MANATEE COUNTY — After Steve Sipes was hired to found Young Life’s East Manatee branch in 1999, he set a lofty goal: Visit Lakewood Ranch High School every single day.
And during the branch’s early years, he did exactly that. Whether it was having lunch with the students, attending a football or baseball game or just standing in the parking lot giving high-fives after school, Sipes quickly became a permanent fixture — that guy who was always there.
But when the school year ends in June, so will Sipes’ position within Young Life. Citing financial hardships, the Christian organization geared toward teenagers eliminated his position in the East Manatee branch. It was the branch’s only paid position.
“We’ve been struggling for a while,” Sipes said. “(Until now) we’ve survived on business sponsors and personal sponsors.”
But as the economy deteriorated, those sponsorships became harder to find. Sipes estimates that with his salary and benefits, the East Manatee branch cost about $10,000 per month to run, and without the donations to cover those costs, Young Life was forced to eliminate the area director position.
Without Sipes, the East Manatee chapter’s future is uncertain. For it to continue, volunteers — including parents of the teens involved in Young Life — must assume all of Sipes’ organizational and leadership duties.
“It’s really up to the community,” Sipes said. “Obviously, I’d like to see it continue.”
Building the branch
Photos depicting hundreds of East County teens line the walls in Young Life’s Lakewood Ranch headquarters in donated space courtesy of land development company K2M. They feature every year of the branch’s summer camp to SharpTop Cove in Jasper, Ga., as well as dozens of community service projects, including Young Life’s recent work at SOLVE Maternity Homes.
The wall is the ultimate tribute to Sipes’ work. Originally brought on as a volunteer, Sipes soon was hired to launch the branch. With a love of outdoor adventure, music and a knack for connecting with teens, Sipes was perfect for the task.
Through consistent dedication to Lakewood Ranch High, Sipes grew the branch from about five teens to more than 100. In addition to Lakewood, the branch now draws from Braden River High and Braden River, Nolan and Haile middle schools. And this summer, nearly 100 students will respresent Young Life East Manatee at SharpTop Cove — making it the most successful summer camp in branch history.
“It is a shame,” said Kelly Pleasant, the branch’s volunteer coordinator. “Steve has been there for the kids in this community for years — going to lunch each week at the high school and attending everything from kids sporting events, musicals, clubs, talent shows … basically going to where they want to be.”
Keeping the faith
After learning of Sipes’ termination, Greenbrook resident and Young Life parent Barbara Broadbridge organized quickly a dinner fundraiser in her home. With the help of Harvest United Methodist Church’s congregation, Broadbridge was able to raise $955 for Young Life.
“We’re very pleased,” she said. “This was possible through some generous people in the community. And it wasn’t just parents whose kids attend Young Life. They were familiar with it and wanted to help.”
Broadbridge attended Young Life as a teen growing up in the 1970s. Now, her daughter, Kiana, is active in the branch.
“The most important thing is (Young Life) teaches teens basic Christian values and helps them become better people by helping others,” Barbara Broadbridge said. “It’s reaching kids in the community and teaching them to focus on others.
“Steve did a phenomenal job,” she said. “We hate to see him go.”
Although Sipes no longer will be a paid staff member of Young Life, the relationships he’s formed will continue.
“I get texts and e-mails from them every day,” he said. “That will continue.”
The branch leaders will host an organizational meeting May 6 to discuss the branch’s future and formalize a plan to keep it operating.
“The hope is that all the hard work that went into getting Young Life up and running in East Manatee will continue if the community believes in it badly enough,” Pleasant said.
Sipes, who also works as music director at Christ Presbyterian Church, said he plans to pursue more opportunities in music while praying for direction. He and his wife, Chela, and four children would like to stay in the East County, but if an opportunity arises outside of the area, they would consider a move.
“When I first heard, I was disappointed,” Sipes said of leaving Young Life. “I thought, ‘Why did this happen to me?’ But then, I got excited about the possibilities. God has always led us to a place with new opportunities and new adventures, and I know that will happen again.”
Contact Michael Eng at [email protected].
Young Life volunteers will host an organizational meeting to discuss the branch’s future and launch plans to raise funds.
WHEN: 9 a.m., May 6
WHERE: Young Life East Manatee, K2M, 7317 Merchant Court, Lakewood Ranch
WEB SITE: ylem.younglife.org