OME TASKS IN LIFE SEEM IMPOSSIBLE—without God’s help—to accomplish. Moses had the Red Sea. Joshua and Caleb had giants in the land of Caanan. And now Paula Olivier, assistant pastor of the Seventh-day Adventist Church of the Oranges in Orange, New Jersey, was given her own Goliath to slay.
“God placed in my heart a mission—a new ministry to help the youth in our community,” Olivier says. “People thought the idea was great. The problem was, I had absolutely no instructions, no road map, and was not aware of any existing program to model it after. All I had was the certainty of His will that this was what He wanted me to do.”
To Everything There Is a Season
Olivier says God planted the seed of this ministry idea during her senior year in college—the spring semester of 2000.
“I found myself repeatedly contemplating the joys of graduation,” Olivier explains. “Images of black gowns, red tassels, and yellow hoods trimmed in crimson filled my mind. I could not wait to put on my robe, march to a tune of ‘Pomp and Circumstance,’ receive my diploma, and shout for joy. Then suddenly, the scenes of cheering family and friends were rudely interrupted with one paralyzing thought: What happens after this?
Throughout her life Olivier had been supported by two loving and hardworking parents. Now, about to be thrust into the “real world,” she wasn’t sure that four years of academic college rigor had prepared her to live on her own.
“School Prepares You for Examinations; but Life Gives the Finals”
Olivier sought comfort in the wisdom and advice of her peers. She discovered that they were very intelligent academicians, but when it came to real life, “most of them were just as clueless as I,” she says.
“Thoughts of graduation gave way to thoughts of bills, budgets, and mortgages,” Olivier explains. “Do I have to pay taxes? What about that credit card bill I never paid? When I purchase my first car, will I fall prey to the tricks of an unscrupulous car salesperson? The thoughts of life’s responsibilities began suffocating my initial excitement about graduation.”
During spring break Olivier went home to Miami, scoured the Internet, interviewed her parents and their friends, made some phone calls, and put together her own “life’s manual.”
“I put everything I learned in a red, one-inch, three-ring binder. I wanted to share it with other youth on a larger scale. I never had the chance to do that until this year. God reminded me of my desire and equipped me with a church willing to help make it happen.”
He Who Fails to Plan, Plans to Fail
Now the assistant pastor of the Church of the Oranges, Olivier read the latest United Way Community Needs Assessment* demographic studies of her church’s home county of Essex. New Jersey is one of the most expensive housing markets in the country, and studies showed the average minimum wage employee must work 134 to 136 hours a week in order to afford the cost of rent. And 41 percent of homeowners spend about a third of their household income on housing. But the most startling fact to Olivier was a matter of health: statewide, one in every 264 persons is living with HIV and/or AIDS. In Essex County the study indicated that the number was one in every 86 individuals living with the disease.
“The statistics painted the picture of a community with a significant population of overworked people in need of financial literacy and health education,” Olivier notes. “There definitely was a need.”
It was then that God rekindled the dream He gave Olivier seven years earlier. With the support of her senior pastor she launched Life Skills Academy, which offers classes such as Financial Literacy, Job Readiness, Income Tax, Basic Automotive, and Teen Health.
“The life skills selected were the product of the studies I had read and the issues I remembered were pertinent to me when I was preparing to leave college,” Olivier says.
She adds, “We wanted to have a large enrollment, but wisdom suggested limiting it to 12 students. Once the size of a group exceeds 23, dynamics are altered. You lose the intimacy, and learning becomes more difficult.”
Because the program was new, Olivier thought it better to begin with a small, controllable number, and the cost per student would be more manageable, as well.
It took 10 months of research to create an official proposal for the program, develop assessments for each module, interview and select presenters, develop an application, recruit students through community organizations, produce a press release and a manual, and interview candidates.
