Robert Vick: Building Authenticity with Highland Park Students

Throughout the United States and around the world, the words “Young Life” are recognized by people inside and outside of the Christian church. The organization was founded in 1941 with the premise of sharing the gospel with high school kids by going to where they are: on school campuses. Young Life leaders would go into high schools and introduce themselves to kids, and they would build relationships by inviting kids to “club” - a weekly meeting consisting of games, skits, and a message from the Bible—and continually showing up to support kids at their sporting events or performances. Today, 79 years later, that is still the structure of Young Life. Leaders meet kids where they are, and build meaningful relationship centered around acceptance and fun.

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Robert Vick, current area director of Highland Park Young Life, was born in Florida and lived in both Kansas and Wisconsin before moving to Dallas at age fourteen. He began high school at Highland Park High School himself in 2002. Robert grew up in the church, and his dad’s parents were missionaries in Honduras, so Robert was familiar with the radical change that takes place when someone gives their whole life to Christ—but he hadn’t experienced it himself.

Although Robert wasn’t involved in Young Life in high school, he had two friends who influenced his faith in the same way a Young Life leader does. They showed him what it looked like to be a Christian every day. “[They] followed Jesus in a way that actually changed daily life and choices, and I wanted to be like them and be around them,” And in doing that, they led him to get plugged into a local church. Robert shared, “I suddenly found myself learning way more about Jesus through being around [them], and I re-dedicated my life to following Jesus.”

After graduating from high school, Robert attended the University of Kansas and rushed a fraternity that ultimately led him to involvement with Young Life. “I remember sitting on a dryer in the basement one night and talking with a friend about how we were both believers, and my buddy suggested I get involved with Young Life. I had heard of it because my mom had worked at a Young Life camp back in the ’70s, but I didn’t know much about it. I went to the club fair the next day and met the team, and I immediately committed to being a leader,” Robert remembered.

Robert saw instantly that there was something unique about this community the volunteer leaders had found through ministering to high school kids. “They laughed a ton, and adventure was a natural part of their time with Jesus — that really drew me in. I wanted to hang out with the other leaders, and ministry to the kids easily followed that,” Robert said. There is something captivating about the way Young Life does ministry that draws all sorts of kids in, from kids who have grown up in the church to kids who have never heard of Jesus.

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Although the skits and games draw students in, putting in the hours to really get to know someone is central to the Young Life model. Robert reflected that the first few days he spent at a high school campus were intimidating. The Kansas high school they were ministering to had a giant stairway leading down into the cafeteria which then led out into the parking lot. Every day at 3:30, the bell would ring and the stairs would suddenly be filled with 2,000 students.

“I would be weaving through the crowd trying to find kids I recognized to just high-five or ask how school was and I remember feeling so overwhelmed, wanting to hide, or maybe go back to my car,” Robert admitted. Of course, as time went on, this task became easier and more faces in the crowd stood out to Robert. Kids would approach him, happy and usually surprised to see he had taken the time to ask how they were doing at the end of a long school day.

Consistency is certainly the biggest tool in Young Life’s belt, according to Robert. Showing up is hard to do because we often feel unsure of ourselves (what if the kids don’t want to talk to me? what if the kids don’t show up?), but when a Young Life leader (or any role model) makes him- or herself a recurring character in a kid’s life, they will see that they are genuinely cared for by an adult who meets them where they are.

“When I started genuinely following Jesus back in high school, I had a huge desire for authentic relationships. That’s definitely the DNA of Young Life,” Robert said.

In Texas and other Bible Belt states, Christianity can become overly cultural—it is ritual or practice, but not the authentic relationship that is characterized by communing with Jesus on a daily basis. Through Young Life, Robert challenges this cultural Christianity by showing kids that being a Christian isn’t simply adhering to a moral code or being “good enough.” Young Life shows kids that God loves them as they are — mistakes, bad habits, doubts, and all.

During college, Robert took an internship in accounting in Kansas City. Through that internship, he discovered he was more interested in consulting. “Personally, I needed to be interacting with people, and after spending time with people, I always felt more energized,” he said. Robert learned quickly, though, that most consultant jobs required an MBA. Robert moved back to Dallas and worked in finance here in Dallas while beginning to apply to the MBA program at SMU.

During that time, he lived with a group of guys who had all been involved with Young Life in some capacity. Through one of his roommates, Robert was connected to a Young Life staff member who was rebooting Young Life in Highland Park. After meeting with him and talking through what leading in Highland Park looked like, Robert was all in. I found myself giving more time to being a volunteer. I’d work and if I wasn’t working, I was doing Young Life,” Robert said.

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Shortly after going all in as a Young Life Leader, Robert was asked if he had ever considered going on staff full-time. Robert immediately said no. His gut reaction was that he had no interest in working in full-time ministry.

After asking friends and family for advice, Robert realized this was what he wanted to do. He loved being around people and wanted to minister to high school students and show them how life with Christ is an adventure worth pursuing. Robert decided to join Young Life staff full time in 2012.

Three years later, Robert became the area director. Robert has now been on staff with Young Life for six years. Highland Park Young Life has now grown to include a Capernaum ministry that reaches out to special needs students and also a ministry at SMU for college students.

“In all my previous jobs, I felt this nagging feeling that I wasn’t really where I was supposed to be. Young Life staff felt and still feels right. Honestly, I do it because I haven’t found something yet that makes me as close to Jesus as this. I just keep chasing after God, wanting to be closer to Him, and this is the job that allows me to do that to the fullest,” Robert said.

Robert’s daily life as area director consists mostly of, in his words, “creating vision and building teams.” It’s a lot of meetings with individuals and groups, figuring out how to best serve the kids at Highland Park High School. For Robert, though he often has to serve the high school from a bird eye’s view, he makes it a point to never lose constant contact with the kids. On top of the meetings and time in the office, Robert spends time at the school every week. He attends sporting events or spirit rallies, and he shows up at meal times as well. “I can’t function well in my job if I’m going without contact with the actual people we’re trying to serve. The high school kids help me remember why we’re doing what we’re doing. I have to—for myself—carve out time to be with them. It makes all of this worth it,” Robert said.

Robert believes the impact of Young Life in Highland Park will spread beyond this area as these kids go out into the world. Each year, many of the graduating seniors attend college in other states or other parts of the state. “My hope is that some of these kids will have platforms to affect change and make a difference. If we can impact them through Young Life, then that means we can make an impact on the upcoming generation as a whole,” Robert shared.

If you’d like to get involved with Highland Park High School’s Young Life, they are looking for more volunteer leaders and committee members. There will be a fundraising event in November, and the official date will be announced later in the year. You can stay up to date on all things HP Young Life via their Instagram.

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Story and photos by Hunter Lacey.

Mary Martin