Sinclair Rodgers, 15, of Altoona enjoys youth group more than a party.
But she always didn't think that way.
"I was a partyer," said Sinclair. "I would go to house parties to drink and smoke."
(Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec) Pastor Micah Marshall addresses the teens at The Refuge at New Life Worship Center, 600 Ritz Road, Altoona.
(Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec) Emilee Astore, 14, and Hailey Fetterman, 13, pray at a meeting of The Refuge.
Now she hangs out at New Life Worship Center on Ritz Road where she takes part in The Refuge youth group on Tuesdays and helps with activities for elementary school students at Kids Central on Wednesdays.
"I love it there," Sinclair said. "It is so much fun."
She said she learned about the youth group last summer while attending a camp sponsored by The Door in Bellwood. It was there that she met Pastor Micah Marshall and his wife, Bethany, who lead New Life's youth group, and they invited her to attend.
If you go
The Refuge meets at 6:30 p.m. Tuesdays at New Life Worship Center, 600 Ritz Road. Below is information for a special event:
What: Youth Encounter 2012
When: 6:30 to 9 p.m. services on Aug. 20, 22 and 24; games on Aug. 21 and 23. Music by Christian artist Joshua Brown.
Where: New Life Worship Center
For a ride: Call 949-9282
She said before The Refuge, "I had heard about God but never went to church or anything. I knew who he was, but tried to blow it off. It was like, he's there, whatever."
Now, "God is amazing in every way," Sinclair said.
She said she likes The Refuge because a lot of teens attend, and she continues to meet new people.
"Everyone accepts you for who you are," she said. "They don't judge you."
"I have lifelong friends here. People I can talk to [about issues]. Bethany and I talk a lot and I like Pastor Micah's messages. They are awesome."
The Marshalls have been serving at New Life Worship Center for about 1 years. Micah, 25, originally from Pittsburgh, earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in biblical theology from Zion Bible College in Haverhill, Mass.
Bethany, 25, originally from Fredericksburg, Va, is a graduate of Valley Forge Christian College with a degree in pastoral counseling.
In addition to assisting Micah, she is a counselor for Blair Family Solutions, Altoona.
Bethany said she and Micah have the same vision.
"We want to see teens' lives changed, that they have a desire to live their lives the way Jesus lived his and to reach their full potential," she said.
When the Marshalls arrived in April 2011, Micah said about 30 teens attended youth group and it grew to about 50 in a few months. When summer came, he noticed that a lot of the teens were hanging out at vacation Bible school.
"They wanted to be part of something," he said. "Teens are forgotten. Give them something to do and they will do it. A lot of them are bored."
Seeing teens at Bible school gave him the idea to provide a weeklong activity for students in sixth grade through senior high. He called it Youth Encounter and encouraged the teens to invite their friends to a mix of messages and games. Participation tripled.
Micah plans to make Youth Encounter an annual event and a second one is scheduled for 6:30 to 9 p.m. Monday through Aug. 24.
"A lot of our kids have never been to church," Micah said.
"In this culture, you have to make Jesus and church appealing," he said. "You have to have a creative way of showing Jesus' love."
"If you study the life of Jesus, who did he hang around?" Micah asked. "The outcasts, the people no one associated with. If we see Jesus doing that, we should be accepting of those all around us."
Teens in the group come from a variety of backgrounds and experiences, including those who profess homosexuality, are teen moms or have experimented with drugs.
Many arrive for the regular Tuesday Refuge gatherings on three buses that pick teens up in Altoona and Tyrone. Others come from Warriors Mark, Bellwood and Hollidaysburg.
For the teen moms, The Refuge offers a nursery with volunteers caring for up to seven babies on a given night.
About 15 to 16 adult volunteers work with Micah and Bethany to build relationships with the teens.
They pray with them and sometimes engage the teens in one-on-one discussions or the Marshalls provide counseling.
In addition to prayer, Micah's messages seem to resonate with the teens.
"The way Pastor Micah would be preaching. ... It really got to me. It brought me closer to God," said Hunter Myers, 17, of Altoona who has made a commitment to follow Christ.
Hunter said he has grown up without a father and always wanted his own way. He said he realized his life was missing something, then a friend invited him to The Refuge.
"I love to hear him preach," said Cassie Garman, 16, of Altoona,who has been involved in the youth program for four years.
"He got through to me. I'm completely different," said 17-year-old Makayla Hite, of Altoona who said she and Micah did not see eye to eye a year ago.
The teens may be comfortable relating to Micah because he is only a few years older than them. But there may be another reason.
Although he was the son of a pastor, Micah said he was rebellious growing up.
"I was a typical preacher's kid. I went rogue," he said.
He said he would tell his parents he was going to spend the night at a friend's house, but instead he would hang out on Pittsburgh's streets with kids from troubled homes.
"I liked to go to parties and be the center of attention," Micah said. "I drank a lot and stayed where I was [until he sobered up]. I did everything parents tell you not to do."
Micah said he did things because he wanted to do them.
"I would see my friends having fun. I did not like to be controlled. I wanted to do my own thing," he said.
"I also had this warped concept that to live in sin is OK because God understands. He does understand but that does not make it right. Because of my past, I can understand a lot."
(Tabitha Goodling, a freelance writer for the Mirror, contributed to this story.)