Life as… a Non-profit Youth Ministry Director
I had the privilege of interviewing alum, Tauna Nelson, who graduated from Northwest Christian University in 2007. She has been an powerful participant in youth ministries across a wide scope of organizations, serving as a campus monitor at Springfield High School, being a YoungLife leader, working in leadership positions at Hosea Youth Services, and more. Tauna has over ten years of experience working with youth; marginalized and at-risk youth is her specialty. In this interview, she shares her inspiring journey of experiences, how she discovered her calling, and the many ways she has responded to it since then.
If you are interested in becoming involved with youth ministry, or would like to follow Tauna through her high school, college, and daily experiences in this field, then this article is a great read for you.
What is your official job title and when did you start doing what you do?
I am the Program Director for Hosea Youth Services; I started as the Drop-In Director about three and a half years ago.
Could you explain the history and the purpose behind Hosea Youth?
Hosea has been around since ‘95, it was created before I was involved. It started out with meeting the basic needs of kids, like food and clothing. The name is based on Hosea 11:4 which says, “I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love. To them I was like one who lifts a little child to the cheek, and I bent down to feed them.” Hosea has expanded over the years to include housing and transitioning youth off the streets; we operate on many levels when it comes to at-risk kids.
Of course, as the years went on, those leading this program wanted to do more than simply providing basic needs. In some ways, we were helping kids to stay on the streets by not giving them any strategies to get off the streets; we really were just enabling them. We helped the people involved with Hosea to develop programs that teach life skills, provide mentoring, vocational training and transitional living houses. Since 2014, after the development of these programs, we’ve seen close to a hundred kids get moved off the streets. We’ve been advocating for them and doing life with them, that’s really what we do!
How did you discover your calling to work with young people?
When I was young, I was exposed to similar experiences that our kids at Hosea have been exposed to as well. For example, growing up with parents who struggle with addiction and have experienced poverty to whatever extent. When I was in middle school, I made my own choices and developed a drug addiction; I pretty much went to school high everyday and in high school, I started drinking heavily. Besides feeling angry, I also felt very misunderstood as a kid. On top of that, I have ADHD and struggled academically, school was challenging, to say the least. My behavior got worse and my relationships were strained.
Sometime during high school, several YoungLife ministry speakers came and at the time, I didn’t know anything about Jesus. To me, Jesus was just a cuss word, but I saw that these people were nice and good…and I didn’t like that. I terrorized them for a year and a half. They would come to my school, pray outside, and then play rock, paper, scissors, to see who would have to talk to the weird kid with spiky blonde hair (which was me.) I would cuss at them or throw stuff and I was just a jerk to them, but these YoungLife leaders pursued me week after week. The one who chased me the most was Mariah, I was 15 and she was 19 at the time. I remember the day it happened very clearly, I was standing in front of my locker and punching it, alone in the common area. When I turned around, Mariah was standing across from me and I thought, “Is this a joke?” She was the last person I wanted to see, but she asked me if I was okay. I remember standing there and spewing everything I had been dealing with; I told her everything that was going on and had been going on in my life.
I felt so helpless, but she listened to me and didn’t break eye contact. It was truly the first time that I ever talked about how I felt, prior to that, I never self-disclosed to anyone or acknowledged hurt. It was the first time I ever talked about something real, like getting over drinking. It was not the day I gave my life to Jesus, but it was the first time I experienced Jesus through a person, through Mariah, and I was intrigued to learn more about Him. There was something different about the community of people at this church.
One day, I was invited to go on a mission trip to Mexico; I didn’t know what a mission trip was, but I wanted to go to Mexico! Before we went, I watched this video about previous mission trips with my group. I still knew nothing about Jesus at the time, but this video started showing flashes of people building houses and then flashes of people hammering nails into someone’s hands. At the end of this video, there was a dude hanging from wood shaped like a cross, and I was like, “What the heck is going on?” Everyone was tearing up and happy and I had no idea what was going on. This Jesus dude was bleeding out and everyone was acting like it was normal! I still didn’t understand Jesus then, but I knew I was following the crumbs to something greater.
Later on, I became a YoungLife leader after I prayed with my friend, Becky, to give my life to Jesus. Following that, I stopped using drugs completely and within the month, I got baptized. I secluded myself from my old friends and read the gospels for a month straight during that time, because I recognized that I couldn’t go back to my old life. I didn’t want to do anything destructive anymore. My parents were alcoholics and they had parties all the time and we all drank together, it was a normal thing for us and that made being at home very difficult after I got saved.
Overtime, I quickly learned that I wanted to do what my YoungLife leader did for me, she helped save my life. There was an instance when I was 18 years old, when I was sitting in class and daydreaming about my vision. The first vision God gave me was this image of a house full of kids and in the windows were these faces. All I knew about this house full of kids was that they felt misunderstood, unloved and abandoned and that God had created me to fight for these kids, even though I had no idea who they were. My vision was for a Youth Center. I beat on my drum about this for eight years and am still beating it. Most of the time, people are encouraging of my dream for a Youth Center, but some people just think I’m crazy!
