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.