June 6, 2010 was a day of celebration. The program year had been concluded at St. Timothy’s and we’d celebrated with a wonderful church picnic. Summer vacations were being planned and the atmosphere was relaxed.
But that evening the phones started to go crazy: Drennen O’Melia, one of the most popular boys in our Junior High Youth Group, had drowned at a birthday party. It just didn’t seem real—he was the best swimmer in his class. How could he be gone just like that?
Our Rector and Youth Director began working non-stop with the O’Melias, their neighbors, and the kids who were close to Drennen. There really wasn’t much that could be done, but their presence and prayers meant a lot. The next evening we had a prayer vigil at the church and over 500 people attended—that’s when we knew that the whole community needed us.
Later that week a nearby mega-church was packed for the funeral—we created a sacred space on the stage and used the BCP Burial liturgy. The tears and laughter of the participants (as well as their comments afterwards) told us that we found ways to celebrate Drennen’s life, lift up our broken hearts to God, and proclaim a message of hope. More than two hundred kids in their athletic team shirts lined the cemetery walkway and threw flowers on the coffin. Christ’s healing Spirit was with us that day, and we were grateful to be together.
Ten years earlier, when St. Tim’s had moved to a larger facility on Dry Creek Road, the members had dreamed of reaching out to the youth of the large schools nearby. A series of suicides at Arapahoe High School got us moving, and in 2008 we made plans to re-purpose a group of rooms in our lower level for a Youth Center. The Youth Group moved out of their small, dark room and transformed it into a beautiful nursery, but the project stalled after that. When he reached junior high Drennen began bugging our Youth Director about the project, asking when it would be ready. His father (a building contractor) agreed to take on leadership, but we just couldn’t seem to get going.
Before leaving the emergency room that terrible night, our Rector and Youth Director looked at each other and knew that we would build our Youth Center in Drennen’s memory. A month later the Rector approached Drennen’s dad and asked permission to approach one of the other local contractors to take on leadership. “Nope,” Bill said. “I’m going to do this for my boy.”
That was easier said than done, but doors slowly started opening. One of our longtime members recruited an architect who pushed the plans through city approval. One of our members created beautiful conceptual drawings, and an engineering company stepped up to do drawings that were needed. One Sunday last year over 150 volunteers turned out to demolish the existing rooms—it was one of the most joyful and energetic events imaginable. Trucks and dumpsters were filled with materials, and when the day was finished a big, bright space had been opened up for the Youth Center.
St. Timothy’s Vestry scrutinized the plans and budget, approving the project “subject to funds available.” Bill O’Melia spoke passionately that night, promising that the work would be done right and that we’d never spend money that wasn’t in the bank. A professional fundraiser living in the neighborhood organized a campaign and contributions began to pour in. Families made sacrifices to make their donations and kids sold t-shirts to raise money. Our Youth Group members participated in a variety of ways, and soon we had enough to begin. Construction went slowly because we waited for in-kind donations at every step. In the end, community members donated over $100,000 in cash, materials, and professional services.
On June 6, 2012—two years to the day after Drennen’s death—four hundred people attended the ribbon-cutting for the D-Zone, our nickname for the new Youth Center. They had to park blocks away from the church, and adults and youth were seen hopping over the chain link fence to get closer to the action. The Rev. Canon Carl Andrews led the crowd in blessing their work and the new facility, and a great party ensued. On August 19 Bishop Rob O’Neill joined local leaders in a kickoff celebration, and the next week all the youth of the community were welcomed into the D-Zone’s programs.
Our hearts are still heavy with Drennen’s loss, but there’s no doubt how visibly and powerfully God has been at work in our midst. Redemption is taking place, and we are awestruck by the chance to join in God’s mission. Our dreams and the Spirit’s action have been united in a work of healing involving the whole community. We’re making our plans but really have no idea where all of this is going. All we can do is express our gratitude and keep showing up for the youth. Thanks be to God!