Timber Bay: helping youth thrive in life
“Teens need healthy connections with safe adults who care about them.” This is the mission Timber Bay set out on when it was founded in 1970. The organization focuses on helping youth “create deep, healthy connections with peers and mentors.” Timber Bay focuses their work on kids who are struggling in different areas, and would benefit from emotional, social, and spiritual support from mentors who want to walk beside them.
There’s a general assumption that these kinds of organizations are found mostly in the inner cities or hurting communities, but the reality is that every town or city has kids who are struggling and need help. Though unknown to many, Buffalo is one of the many locations Timber Bay has planted roots in, offering the mentorship and guidance local youth are needing.
Buffalo Timber Bay
Timber Bay has been in Buffalo since 1996, and Area Director Paul Vorderbruggen has seen the positive and lasting impact it has had on the community and youth throughout the 25+ years he has been with them.
“It was founded with the idea that if a person combines outdoor camping activities with community activities, that would be our impact on kids,” Vorderbruggen said. “These kids are specifically those who are either living in environments or dealing with situations that might put them at risk of dangerous behavior in the future.”
Vorderbruggen saw that, through this, there were more open doors to speak into the life of the kids, and they felt more comfortable speaking with the adult staff in this environment.
“That’s what drew me to it: the whole idea that we can provide these opportunities,” former BHS and Phoenix Learning Academy teacher Ben Harvey said. “The schools can offer a lot of help, but there’s a need to go beyond that and support them, mentor them, and encourage them in ways that the school is limited, because of what a public school can do and what is acceptable as a public educator.”
Harvey was motivated to leave his education career and pursue mentoring with Timber Bay full-time after realizing how much more he could pour into the kids’ lives outside of the classroom.
“I saw kids at Phoenix struggling at school and seeing things they were struggling with outside of school, and I couldn’t do anything about it as a teacher,” Harvey explained. “Some of the things they needed, like an adult friend as a positive role model outside of school, just wasn’t possible.”
Harvey found Timber Bay open the doors to forming greater connections with the kids he saw struggling.
“I’m able to say, ‘I’m going to come alongside you and be a friend to you that’s going to pour into you,’ in the hopes that we can help them get beyond the struggles that they’re dealing with,” Harvey said.
He has volunteered on-and-off since 2013, and after continual encouragement from Vorderbruggen and thinking about how he could best support the students he taught, he realized he could continue to offer the support he gave as a teacher, plus more, by shifting to a full-time mentorship position at Timber Bay.
“Most of the kids we work with have some sort of professional adult in their life, whether it’s a probation officer, therapist, or counselor, but what they don’t have is just that person who can take them fishing, play disc golf, or something,” Vorderbruggen said.
Not wanting their work to feel like a course to complete, Timber Bay is not considered a program, but a lifelong connection. It is not a place for people to send their kids to for a certain amount of time and have them returned “cured.”
“It’s walking with kids long-term,” Vorderbruggen said. “I’ve started working with kids that are 12 or 13 years old, and I’ve been doing this long enough where some are in their 40s now. We stay with them through life.”
Timber Bay’s mission is built upon the foundation of the Christian faith, but, unlike many other faith-based organizations, there is no spiritual requirement to join or participate.
“We want it to be a place for kids to come and be open about what they believe, what they’re thinking about, where they’re getting their information, and have respectful conversations about it,” Vorderbruggen said. “Ultimately, our staff and volunteers are Christians, so we come at the life issue that our kids are in with that perspective, but it’s not about forcing our beliefs on them.”
Vorderbruggen encourages the kids he works with to not believe what he believes because it’s what he believes, but for them to look at it and figure it out in their own heart and mind.
Through this pairing of mentorship and faith, Timber Bay has seen the positive impact of being there for youth who are struggling and letting them know there is someone there to walk with them.
