There’s no escape. There’s no help. There’s no hope. For kids growing up in Edgemont, South Dakota, life isn’t easy. A small ranching community of just over 700 in the southwest corner of South Dakota, there’s a lot of wide-open space and not much in between. Parents addicted to drugs and alcohol, physical and sexual abuse, divorce, and poverty make childhood for many Edgemont kids something to endure, rarely to enjoy.
“I’ve come from an abusive family, from both families (Mom and Dad),” says one Edgemont High School student. “I grew up with fighting, surrounded with people drinking or doing drugs. I grew up with a lot of unhealthy things.”
“My mother is a drug addict,” says another high school student. “I never ever thought I was going to get out of the hole my mother had me in.”
A LIGHT APPEARS
About 16 months ago, a glimmer of light appeared in the Edgemont darkness. Brad and Nancy Zachow became part of the community. Brad was the new high school principal and Nancy, who formerly worked with those with disabilities and is a strong child advocate, began a youth program through the Assemblies of God church they attended, Bethel Church, Edgemont campus.
Then, a few months later in January, the light grew a bit brighter as the Zachows — who are credentialed ministers through their home church, Bethel Church in Rapid City — found themselves with an additional title: co-pastors of the Edgemont campus.
Nancy, who has been involved in youth ministry for more than 20 years, says that the youth group began with 10 to 12 kids attending on a semi-regular basis. However, she realized that in this community, in order for the youth group to grow, kids not only needed to know the church had a youth group, she needed to make herself present and accessible.
“I became involved in the community and made myself visible,” she explains. “If kids didn’t have anyone to watch them, I would go to their basketball, volleyball, or football games to support and cheer for them — I wanted to get to know kids as individuals, like they were a part of our family.”
Bridgid, who attends Bethel Youth, admits that before she started coming, she was depressed.
“A group of my friends from Edgemont told me about Bethel Church and I decided to come and see what it was all about,” she says. “Ever since I started going to youth group they’ve all became family . . . Nancy and Brad are always there . . . I love how I can finally have two adults that I can count on and I know won’t leave. They saved me when I was at one of the lowest parts of my life.”
Nancy also makes regular trips into the high school three times a week, introducing herself to those who are with kids from the youth group, getting to know more about them, and inviting them to youth.
YOUTH IMPACT GROWS
The Zachows have seen the youth group grow to more than 50 kids, with 35 to 40 in average attendance each Wednesday evening. To place the attendance into perspective, it means more than half of all the kids attending grades 6th through 12 at Edgemont are part of the youth group!
“Youth group doesn’t start until 6:15 on Wednesday nights,” Nancy says. “But by 3:45 we have 12 to 15 kids already there — I call then my ‘PB&J’ (peanut butter and jam) group. It started out with just one kid showing up early and now a whole group comes early — I give them a snack and, as we have wi-fi at the church, they can do their homework, play games, visit, and have fun in a safe environment.”
A “minor miracle” also takes place on Wednesday evenings. Several older women in the community learned of the burgeoning youth group and the difference it was making in the lives of kids. They started preparing and delivering meals for the youth. Now, each Wednesday youth group begins with a hearty homecooked meal — a meal many of the kids would otherwise not eat.
Nancy adds in a quiet voice, “I can only think of two or three of our kids who actually live with their biological parents.”
During the height of COVID, the Zachows also started delivering groceries to homes to help make sure kids had food to eat as they were no longer in school receiving free meals.
“But we learned that many times the food just sat there as no one in the household had the skills to prepare it,” Nancy recalls. “So I started cooking — I would cook for the entire day and prepare meals and deliver them to kids’ families and senior citizens.”
As the youth group grew, Nancy says this past fall they decided to give back to the community. Using the church’s “far-from-new” van, which is known in the community as the “Green Tic Tac” for its color and shape, she delivered kids to different homes to rake up their yards and haul the leaves away at no cost to bless the community.
“People started noticing this and began calling us to come clean their yards for a donation,” Nancy says. “This became a great fundraiser for us to help kids get to the youth conference.”
In 2019, the church saw seven kids attend the state youth conference held in Sioux Falls. Nancy says they were able to raise the funds and tagged along on the bus with the kids from the Rapid City church.
But this year the Nov. 6-8 South Dakota Youth Conference proved to be problematic. Growth has cost — 30 kids wanted to attend the conference. The kids didn’t have the money to go, and the church, which averages about 40 (due to COVID) on Sundays, didn’t have the money to send them. Add to that another problem: no way to get the kids to Sioux Falls.
