to do well. All of the girls at the WAY want to do well. They want to succeed, but they lose hope and motivation when they determine that their teacher does not like them.
It’s also been great to connect the parents about what’s going on in school. Many of them are juggling a lot of different things but really want to be involved. Being able to communicate those facts and clear up communication has lead to major improvements in their education and social well being.
It has been amazing to see different girls hearts swell up with joy as I watch the pieces of God’s love and their longing and search for identity meet. Several girls have become Christians throughout the course of our time together, and that has been a surprising gift that was not on my radar when I started. I have been able to witness their ability to have hope, to find purpose, and to find the freedom of having their identity bound up in Christ.
We spent some time a few years ago on Psalm 23 and verse four became a big conversation. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” Up until that point, I thought of these verse as a metaphor for difficult seasons of life. For the girls, it was literal. What does it mean to “fear no evil”? These girls understand evil, they experience the “valley of the shadow of death.” They were able to learn that God gives hope of the possibility of making it through the valley. It’s things like this that remind me of how much I’ve learned and been challenged by through studying the Bible with these girls. It’s been amazing to see God and the scriptures come alive.
I have also seen God working through racial reconciliation—we have white, black, and Hispanic girls that have been part of the program. At the beginning of the year, sometimes they won’t even talk to each other, but by the end of the year they have become dear friends and are hanging out outside of The WAY. I have talked to some teachers and they just can’t imagine that some of these girls have become friends. The best was when a bully and the girl who was her target both signed up to be in the program. God can do amazing things and I am convinced that he can heal all things.
I have also seen God working in my own heart. The three words that sum this up are trust, humility and perseverance. When the girls are struggling it gets messy and, before I know it, it is affecting everything—including me. It has been hard at times to continue to give my heart and my energy when they decide to direct their anger from an accumulation of life events toward me. I have realized that I too am hard to love. But God continues to persevere in loving me. These aren’t just girls that I work with, they’re my neighbors, and they come over at all hours of the day. They have become family. And you can’t just walk away from family because you usually see them a few hours later.
One of my hopes is that someone will take my place who has energy to love these girls and is willing to fight for them, to be brave, to be bold, and to be there for them. My hope is that the love of God and the friendship and sacrifice of Jesus would be evident at the WAY. I also hope that the girls would know Jesus is suffering with them, and that though they are in hard situations, Jesus is right there with them. That their hard circumstances are not something that they have earned or deserve, but that it is the reality of a broken world crying out for redemption. I want the hope of Christ to be the main thing that the girls get to grab hold of over the years.
I also hope that the youth at The WAY continue to know each other past racial lines and come to be true friends, not just people who get along. I want them to continue to experience the abundant family, the family of God, that crosses racial and socioeconomic lines. I really hope that The WAY continues to be diverse in those ways.
I would love to see local folks continue to pour into our youth with the various projects that go on. A number of professionals around Durham have poured into the interests of our participants. I’d love to see the Durham community continue to rally around our boys and girls and offer them practical gifts that expose them to things that they might otherwise never experience.