BRADENTON -- In the New Testament, Jesus Christ often referred to the importance of man having childlike faith.
Bringing anyone to God is important to save souls, but one of the greatest faith missions is to bring children into a relationship with God to prepare them for the temptations of an adult world, according to Manatee Youth for Christ Executive Director Mike Chaplinsky.
Helping children find that relationship with God through Jesus Christ is the primary mission of Manatee Youth for Christ, 1901 30th Ave. W.
"Our mission is to reach out to the youth who are not involved in church by creating a positive, fun place to be," said Chap
Youth for Christ celebrated its 70th national birthday this year. It originated out of Chicago and "spread like wildfire from there," said Chaplinsky.
Its first paid employee was the Rev. Billy Graham, and the first chapter in Manatee County opened just 10 years later.
Eight years later, the group found a permanent home at its current location and in 1971 opened the teen center.
Chaplinsky was a sophomore in high school when he came to a Youth for Christ meeting. He essentially never left.
"It changed my life," he said. "I found that the emptiness in my heart could be filled by Jesus Christ, and it was shortly after that, that God called me into the ministry and I knew what I was supposed to do."
Chaplinsky is still doing it 35 years later, and he has touched the lives of thousands of local children. Some grew up with a calling of their own, and many more grew up with the positive morals Youth for Christ helps instill through the gospel to become productive members of society.
"That's a big deal when you understand a lot of our youth come from difficult backgrounds," said Chaplinsky. "Most of the kids who first come here, don't come here seeking Jesus Christ. They are just looking for a fun place to hang out with other teens. We make sure everyone feels welcomed and wanted."
Chaplinsky said that is the first and most important step in a journey that hopefully introduces them to God.
"At the heart of Youth for Christ is a three-story process," he said. "The first part is that everyone has a story and we want to hear their story. Teens want that. They want to know someone cares and listens to them. The second part is we tell them our story. We share our life's struggles, where we came from and how God has helped us to overcome."
Last, Chaplinsky said once a relationship is established, the youth is introduced to God and how He has a plan and purpose for their life. The program's success is measured in real life proof.
"We still get calls from adults who participated in Youth for Christ as children and they tell us this program saved their life," said Chaplinsky. "So many kids grow up in an environment that is not healthy and that leads to making bad decisions. This shows them a different way to live, gives them hope and fills that empty spot in their life by having a relationship with God."
Growing some more
The Youth for Christ program continues to spread, nationally and locally.
Chaplinsky said the Manatee County chapter recently hired a full time director for the expansion in Sarasota County. It will expand into Hillsborough County in June and in Pinellas County in October.
"We have a vision of reaching youth all along the whole west coast of Florida," he said. "It's a big plan, but we are excited."
Chaplinsky said Youth for Christ would never be successful without its 160 volunteers. But there are unavoidable operational costs.
Jenan Wood runs the Campus Life program at Manatee High School and area middle schools. The student-led program offers plenty of activities, but focuses on getting the students to share their life story.
"It's all about building relationships," she said.
Wood has secured Youth for Christ into the annual Giving Challenge, an online event by the Sarasota Community Foundation that benefits local nonprofits. The event takes place from noon-noon, May 6-7. Visit GivingPartnerChallenge.org and donations can be accepted for Youth for Christ and other nonprofits with the foundation offering extra funding for those agencies that receive the most donations of over $25 and those receiving the most profile views.
"Our goal is to have 1,000 partners donate and raise $100,000," said Wood. "It's an achievable goal. The foundation has been able to raise more than $15 million for local nonprofits in the last couple of years."
For more information on Youth for Christ, visit manatee.yfc.net. To participate in the online challenge for Youth for Christ, visit GivingPartner Challenge.org on the day of the contest, type Youth for Christ at the top right and click "Donate now."
Mark Young, Herald urban affairs reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041 or follow him on Twitter @urbanmark2014.