Divorce  and drugs plague Hillsdale. Hillsdale students can help kids who need it the most | Flickr
Divorce and drugs plague Hillsdale. Stu­dents can help kids who need it the most | Flickr

Teenagers in Hillsdale County grow up under all kinds of pressure, just like teenagers any­where else. But the sit­u­ation in Hillsdale County is arguably worse.

Out of 83 Michigan counties, Hillsdale County had the 4th highest divorce rate in 2015: that is 201 divorces com­pared with 329 mar­riages in the same year. In 2013 Hillsdale County also had the third highest statewide child abuse/neglect rate for kids ages 0 – 17 in all of Michigan (31.6 cases for every 1000 res­i­dents).

While poverty does not inher­ently put neg­ative pressure on fam­ilies, it unfor­tu­nately can and often does, and Hillsdale County is the 18th poorest county in Michigan, with 19.7 percent of people living below the poverty level between 2009 and 2013.

Several vol­un­teers from Young Life, Wyld Life, Hillsdale Youth Men­toring, and Cross­roads Farm, say that an incon­sistent and/or abusive home life is one of the most fre­quent sources of hardship for teenagers in the area.

“A lot of these kids are told that they don’t really have a future,” said Area Director of Hilldsdale Young Life and Hillsdale College alumnus, Andy van der Harst, ’16. “They don’t feel heard by many people, they don’t feel seen, and they don’t feel known.”

Cross­roads Farm is a min­istry in Hillsdale County whose purpose is to help rural teen­sagers.

69 percent of Hillsdale County’s pop­u­lation lives in rural areas, and several studies show that teenagers growing up in rural areas are gen­erally more sus­cep­tible to harmful pres­sures and habits than teenagers growing up in urban envi­ron­ments.

Founders of Cross­roads Farm Doug and Dawn Rout­ledge researched this topic exten­sively and found, for example, that rural teenagers stand at a higher risk of death by gunshot than urban teenagers do, and that they are twice as likely to commit suicide. They also found that rural teenagers are 34 percent more likely to smoke mar­i­juana, 83 percent more likely to use crack cocaine, and 104 percent more likely to use meth amphet­a­mines. Rural teenagers also often neglect getting their driver’s licenses until they are 18 or 19 years old, making it harder for them to get a job.

According to Rout­ledge, the dif­ference is largely due to a common lack of com­munity devel­opment projects in rural areas.

College stu­dents in general have a unique kind of influence on high school and middle school stu­dents because of the age gap: they are gen­erally not as old as the teenagers’ parents, teachers, coaches, etc,. which makes friend­ships easier to develop, but they are also old enough to garner a sense of respect from them and even influence some of their deci­sions. Cross­roads vol­unteer Paul Pridgeon said that the college stu­dents at Cross­roads bring a dif­ferent kind of energy to the min­istry.

“Kids look at them and say, ‘I could be like that; they just want through what I went through,’” he said.

Beyond their age, Hillsdale stu­dents in par­ticular are able to have an incredibly pos­itive influence on teenagers because they are not afraid of chal­lenges. They vol­un­tarily take dif­ficult classes, apply for lead­ership roles, and immerse them­selves in extracur­ricular activ­ities on campus, and they believe that with hard work they can do whatever they want to do. Hillsdale County teenagers need this kind of inspi­ration. They need role models whom they can respect and who will encourage them to approach life with a pos­itive attitude and a growth mindset. Not only that, but teenagers also need people who will be con­sistent and loving friends, since many teenagers do not find that kind of security at home.

“The kids expe­rience so much tran­sience in their rela­tion­ships,” van der Harst said. “To have a pos­itive impact, vol­un­teers need to be con­sistent.”

A vol­unteer from Young Life said that over the past two years he has gotten to know a high school student who suf­fered from emo­tional abuse at home, and was con­se­quently doing very poorly in school, to the point where the school had to place him in a special-edu­cation class. When the vol­unteer spent time with the student away from home, he noticed the student becoming happier and acting more like a “normal” teenager.

Then just this past year, the student got to move in with a new family, and he is happy and doing well in school, even planning to go to college. The point is, while there cer­tainly are cir­cum­stances that vol­un­teers can not control, like the sit­u­ation at a student’s home, vol­un­teers can still have an extremely pos­itive impact on kids and can encourage them simply by being a con­sistent presence in their lives.

Around 43 Hillsdale College stu­dents cur­rently mentor teenagers in Young Life, Wyld Life, Hillsdale Youth Men­toring, and Cross­roads Farm. Van der Harst, who cur­rently vol­un­teers at Jonesville High School, said that one of the main reason he vol­un­teers is because he loves the friendship aspect of the min­istry.

“It’s fun,” he said. “We have so much fun with the kids. Not just that we hang out and play games, but it’s just fun to get to know them.”

Teenagers are among the most hurting indi­viduals in Hillsdale County, and Hillsdale College stu­dents are among the most able to encourage, inspire, and pos­i­tively influence them. Stu­dents who want to vol­unteer in the com­munity should rec­ognize the great need for teenage out­reach, and thought­fully con­sider getting involved.