In the Lives of Students: How Mentorship and Service are Creating Leaders in Virginia

 
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At XZone, located in Chesterfield, Virginia, USA, the mission is to empower lives in the community. Specifically, the nonprofit exists to empower teenagers. The passion to be a presence in the lives of students is clearly evident. Nearly every piece of XZone’s wide-ranging approach came out of the desire to reach more students and find more areas where someone might feel unloved or neglected.

 

The heartbeat of XZone’s work is in mentoring through afterschool, summer, and sports teams for middle and high school students, although there are a few sports teams for younger children and an expansive array of activities. 

“Our mission is to go where they are,” says Steve Harper, the executive director of XZone. 

XZone was founded in 2003 when an individual at Southside Church of the Nazarene saw the need for an afterschool program, says Katie Rhodes, XZone’s academic coordinator. The individual was a mother of teenagers herself, and she was very aware of the need for activities and investment. Out of that need, XZone was born to meet and mentor students.

 
 
 
 

MORE THAN MENTORING

To use the word “formative” to describe the time between ages 11 and 18 might be a bit of an understatement. Katie says that her parents’ decision to seek out adults other than themselves to mentor her as a teenager influenced her deeply. That has since led to her continued involvement with XZone. 

“I think we exist because the teens in society need as many strong adults as they can,” she says. “They need adults who are going to love them when it’s hard, challenge them.” 

The belief that teenagers might need someone to help them navigate the murky waters of adolescence is part of what fuels XZone. There, mentoring goes beyond homework help to building a relationship that acts as a model for students, providing language that empowers them. Students are encouraged to express what they’re feeling appropriately: frustration, anger, excitement. All of it is part of the human experience, and so is learning how to use words to make that experience understood. 

“A lot of those students are learning how to use their own voice and learn what they’re thinking, but the structure doesn’t always support that,” Katie says. 

Michael* has been attending XZone for 2 years. When he was younger, his mother had to get a restraining order against Michael’s father after he threatened her with a gun. She has been raising him on her own ever since, and Michael still struggles with anger toward his father. While he couldn’t always express himself to his mentors, he’s now more readily able to share what he is thinking and feeling. 

 Students involved in the XZone mentoring program are paired with volunteer and staff mentors, meeting for at least an hour a week in one-on-one or group settings. Right now, an average of 55 to 60 children and teens attend the afterschool mentoring program, while the summer activities see an average of 87 students. Sports programs, which include volleyball, softball, and baseball, involve another 250-plus students. A large paintball park and skate park are open to the public, ministering to even more young people.

SERVING THE COMMUNITY

The mentorship program includes service projects around the community. Sometimes, serving others can be a challenge; developmentally, the teenage years tend to be inwardly focused. Through XZone, students have opportunities to do community service projects and develop job skills by working at the paintball course.  

Katie says XZone encourages students “to see that big picture—that we’re all seconds away from needing the support we’re providing—so how can we give back to our community to see it thrive.”  

One of the first projects that the students developed in the mentorship program was service at a local food bank. Initially, Anthony, a high school student, was reluctant to join. His choice would have been to sit back and watch. After a few nights serving at the food bank, Anthony began asking questions as he saw the impact of his actions. As they drove back to XZone, he realized that they were doing exactly what Scripture talks about: serving others without being asked, emulating Christ. 

 
 
 
 

DREAMING BIG

Right now, XZone leases acreage on the property of Southside Church of the Nazarene. Some of those acres are currently serving as the paintball and airsoft course. Someday, though, Steve hopes for something much larger. Ultimately, XZone and Southside hope to build a community center on the property. Then, the center could be full of activities for all students. 

Beyond the community center, Steve has even bigger plans, all of which support the same goal: mentoring and loving teenagers, and teaching them to love others. 

Krista has been at XZone for three years. Already, her life has been deeply affected by hardship: Her father is addicted to drugs, and her mother had no choice but to work as an escort. Often, Krista was left to care for her younger brother in the small apartments or hotel rooms where they lived. 

“We didn’t grow up as bad as it sounds like we did, but it was hard taking care of my brother and handling my mother’s instability,” Krista says. Eventually, Krista’s mother lost custody of both children. Since then, Krista has become a leader of her peers, encouraging them in mentorship at XZone and spending her time caring for other students. She says she hopes her story will encourage and share hope. 

Katie says that transformative experiences and love like Krista experienced are why she continues to work at XZone. “Part of the reason I do what I do is because Jesus chose to come love us when we weren’t lovable,” she shares. “And all too often, tough kids who really need to be loved feel unlovable.”

*Children’s names are changed for their protection.

 
 

 
 

This story was taken from the latest issue of NCM Magazine, available for free online or by mail.