By Greg Warner
When Keyonta Lee went to Romania, he stood out for many reasons. While there are very few African-Americans in the Eastern European country, at six-foot-three, Keyonta, the 19-year-old basketball player would stand out in any crowd. To the Roma children at the Ruth School in Bucharest, Keyonta also stood out for the attention and affection he gave them.
Keyonta (kee-ON-tay) and two other American students spent a month in Romania this past summer as Student.Go interns through the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. They worked with CBF field personnel Ralph and Tammy Stocks of Bucharest, volunteering at the Ruth School and hosting VBS-style day camps in Bucharest and the villages of Budila, Ciuta and Giurgiu.
In each town, a local Baptist church recruited children from the neighborhood, who the American team led in Bible stories, skits, singing, crafts and recreation.
“I’m kind of quiet, but I can adapt to kids very easily,” Keyonta explained. It’s not the same with kids his age and older, he added. Then his shyness takes over.
Keyonta, from Helena, Ark., is the oldest of eight children. He plays intramural basketball at Phillips Community College of the University of Arkansas, in Helena, and plans to pursue a degree in graphic design at Delta State University in nearby Cleveland, Miss.
Seven years ago, Keyonta was just another 12-year-old kid looking to fill the days of his summer vacation.
“I was walking to the pool one day and heard music and talking,” he recalled.
It was Youth Camp, a summer-long day camp for teenagers, sponsored by Together for Hope of Arkansas. “They welcomed me like I had always been there,” Keyonta said.
About a dozen teens from Helena meet daily for team-building activities, mission projects and leadership training. For two weeks in July, the teens also serve as instructors for the much larger All Church Challenge Swim Camp, hosted for the past 13 years by Together For Hope, CBF’s rural poverty initiative that serves the country’s 20 poorest counties.
Youth Camp started as an activity for children who aged out of the popular Swim Camp, explained Stacy Henderson, assistant director of Together for Hope of Arkansas.
When Together for Hope’s organizers began the ministry in poverty-stricken Phillips County in the Mississippi Delta, “they met a lot of kids who didn’t know how to swim and who didn’t have anything constructive to do in the summer,” Henderson said.
Designed for children ages 6-12, the camp teaches much more than swimming. “It is basically a modified VBS or Backyard Bible Club,” she said. “The kids rotate through music, crafts, Bible story, sports and two swim lessons.”
After they became too old for Swim Camp, the kids kept coming each year anyway, so TFH of Arkansas started Youth Camp. Then, in 2011 the youth participants began working as instructors for Swim Camp — and Youth Camp grew into “an intensive, all-summer leadership development experience,” said Mollie Palmer, director of TFH of Arkansas.
In addition to being trained as leaders, the youth take mission trips to other Together for Hope sites and volunteer with TFH’s summer reading program. “The whole summer ideally shows the youth that their community is loved, that serving others is valuable and good and that they are capable leaders,” Palmer said.
Keyonta became one of those leaders. He has served with Swim Camp for three years and the Stories on Wheels summer literacy program for two years. He also volunteers for numerous other TFH of Arkansas activities and teaches basketball at the Boys and Girls Club.
“Keyonta has an extremely compassionate heart and is wonderful with kids,” Palmer added. “In our community, male role models are extremely important. He’s filling a crucial role by leading in our programming, allowing kids to see a young man who wants to serve, who treats people with respect and who encourages them to learn.”
Helena and Phillips County struggle with high unemployment, low education and few opportunities. Young people tend to feel trapped by the circumstances.
“I like the fact I can be a positive influence,” Keyonta said.
“He beat the odds,” said Henderson, who has worked with Keyonta for two years. “He’s remarkable because he exceeds expectations in a place where people are used to hearing the worst about its residents.”
Last January, when Henderson, Palmer and their colleagues had a need for an intern, they encouraged Keyonta to apply through Student.Go, CBF’s hands-on missions program for college and graduate students. He got the job, which paid him a $1,500 stipend for the semester.
“While he was filling out his paperwork,” Stacy Henderson said, “Mollie thought it would be a good idea for him to take a look at the Student.Go positions for summer, just to see if something sparked his interest. We thought he would be a great fit and have a blast at some Student.Go sites like Miami or Washington, D.C.
“He came back to us a few days later and said, ‘I think I want to go to Romania.’ After a long pause we said, ‘You want to do what now?’ I still don’t know what initially drew him to Romania, but we couldn’t convince him otherwise after that.”
“I was reading the list,” Keyonta recalled, “and [Romania] just caught my eye because it was the kind of stuff I was doing in Youth Camp. And I prayed hard about it because I wanted to make sure it was what God wanted.”
As in Arkansas, many Romanians are rural and poor. The country’s poverty rate, though improved, is still among the highest in Europe. The Roma are a persecuted minority in Romania and most struggle financially.
“Summer camp is an experience Roma kids would never have a chance to enjoy,” said Ralph Stocks, who has been ministering among the Romany in Hungary and Romania for two decades. Ralph and his wife, Tammy, are area coordinators for CBF field personnel in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
“Each summer we try to organize a Student.Go team to lead Vacation Bible School,” Stocks said. The team goes to churches led by graduates of the Gypsy Smith School, the CBF-sponsored institute that trains Romany ministers.
Keyonta joined Katie Colson of Alabama and Ellie Broome of Georgia to form the student team. For the first two weeks, they led daily two-and-a-half-hour camps for Roma children at the CBF-sponsored Ruth School in Bucharest, while completing service projects at the school each afternoon. The other two weeks were spent doing the same in the three other villages, with a little sightseeing squeezed in.
Student.Go is a program of CBF Global Missions to allow students 18 years and older to serve a summer or semester in a cross-cultural setting and advocate for the world’s most neglected people. Students assist experienced CBF field personnel in ministries in the United States and overseas. Student.Go provides room, board, local transportation and a stipend — $1,000 for a summer term or $1,500 for a semester.
Since the program launched in 2002, Student.Go has sent 582 college and graduate students to serve with CBF field personnel, including 56 students in 2014.
Stocks was impressed with all the Romania team members but especially with the way Keyonta had been nurtured by the Together for Hope staff.
“They would take turns praying for Roma kids,” he said. “They really felt a burden for them. … Keyonta in particular would participate in all the activities with enthusiasm.”
It was clear, he said, that the TFH of Arkansas staff had a tremendous influence in shaping Keyonta as a minister and as a person. “He talked about them as if they were his family.”
“Some Student.Go positions overseas require money,” Stocks added. “The Together for Hope staff helped Keyonta raise $2,500.”
Mollie Palmer pointed out the efforts “of many people went into preparing Keyonta for this experience,” dating back to the founders of TFH of Arkansas.
“It was church members he didn’t know starting Swim Camp and suggesting Youth Camp,” she explained. “It was [volunteers] who developed deep bonds with him. … It was the kids he’s served in Swim Camp and through Stories on Wheels. Without all of them, he wouldn’t have been ready for this.”
“It’s been remarkable to see Keyonta develop a desire to see and serve the world,” Palmer added. “We’ve long believed that when young people serve, they see themselves, their community and others in a different way. This opportunity has allowed Keyonta to see that God has eyes and a heart for the world, and he can play a part in it. He’s already inspired other youth and adults in Helena to pursue similar journeys.”
Keyonta summarized what he learned during his month with Student.Go in Romania: “Always be alert and always take advantage of opportunities, because you don’t always have them. And spread the love to everybody.”