Sunday afternoon, the World’s Backyard organization was off to the races, celebrating its fourth-annual Turkey Derby with kids crafting and competing.
The student-led ministry hosted its Thanksgiving event as a special and separate occasion from its usual Wednesday meeting time.
“Wednesdays become these kids’ favorite day of the week, and ours,” said Lindsey Cranford, junior management and marketing major from Abilene. “They are waiting outside their apartments with the biggest smiles you have ever seen until our cars arrive.”
These kids are attached, quite literally speaking, with one or two children hanging on the limbs of the 50 regular volunteers.
Because for the 150 refugee children in Abilene, the consistent presence of the student-volunteers make it easy to understand why these kids are attached.
The student-led ministry was founded in 2009 by ACU alums and brothers Bradyn (’12) and Jason (’10) Boone. For two hours each week, ACU students devote time to play with the children of one of the four apartment complexes housing Abilene refugees.
“The IRC places refugees in Abilene from all over the world, so we have kids from multiple countries in Africa, from Nepal, and some from Mexico and South America,” said program co-director, Hanna Boyd, senior family studies major from Austin.
Volunteers are assigned a specific apartment complex, picking up and driving the children to Madison Middle School for programming, including a Bible study, prayers and praise time.
But Sunday, eyes were on the prize of a trip to Skate Town, as the four apartment complexes competed in a pushcart derby to earn “Backyard Bucks.”
“We start by letting the kids decorate their derby cars, make signs for their apartment teams and paint their faces,” Cranford said. “Then we have free time and let the kids jump in a bounce house, play games, make a Thanksgiving turkey. After their free time, we have the big races.”
“It’s fun, chaotic and different than the normal things we do,” Boyd said. “But it’s also a time for these kids to reflect and think about what they have in their lives to be thankful for. That’s important for them when they’ve grown up in these tough situations and have been moved across the world to a new home.”
But kids will be kids, often testing volunteers’ limits.
“Patience,” they all said. “It takes lots and lots of patience.”
World’s Backyard has taught them not only how to manage the kids, but how to understand them.
“The kids remind me of how I was when I was their age,” said program co-director, Barrett Brown, junior nursing major, from Odessa. “It gives me understanding when they do something I dislike or wish they wouldn’t do. I’m a kid anyway, so it’s not too much to ask that I be understanding of their ways.”
Add to that the fact these children are unacquainted with American culture, much less, speak English.
“These kids have grown up in a culture completely different than ours,” Boyd said. “And even here in Abilene, their world is very different from how we live.”
Hunter Watson, senior social studies education major from Forth Worth and three-year volunteer said he is confronted with this linguistic hurdle each week.
“My kids from Fairmount speak Nepali with little English, so it is hard to understand them sometimes,” he said.
But for all, the patience practiced by the volunteers, many laughs are rewarded.
“Anytime a kid falls down is pretty funny,” Brown said. “Especially as they were pushing their carts really fast at the Turkey Derby. Also, any moment a volunteer gets hit in the head with a soccer ball.”
But World’s Backyard is so much more than playing games, Boyd said.
“I want to have a lasting impact on these kids,” she said. “Sometimes I begin to doubt if that’s happening. But then I see small pieces of evidence that give me hope. I see one of our boys calling his leader when he needs to talk to someone, I see leaders going out of their way to pick up kids when they move out of the apartment because they still want to come so bad, and so much more.”
World’s Backyard only asks two hours a week, but the commitment goes beyond the once-a-week obligation.
“Outside of Wednesdays, our volunteers are free to invest in kid’s lives in whatever way they like, by helping with school projects or going to get a snack,” Cranford said. “Our goal is to present the gospel in a way that is tangible and real to a secluded community by building relationships and building trust within their families.”
And the kids will hold you accountable to keeping in contact, said Kaylen Runyan, senior communications major from Houston.
“If they miss you, they’ll Facebook message you in order to make sure that you know,” she said. “Regardless of time lapse in seeing them, they make sure that I know they miss me and can’t wait to see me.”
Boyd said they hope to expand the ministry, but reaching more children requires more volunteers.
“College students have more power than they realize, especially with these kids,” Boyd said. “Our kids look up to the volunteers so much. By volunteering, not only are we living out what Jesus calls us to do and love those around us, but we are learning from the people that we are serving.”
“Rewarding experience” is the repeated phrase and two-way street for both the children and those involved with the World’s Backyard ministry.
“When I see those kids, it can transform my entire week,” Runyan said. “I know that it is difficult to balance all aspects of the ‘college experience,’ but being involved with World’s Backyard is less about a college experience and more about a Kingdom one.”
It is this sort of echoed experience that makes Wednesdays the most anticipated night of the week for the ACU students.
The kids make it easy to understand why these volunteers are attached.
To get involved, email firstname.lastname@example.org