“The Rapid City church bus didn’t have room for 30 more kids,” Nancy explains. “And even if we could have magically fit all 30 kids and their chaperones into the Tic Tac, I don’t think it could have made the 800-mile roundtrip.”
The Zachows began to pray and funds started “appearing.” An anonymous note, a hand-gifted $100 here and there, an unsolicited gift from a person from Montana, a donated ski-resort weekend to auction off, and fundraising successes — the money came in, including enough to buy conference T-shirts for each member attending, plus a few extra.
“It was Wednesday morning (Oct.21). I maybe slept a total of an hour and a half all night, I was overwhelmed and just crying out to God — we had the registration money, but no way to get the kids to the conference and I was going to have to tell them we couldn’t go,” Nancy says. “But when I woke up, a businessman’s name was on my mind — earlier this year, he had gifted us money and meat for the meals we made for community members.”
Unable to get the man’s name out of her mind, she called him and asked to meet with him. He agreed. When he arrived at the church, Nancy simply told him all the things God had been doing in and through the church and the youth group, but made no requests or needs known.
“He then began to share about his life’s journey . . ., and we had the opportunity to sit and pray together,” Nancy recalls. “I was satisfied that maybe he just needed me.”
As the man prepared to leave the room, he suddenly paused at the door, and turned and asked Nancy a “mouth-left-wide-open” question: What is your biggest need for your youth group?
“I told him I needed transportation to get 30 kids and four chaperones to Sioux Falls for the youth conference,” Nancy says, amazement still in her voice. “He says, ‘I want to help you — you find out what it’s going to take and call me back.’ I started crying.”
Nancy called the main church campus and learned it was going to cost $3,000 to rent a charter bus, an extra $300 because of their location, $200 for the bus driver’s room, plus a $75 per diem for the bus driver to eat . . . there was no way.
“I thought maybe he was going to give us a donation and we would need to raise the rest,” Nancy admits. “Instead, when I called him, he simply said, ‘Ok. I want to do that for you. Come to my office and pick up the check and book that bus driver and hotel room.’”
. . . Nancy was crying again.
Most kids in Edgemont have never been more than a short drive away from the town. Many of the streets are not paved and the “big city” is Hot Springs — population of around 3,500 about 30-miles east of town.
When the coach bus pulled up at the church for the kids, eyes were wide and the excitement was palpable. The idea of going to youth conference in plush comfort like this was almost too much to believe.
“I never saw so many kids who needed to use the bathroom,” Nancy says with a laugh. “They’ve never been on a bus that had its own bathroom before.”
The conference itself was also an incredible success, even as safety measures were in place to keep groups physically distanced.
“God really broke through to a lot of the kids,” Nancy says. “Several made commitments to Christ while others were able to let go of things in their lives and grow in their relationships with Christ.”
“I really felt God’s presence,” Bridgid says. “Once I finally surrendered and let God in, I felt better . . . I wake up and I can actually get out of bed — it’s not a struggle anymore.”
For Chandler, the conference brought a closer relationship to God, his leaders, and his youth group peers.
“Youth conference was an amazing experience; it really gave me a strong connection towards God. Every night I felt something during worship — [He] showed me there is hope,” he says. “So many people put their hand on my shoulder or my back while I was crying, and it strengthened our friendships.”
Although Samantha was thankful for how God worked in her life during the conference, what she noticed was something she didn’t expect.
“The things we talked about hit home a lot that weekend,” she says. “It also touched my heart because I saw the people that I never thought would have started to go to church be touched by God’s words. It felt so good to see that.”
CONTINUING THE WORK
Nancy and Brad are committed to the people — and especially the youth — of Edgemont. The community has witnessed their love in action and is responding.
Nancy shares that the gentleman who so generously provided the charter bus and expenses for the youth conference, has already spoken to her about buying the church a bus of their own so kids never have to worry about transportation issues.
“That is in the works,” Nancy says, the joy evident in her voice. “They are watching auctions and sales to find us a good bus.”
Although God is blessing the church and the youth group in miraculous ways, the work that is still before the Zachows and the kids in the community remains daunting.
Gerika says that since joining the youth group she’s become a more positive person due to God moving in her life, but life isn’t always easy as she struggles with depression and anxiety.
“The struggles that I went through with school and my mom and my home life aren’t ok, but I’m working through it and God is holding my hand through it,” she says. “[But] when people say struggle isn’t real, lemme tell you something, it is very real, it storms — it comes with anything and hits you like a rock.”
For Brad and Nancy, it’s clear the challenges are many, but they have seen firsthand that God has the solutions, and if He desires something to take place — even if it means someone gifting a charter bus on short notice for a youth group in Edgemont, South Dakota — He will work out all the details, no matter what the challenge.