When Liz Maki joined the Deer River Campus Life program back in high school, she thought it would be a great way to have fun and meet new friends.
She didn't realize it would become a lifeline.
"It really planted a seed," said Maki. "Everything I learned there came back to me later."
Campus Life is a program for teens in grades 9-12 in Deer River, Grand Rapids, and Greenway. It's part of Itasca Youth For Christ, a faith-based organization, supported in part by the United Way of 1000 Lakes.
Groups meet once a week in a teen's home for a mix of fun activities, discussion and reflection about important issues like substance use, relationships, and suicide. In addition, youth have opportunities to take part in mission trips, recreational outings, community events and service projects.
Director of Deer River Campus Life and Campus Life Alumni, Heather Schjenken, understands that strong, authentic relationships do not happen overnight - they take time, patience, trust and consistency. It was with that perspective that she developed a relationship with Maki.
"The kids really get a sense of belonging," said Schjenken. "It's a lot of fun and it is good for them to be connected to a caring adult. That's what young people like about it. We want everyone to feel good about being there."
Maki said that having a place to go really helped her navigate everything from her parents' divorce to teenage relationships, and having developed a foundation with Campus Life staff would be pivotal in her later years.
After graduating from Deer River, Maki moved to Maryland and as she entered her 20s, she struggled to find her place in the world. Maki said it was then that she hit her rock bottom point.
"I was going out partying and not living a fulfilled life. I wasn't happy, or feeling good, but I continued to do it. I ended up finding out that I was pregnant," Maki said. "It was not a happy situation in the sense that we weren't going to be raising this child together in a loving and safe environment. I feared I was going to be a single mom. I knew emotionally, physically, spiritually, and financially I could not do it on my own."
She turned to her book of devotions, a practice introduced through Campus Life.
It read, 'You are not an accident. Your birth was no mistake or mishap, and your life is no fluke of nature. Your parents may not have planned you, but God did.'
"Instantly, I knew this was speaking about my little baby growing inside me." Maki said. "The message was powerful. God had a plan. We may not be the same color, or share the same beliefs or morals, but we don't need to feel ashamed. We're going to be okay."
It was that moment when Maki knew she needed to change the direction of her life and reached out to Schjenken, her church community and her family for guidance.
"Their support really strengthened me," Maki said. "I realized that this was not a mistake. It was not planned, but it was not a mistake. This was a blessing in disguise."
Maki realized she needed to leave Maryland in order to provide her son with a better life.
After a difficult court battle for custody of her son, Maki is now back in Deer River, working as a phlebotomist at Essentia Health and raising Jack who is now 2 years old.
"In these small communities, you matter to each other," said Maki. "People genuinely care in this town and want to help each other. So many people have helped us get to where we are today from helping create a loving and safe home to caring for Jack.
"Jack is a ball of fire. He is awesome in every way and I cannot imagine life without him. It's chaotic and wonderful all at the same time. He loves to make people laugh," Maki said. "I can see why he needed to be in my life. He's taught me so much about myself. He's opened my eyes up to so much in life."
Maki said Campus Life changed her life, and now she wants to give back.
"I was so fortunate to have had that seed planted," said Maki. "I want to give back to something that impacted me so greatly. If I reached just one person, it could be the difference."
"Campus Life does not just guide you in your faith journey," Maki said. "They guide you in life. They open your eyes to things that are scary, but they also show you how to pull the good out of them."
Schjenken said the United Way of 1000 Lakes' support of Campus Life allows them to reach more young people in the community.
"Their support shows that Campus Life is valued by United Way and the communities they serve," Schjenken said. "They trust us to do this work. It's awesome."
Since 1963, the United Way of 1000 Lakes has partnered with local nonprofits to identify critical issues, create partnerships, and raise funds to help people in the Itasca area. Mobilizing the caring power of the communities it serves, the organization's mission, drives work to create a happier, healthier community. They accomplish this by inspiring collaboration, fundraising, and volunteerism.
United Way supports hundreds of causes to help the community as a whole. One way they accomplish this is by investing in more than 24 local organizations to make the biggest possible impact -independently, and in partnership with each other. This allows donors to make an impact on those around them through one single contribution.
Each year, investments in programs and agencies help one-in-three people living in Itasca County and surrounding communities. Joey's story is one example of the people that have been helped through United Way. Each story is the story of the community and the power of many. Learn more about people helped through United Way at unitedwayof1000lakes.org.