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Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from It Happens: True Tales from the Trenches of Youth Ministry, edited by Will Penner.
by Sara Bailey
When I was at my second youth ministry job, I thought I knew it all. Here I was, this southern gal who moved to the great, white northeast where on my third day, the blizzard of the century (at least, that’s what they called it on the news) came through blanketing my world with 30 inches of snow. This would mark the beginning of what I call my “learning” church experience.
That first year, a family in the congregation graciously offered their second home in Manchester, Vermont, as a place to stay for a youth group ski trip. I was a little skeptical that their home could house a large group of kids, let alone all the ski equipment that would come with us. Not one to turn down a gift, though, I accepted their offer without too many questions in the hopes that all would turn out okay.

Mistake #1: Not thoroughly checking out the accommodations.

Catherine (the teenage daughter) assured me there were enough beds for everyone, because they had a large family. This home, while beautiful, was older and had many of the characteristics of an old home: few bedrooms, small bathrooms, and a tiny kitchen. We ended up with rather sensitive plumbing issues, having to space out the water usage; for example: no showers while cooking in the kitchen, and two people couldn’t flush the toilet at the same time. Fortunately there were no plumbing disasters that weekend. All of the girls ended up in a bed, though, and we had enough floor room for the guys. In the end, the house was a blessing, allowing for great fun, gathering, worshiping, eating, and snoozing.
Lesson learned, though: check out the accommodations more thoroughly next time.
The Friday night of our departure, it began to snow. My immediate instinct was to cancel the trip because it wasn’t safe to drive in the snow. I was wrong and was quickly reminded that roads and highways are cleared much more quickly in the north than in the south where everything shuts down at the mere mention of snow. So we waited a few hours to let the heaviest snow pass through. Then we hit the road around 10 p.m. for our six-hour journey.

Mistake #2: Driving all night with very little sleep.

I can recall having a death grip on the steering wheel of one of the 15-passenger vans we had rented (back in the day when that was allowed). For the first few hours, it was still snowing and I was praying hard to avoid falling asleep or getting into an accident. My prayers were answered around the time we crossed the state line into New York: the snow stopped, and the Diet Coke kicked in.
Even though we arrived safely at our destination, it was four in the morning when we got there, and we had planned to hit the slopes at 8 a.m. Sleep deprivation, while common in youth ministry, is not a good thing for the person in charge. I never operated well on little sleep (and still don’t). And I had started the trip already tired from all the preparation and running around at the last minute to be ready to take the group skiing. We adjusted the wake up time to leave the house at 10 a.m. Ugh!
By the time I wound down from the all the Diet Coke I had drunk to stay awake, I got less than three hours of sleep. I can remember being irritable, cranky, and extremely bossy that day. Those who crossed my path in what might be perceived as a negative way got their heads bitten off. This was one of those times the group was led by “Psycho Sara” rather than “Sweet Sara.” It was not my best moment. My hope is that the teens and adults will have forgiven me by now for being such a witch.
Lesson learned: Try, try, try hard to be well-rested before a youth trip; otherwise, poor leadership and decision-making reigns.

Mistake #3: No adult supervision.

The day went well at the slopes: perfect snow pack and relatively short ski lift lines. At the end of the day, we headed home for some grub and warm clothes. The teens were rejuvenated after a scrumptious spaghetti dinner, so Catherine suggested the group go sledding on a nearby hill. All of the youth bundled up and scooted out the door. It didn’t even occur to me that an adult wasn’t with the group. In my sleep-depleted, post-dinner haze, I didn’t bother to ask Catherine exactly where they were going.
For about 20 minutes, there was peace and quiet in the house. Then, Catherine came crashing in the door frantically telling me that Jack had been hurt. I grabbed my coat and raced outside in search of Jack. We met him and the rest of the group about halfway between the sledding hill and the house. I took one look at Jack and knew he needed medical assistance. Jack had been at the bottom of the hill, still reeling from the ride down, when another teen named Ben came down the slope on an old-fashioned sled—the kind with metal rails they probably don’t make anymore. Ben lost control of the sled, Jack couldn’t get out of the way fast enough, and they collided. The metal rail had slammed into Jack’s face leaving him with a broken nose and a gash that went from the middle of his left cheek, up the side of his nose, crossing over his nose up between his eyebrows, curving around the eyebrow and ending at that spot just between his eye and the bridge of his nose. It was the shape of jagged shepherd’s crook.
Lesson learned: Having an adult present may not have prevented the accident from happening, but an adult could have assessed the injury quickly and managed the crisis. I found out later that the teens really didn’t think it was that bad (it was dark, and there was only moonlight for illumination), so they took Jack to the nearest bathroom, which happened to be at the Equinox Hotel—a fancy, historic hotel that my youth group couldn’t afford. Apparently they were there trying to stop the bleeding for a bit before they realized that Jack needed medical attention.

Mistake #4: Not having a first aid kit readily available and not knowing where the nearest medical facility was located.

We took Jack back to the house and tried to find adequate bandaging for the short-term. There wasn’t much of anything since I didn’t think to bring a first aid kit with us. So we grabbed a bunch of towels, jumped in the van, and Catherine directed us to the nearest medical facility that she knew of. It was closed. Many phone calls later, we finally discovered that we needed to drive an hour to reach the closest hospital. In the meantime, Jack was coherent, able to talk to his parents on the phone, and hanging in there on what seemed like the longest drive ever. In the end, he got treatment and left six hours later with 30+ stitches, a broken nose, a black eye, and a swollen face. To this day, I thank God that the injury wasn’t worse. The doctor told us numerous times how lucky Jack was; he easily could have lost his eye.
Lesson learned: Be prepared for medical emergencies (or any emergency). Even with an adult present with the sledding group, the accident was probably not preventable. But we could have been better prepared and equipped to deal with it. Always take a first aid kit. Have properly filled out medical forms. Know where the nearest medical facility is located and if it’s open 24 hours.

In Retrospect

As I reflect back on this incident 15 years later, I see that the trip started with some small mistakes but ended with some big ones. I am thankful: that Jack wasn’t hurt more seriously; that Jack’s parents were very understanding and grateful for us taking care of their son; that all the parents trusted me and the adult leaders with the care of their children; and that we all made it home in one piece, albeit a little banged up.
I have now learned:

  • Seek…for answers to all my questions in preparing for any youth event.
  • Sleep…it is imperative to be well-rested in order to make sound decisions.
  • Supervision…always, always, have an adult (preferably two) present with the youth wherever they are.
  • Safety…above all; ensure the physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual safety of the lives entrusted to me.

Questions to Consider

Thinking back through the basics, what could I do to be better prepared for some of the inevitable things that will happen on trips?
Have I done due diligence concerning all aspects of the trip, including site visits where possible, prior to the group’s arrival?
In what ways can I mitigate damages from unexpected problems that will crop up so they don’t build up momentum in a mistake snowball?
Sara Bailey has been in youth ministry since 1993 serving Episcopal churches in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania. She is a ministry consultant and speaker in the Diocese of North Carolina, and she serves nationally as a lead consultant for Youth Ministry Architects. Sara lives in Greensboro with her husband, Geoff; their daughter, Madison; and their two dogs, Kyah and Sadie.