After graduating from high school, I came to Northwest Christian University and my family was not supportive of my decision; they don’t believe in Jesus and think that Christianity makes you weak. They tried to talk me out of coming to NCU, since we didn’t have the money for it, and I didn’t get good grades. However, because of the change the counselors, people in my high school, and community had seen in me, my counselors applied for scholarships on my behalf and I graduated with the most scholarships out of every kid in my senior class. When I received a letter from the university about the last down payment on my tuition–about $200–I wasn’t able to afford it and wouldn’t have been be able to go if it wasn’t paid. I was working, playing softball, and finishing my classes and didn’t know where I was going to get that much money on time. Then one day, I opened this letter from an anonymous person about how they knew about my journey and right along with it was the exact amount I needed, it fell out and I was like whaaaat?! God had definitely been providing for me.
I’ve worked in many places involved with youth ministry, but one of them was working for nine years at the Juvenile Justice Center here in Eugene, at the John Serbu Youth Campus. I learned a ton from that. Eventually I got hired at Hosea’s, as a program coordinator. I’ve been there for several years now and am extremely lucky to have had so many people invest in me, to get me to the place I’m at now. Not many cities have services like Hosea’s and I’m thankful to be a part of it.
What is the most rewarding or challenging part of what you do?
The kids’ circumstances are the most challenging part to me, there’s so much you can’t control. I’ll use one girl in particular as an example, Elena, the first girl I’ve ever met at Hosea. She had just turned 14 at the time and was curled up on a couch, sick because she had done bath salts, none of us knew how to interact with her. I gave her a cup of water and that was really the beginning of our friendship. I learned more about her life…her own mother introduced her to heroin when she was 11 and she had witnessed a lot of drug abuse and had been abused. All of that made her very mentally fragile and she still struggles with that now, because of what she’s been through, like being forcefully trafficked and introduced to drugs at such a young age. Her mother eventually kicked her out on the streets. There was nowhere for her, but this happens to kids all the time. People don’t see them and don’t know that they’re right here. When I met Elena, she had been placed in too many bad situations. I walked through life together with her for a couple years, and helped her do basic things, like helping her eat.
About two years ago, she ended up getting sober, but got pregnant at the age of 16 and was living in the tent with the father of her child. It was a long road, but we helped them get into an apartment and they got married. We went through everything with them and they were doing very well, but then it became a domestic abuse situation. We intervened and helped her get into her own apartment, but she made a bad choice that cost her the custody of her own baby; her judgement had been called into question. At the moment, Elena is now in a full-blown relapse and is right back back to where she was when I first met her when she was 14 and she’s 18 now.
The things that impact these kids and the things you can’t control…it’s discouraging. The dope man has access to them seven days a week, and the amount of time we get with them is not enough. Most churches are only open on Sundays. This is the harsh reality of what we do, it takes years to form these lifelong relationships and Hosea is only open three days a week. We can’t sit and wait for them to come to us; we have to go to them.
The most rewarding part of my calling is knowing that even when kids return to their old ways, I know that every milestone that I walked through with Elena is not gone. Getting to be a part of another human being’s life and their development and helping to shape who they are…that is really an honor. God doesn’t need us, but He chooses to use us.
It’s humbling to do this and these kids are the most courageous, strongest, most resilient people I’ve ever met in my entire life. They teach me things every single day. For example, we keep two of something in case the other one breaks, but these kids–they will only have one of something and they just give it away! I could tell you story after story about these kids that have practically nothing, but are still willing to give away something they have, to someone who they perceive as needing it more than they do. To me, witnessing these acts redeem humanity for me everyday. Because of them, I get to see the most beautiful part of who God created us to be.
What does an average day in the life of Tauna Nelson look like?
Man, what a question! [Laughs] I let myself sleep in a little, because I’m always up burning the midnight oil, there’s no shame in that. People who work need to know that it’s okay to sleep in a little and then start your day with Jesus–it’s perfectly okay! I work hard and try to make space in the morning to be with the Lord and in the midst of lots of meetings and boring administrative stuff, I get to do exciting things like taking kids grocery shopping, going to the doctors with them, just investing in people and feeding kids on the streets. Self-care is also important, it’s important to take care of yourself.
How has working in Hosea Youth personally impacted your life and worldview?
It’s taught me how much I don’t know. It’s introduced me to a Jesus who I didn’t know existed. It has been the most refining thing I have ever done and at the end of the day, doing this type of work has been transformational. To be able to do this job, I feel very fortunate that I get to experience the kingdom in a different way. It’s made me excited to be a student and to learn things from these kids and not listening with an agenda…and just how we walk with people and ultimately, how we walk with Jesus.
More about Hosea Youth Services here: http://www.hoseayouth.org/