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Caring about kids – Silver Falls Young Life celebrates 25 years

By Brenna Wiegand

Area Director Jenifer Ridgeway is happy to report that the Silver Falls Young Life program is still going strong after 25 years and has continued to grow despite the setbacks of COVID.

Silver Falls Young Life is open to all middle school and high school students in Silverton and the surrounding area.

Its overarching goal is to provide fun, adventurous, life-changing experiences and give young people the opportunity to hear the gospel while making friendships with adults who accept them unconditionally.

“We continue to water what has already been established and kids are coming out of the woodwork,” Ridgeway said. “We’re building our volunteer list back up and are always seeking sponsors.

“It’s always a chore to stay funded, especially since we haven’t been able to hold our regular fund-raising banquet the last couple of years,” she added. “Last year’s cornhole tournament was a hit, so we’re doing that again this year.”

Wyldlife leader Krystina Bielemeier and her dad Neal Kuenzi (both at right), chaperone and survive a food fight with campers at Washington Family Ranch near Antelope, Oregon, shortly after its opening in 1999.
Wyldlife leader Krystina Bielemeier and her dad Neal Kuenzi (both at right), chaperone and survive a food fight with campers at Washington Family Ranch near Antelope, Oregon, shortly after its opening in 1999.

Silverton established its own Young Life program 25 years ago with the help of Kevin Edelbrock, a full-time area director then based in Salem.

“Some Silverton adults were praying for a way to better serve their youth,” Edelbrock said. “I started working with them and everybody really stepped up and we held our first club in 1997.”

Neal and Teresa Kuenzi got involved early on.

“Kevin was the rock and the key factor in getting us going,” Teresa Kuenzi said. “He’s so great with kids and they just love him.”

“We just want to walk with them long-term because you never know the investment that you’re making,” Edelbrock said. “You may not think it’s making a huge difference in the moment, but it really does.”

“We didn’t shove the gospel down their throats, but they knew why we were there,” Kuenzi said. “I became the party mom. We had so much fun; a signature thing about Young Life are the crazy games, often right on the edge, which is what teenagers love.”

Silver Falls Young Life was in its infancy when a friend invited Krystina Bielemeier, then a freshman at Silverton High School, to come along one night.

“I just had a ball,” Bielemeier said. “I started looking forward to it every Monday night.”

She made lots of friends and was soon involved in leadership, helping launch the junior high version of Young Life known as Wyldlife.

There she met her husband, Jordan Bielemeier. Together they headed up the Wyldlife program for ten years.

“It was an amazing experience to be there with these kids as they went through some of the stuff life throws at you and having a hand in kids finding Christ is so humbling,” Bielemeier said. “It’s an experience I’ll never forget.”

Though Edelbrock has enjoyed many unique ministries, including 17 years as chaplain of the Houston Astros – he even has a World Series ring – nothing compares to his time in Silverton.

“I am currently on staff with Young Life International, but my time in Silverton was without question the sweetest ministry time of my life, and the fact that it is still running is the joy of my lifetime,” Edelbrock said. “That’s due to great people who care about kids and are committed to being there for them no matter what decisions they’re making.

“You may not change the world, but you can change theirs,” he said.

The highlight of the year is Young Life summer camp, and kids work hard to get there. In the early days, with no closer camps around, dedicated leaders would transport kids to other Young Life camps from Canada to Southern California.

That is, until 1998 when Montana billionaire Dennis Washington donated a 100-square-mile ranch near Antelope, Oregon, to the Young Life organization. 

The property, purchased at auction, was the former compound of the ill-fated Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh cult. It is now known as Washington Family Ranch.

“Camp is just a blast – they go above and beyond to cater to these kids and give them the best time ever,” Kuenzi said. “You’re on the water all week; they have the longest zip line, big go karts, crazy entertainment and then in between that you get lessons about Jesus and the chance to study on a deeper level.” 

As they enter year 26, both leaders and kids look forward to the Aug. 20 tournament, not just to raise needed funds, but to provide family friendly fun for the community and to spread the word about Young Life.

“Today we have about $5,400 in monthly sponsorship which is awesome,” Ridgeway said. “My dream goal is $20,000.

“We always need financial support but every bit as important is having adults get involved,” she added.

Silver Falls Young Life

Young Life and Wyldlife Clubs resume this fall, with high schoolers meeting every other Monday at 7:29 p.m. and 6th-8th graders every other Thursday, 6:30 – 8 p.m., both at Silver Creek Fellowship, 822 Industrial Way NE.

Announcements are on Silver Falls Young Life’s social media platforms.

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