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Michigan Church Transforms Cadet Program into Outreach


On a dark and stormy Monday night in February, the Cadet building at Fuller Avenue Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., is a hive of “organized chaos.”

Jerry Van Veen observes as Cadets smooth their pinewood derby cars on the power sander.

Noah Kruis

Under the supervision of eight veteran counselors, elementary- and middle school-age boys drill into wood that will be assembled as camp stools, sand and spray-paint pinewood derby cars, and practice archery in the attic.

“I like to make cars,” said Blessing Htoo, 10, who came from Myanmar as a refugee with his family.

Htoo and his brother are the only two of 16 regular attendees who are members of the church. The others are all children from the neighborhood who have become connected to the ministry.

“The change was subtle over the years,” said head counselor Dale Rietberg, who has been part of the program for over a decade. When he started, every boy who attended was a part of a family that belonged to the church. “The Cadets keep me coming back. They are so enthusiastic. They learn from us and we learn from them. It is great to see the pride that they’ve made something themselves.”

Sermar, 11, is one of them. “I learned how to make stuff out of wood like pinewood derby cars and birdhouses,” he said.

“It is like a little break after school,” added Breylen, 11. “It is fun and active instead of staying at home and playing video games.”

The results aren’t always readily apparent. Rietberg recalled a neighborhood Cadet who was “nothing but trouble.” His grandmother frequently had to pick him up in the middle of the program because of behavioral challenges. “We were kind of glad to see him go,” said Rietberg.

Years later, though, the young man showed up at church on a Sunday morning in a shirt and tie to invite his counselors to his high school graduation open house.

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