“Every step of the way, when I wanted to throw up my hands in despair, God would send me more help and move another mountain,” Olivier reflects. “The education ministry helped find the final presenter. The youth ministry took care of food and activities for the youth. I asked God for about a dozen desktop computers as incentives to give to the students upon graduation. The Lord made it so a company was upgrading its computers, and with the help of Sung Kwon, Community Services director of the North American Division, they were donated for our project.”
Olivier was overjoyed with the computers, but they were only the CPUs. The program organizers also needed software, monitors, and other peripherals, but they would be costly.
“Between the church, the Adventist Community Services, and private donors from the community, we raised about $6,700,” Olivier says. “With these funds we were able to provide monitors, keyboards, speakers, and a color printer. We were also able to purchase curriculums for this year and future programs.”
A Dozen Pioneers
July 16, 2007, was the big day—the first day of the initial three-week program. All 12 students arrived with their parents for orientation. Olivier and others working with the program served them snacks and gave the parents a tour of the facility. Then after the parents left, the learning began.
The students comprised six Adventist and six non-Adventist teens from the community. By the end of the first week a local television station had taken an interest in the initiative. WMBC-TV reporters came out and interviewed some of the students. The story aired August 9 to a potential audience of 5 million households in the tristate area.
The Life Skills program consisted of hands-on activities and lectures. The students learned what “power colors” are. They dressed up and participated in mock job interviews, using résumés they created.
“To keep things interesting, we played Jeopardy—guys against girls,” Olivier says. “It’s amazing what teens are willing to learn when you put it in the format of a game. They were able to recall what they learned about income tax and down payments in order to defeat their opponents. It was fun watching them bond with one another as they worked together to win the game.”
For the automotive portion of the program, the students visited auto body and auto repair shops to study the components of a car. They learned to identify the parts underneath the hood and their functions. Later, the youth took turns changing one of the tires of Olivier’s car.
“Everyone—the young ladies as well as the young men—were able to do it,” Olivier notes.
Graduation services were held August 11, 2007, at the church. Eleven of the youth ranged in age from 15 to 17. The twelfth student was 14. The valedictorian happened to be the 14-year-old.
“There was not a topic she did not master or a question she could not answer,” Olivier says.
The keynote speaker was Edward LaPorte, executive director of the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives for New Jersey.
“Mr. LaPorte was so impressed with the program,” Olivier says, “he is currently working with the church to expand it.”
The city mayor also attended. He congratulated the graduates and signed their certificates of completion.
“The parents of the students were very moved and thanked the church for the impact the program had on their kids,” Olivier notes. “The youth are more confident because of the skills they’ve learned. And one parent reported to me that his daughter came home saying, ‘Daddy, if you ever get a flat tire, don’t worry. Just call me and I’ll fix it for you.’”
Some of the teens still stop by the church to participate in other programs, including Sabbath services, Adventist Youth services, and feeding the homeless.
Patience Is Being Friends With Time
“God never ceases to amaze me,” Olivier says. “The fears of one graduation led to the joys of another one seven years later. God led the church through uncharted territory.”
Olivier says that church leaders of other denominations have called to ask whether they could send their youth to the Life Skills Academy program. Others asked if Olivier would teach them how to develop a similar ministry.
“Of all that took place during the program, two experiences stand out in my mind,” Olivier notes. “One student from the community already had a computer. She wanted only the information we were offering and attended every class. The second experience was the words from a student that continue to encourage me. She said, ‘Pastor, the program was great even without the computers. If you had not taught us these things, we wouldn’t have learned them in life until it was too late.’”
Summing up the experience, Olivier says, “Doing ministry out of the box is not always easy. There will be moments of doubt as well as sleepless nights. There will be times you wonder how you got yourself into this in the first place.
“However,” she adds, “when I think of the lives that were touched, the community that was reached, I can definitely tell you it was well worth the struggle. It has helped me to remember that all of God’s biddings are His enablings.”
*United Way of Essex and West Hudson Community Needs Assessment, Final Report,
Paula Olivier is assistant pastor of the
Seventh-day Adventist Church of the Oranges in New Jersey
and a graduate of Oakwood College.