Timber Bay’s model is best described as a funnel, with the ultimate goal to be having one-on-one relationships that continue on for life. There are group activities, like weekly senior high and junior high nights, and then smaller group activities, like service groups (volunteering with Fare for All, for example) or special interests, like cooking, bicycle repair, or disc golf. This all eventually moves towards spending time individually to listen to the kids and offer that unique support for their situation.
Staying true to the mission to walk alongside the youth, instead of telling them what to do, has proven to make a long-lasting impact.
One year, when Vorderbruggen was on a trip at Timber Bay’s camp, a boy was having a hard time splitting a piece of wood for the campfire. After allowing the boy to try in his own way for a while, Vorderbruggen eventually went over to offer help.
“I asked him how it was going, and he was angry,” Vorderbruggen said. “I told him, ‘Let’s look at the log for a second, and maybe the perspective that you’re seeing it from isn’t the best way to attack it. What if we turn it this way a bit?’ Then he took two swings and cleaved it right open.”
Vorderbruggen shared that years later, he ran into the kid, and he told Vorderbruggen that when he faces challenges, he doesn’t try to keep “whacking at it” one way but tries to see it in different perspectives.
“Simple life lessons like that are what our kids tend to remember much more than anything we might say in front of a big group,” Vorderbruggen said.
He also explained how the simple moments and comments mean far more and stick with the kids over any lecture they could be taught.
During a cold, snowy day of volunteering with Fare for All and passing out food, a 16-year-old girl came over to Vorderbruggen with a big smile on her face.
“I asked her how she liked it, thinking she had a miserable time, except for her smile,” Vorderbruggen said. “And she said, ‘That last person that I helped said ‘God bless you.’ Nobody has ever said [that] to me before!’”
He recently met with her, years later, and she’s now a manager of a local fast food restaurant.
“With tears in her eyes, she told me, ‘Nobody ever encouraged me the way you guys did. Nobody listened to me growing up,’” he shared. “So, it was kind of a small thing, but all of those small things add up to so much more.”
Through these little moments, Timber Bay is able to help “break the cycle” of the hardships the kids have faced and encourage them to form healthy relationships as they grow up, which in turn helps them to build strong, healthy marriages and families.
With more public knowledge about Timber Bay, there is now the opportunity to offer support. While mentoring/volunteering is helpful, right now the biggest way to support Timber Bay is through financial donations; the organization is also working to find a space of their own in town, where the kids can spend time with the mentors. There are also a number of local organizations, like the American Legion and Buffalo Rotary, that contribute financially in support of Timber Bay’s mission.
“We raise all of our salary and funds for activities,” Harvey shared. “It’s a struggle, but a way for those who want to actively contribute and be a part of it.”
“It is very challenging,” Vorderbruggen agreed. “But because we believe in Timber Bay, and we love what we do so much, the challenge is usually finding people to talk to about it. And if we’re encouraging kids to trust God and look at the ways God wants us to live, we should be relying on God, too.”
While some may be more eager to make donations to fuel the organization’s vans for trips or provide meals, Vorderbruggen also shared a perspective that could encourage the community to financially support the staff.
“There are things people can buy to help, like United Way providing grants to buy gas for our vans,” he shared. “But the tricky part is, if we don’t have the staff to drive those vans, gas in those vans doesn’t do any good. If we don’t have staff and volunteers to take kids kayaking and we have money to buy kayaks, that doesn’t do any good.”
Open-handed giving is one of the best ways to support Timber Bay, which is most helpful in supporting the staff with their salaries so they can continue to support the kids full-time. Timber Bay’s website, timberbay.org, provides the information for each staff member and a link for people to contribute. The website also has more information about what the organization offers, and how the community can get involved in making sure the local youth have a strong support system and mentors walking with them, encouraging a life where they can thrive.
“I’m able to say, ‘I’m going to come alongside you and be a friend to you that’s going to pour into you.’”
~ Ben Harvey ~
“...All of those small things add up to so much more.”
~ Paul Vorderbruggen ~