A Christian Liberal Arts University, Est. 1846

A playground for Betsy: Taylor's ReaLife ministry builds a playground for the Boys and Girls Club and children of Marion, Ind.

  • By: Meredith Sell
  • Published: Jun 2, 2015 3:45PM
Alexa and Landon do ReaLife for the kids.

A van loaded with Taylor students and elementary school children rolls down a pot-holed street in Marion, Ind. It’s late afternoon on a Tuesday in May, and the van is one of five headed to the Boys and Girls Club of Grant County. There, the van will unload and—though the sun is shining and the weather’s warm—everyone will head inside for four hours of fun on the gym floor, along with a meal and Bible lesson.

Landon Stuart ’16 and Alexa Ross ’18 are inside the Boys and Girls Club, making final preparations for ReaLife, a weekly ministry run entirely by Taylor students. They’ve been talking with the Boys and Girls Club leadership. Someday—hopefully soon—coming to the Boys and Girls Club on a beautiful day won’t have to mean playing indoors.

Every Tuesday since his freshman year, Landon has come to the Boys and Girls Club for ReaLife. He got involved in order to step out of his comfort zone and, since sophomore year, has served as ReaLife co-director. Alexa joined him in the role this spring.

Landon and Alexa have similar backstories: Landon lost his father during his freshman year of high school and, when Alexa was in middle school, her mother walked out of her life. Finding their ways through high school without the support and guidance of those figures was difficult. They both made a lot of mistakes—mistakes they believe could have been avoided if they’d had strong role models speaking truth into their lives.

Both Landon and Alexa feel called to be such role models to the kids they meet through ReaLife.

At a table in the Student Union this spring, Landon brought up a fourth grade boy named Michael* and then looked over at Alexa.

“Stop,” she said. “I will cry.”

Michael started coming to ReaLife for the first time this past year.

“He always for some reason has been very difficult,” Landon said.

“If you want him to go right, he’ll go left,” said Alexa, “but he is absorbing everything we’re saying . . . Every week I hear that he knows all the answers to the questions and he can repeat the Bible story back to you.”

One week, a second grade boy invited Landon to eat pancakes with him the next day at school. Confused by the request, Landon didn’t give an answer, yes or no. At the end of the night, after the children were brought home, the ReaLife staff met to debrief and Landon learned that the school was having an event the next day called Breakfast with Pops.

“I had to sit down and think about it,” Landon said. He was floored that the boy had asked him to go. 

The next morning, Landon got up and drove to Marion for breakfast. The little boy’s face lit up when he saw him—but he wasn’t the only one.

“[Michael] came up to me,” Landon said. “He was smiling—he was the happiest guy to see me.”

“Sometimes, I forget that we really are making a difference in these kids’ lives, and I’m just concerned with making sure they all stay in the gym,” Alexa said. “The kids are the reason we do it.”

The kids were the reason for Elizabeth “Betsy” Smith ’06, too. Betsy came to Taylor from Decatur, Ill., where she was heavily involved in everything at her small, Christian high school. When she moved on campus freshman year, she began wrestling with what God’s purpose was for her here.

Then she got involved in ReaLife and fell in love with the kids.

“She had pretty much found her . . . passion,” said Jeanie Smith, Betsy’s mother.

One year, Betsy took her parents to the neighborhoods where her ReaLife kids lived.

“She drove real slow,” Jeanie said. “I think she was thinking some of the kids would be out in the yard—and sure enough, our car was literally swarmed with kids.”

They surrounded the car, yelling Betsy’s name, badgering her with questions.

Because of those kids, Betsy started making plans to move to Marion after graduation.

But on April 26, 2006, Betsy was killed with four other members of Taylor’s community in the Taylor van accident that received national attention.

“She went from Taylor to Heaven,” Jeanie said.

That fall, friends of the Smiths, Theresa and Don Miller, organized the first Betsy Smith 5K in Decatur. Theresa got the idea while running a half-marathon not long after Betsy’s death.

“I was thinking about all the places she supported and worked at, and all the kids she was involved with,” Theresa said. The 5K could support those groups in Betsy’s honor.

The first year, all of the 5K’s funds went to ReaLife. Every year since, the ministry has received at least a third of the money raised, averaging between $4,000 and $5,000 each year. ReaLife has used the funds to offset expenses like transportation and food and Christmas gifts for ReaLife kids, but outside of that has done little with the money.

“What they were giving was more than what we were using,” Alexa said, “so it gave us this chunk of money that we [decided], we should do something with this.”

Last fall, Landon and his former co-director Carolyn Clark ’15 started thinking about what they could do with the extra money. They wanted to give back to the Boys and Girls Club in some way—every week, ReaLife uses the Boys and Girls Club for no charge and club leadership assist ReaLife staff in a variety of ways.

Once ReaLife confirmed they could use the money for a project, they asked club leadership what they needed. Amy Miles, the Boys and Girls Club Program Director, requested a playground.

The Boys and Girls Club of Grant County seeks to be a safe, positive place for kids to learn and grow. It provides tutoring, character development, and athletic programs, but all of these happen indoors—regardless of the weather.

“We can’t leave with 125 kids and go to a park,” said Julie Cline, the club’s Chief Professional Officer.

The Elizabeth “Betsy” Smith Playground will be just outside the club’s facility on 3402 S. Meridian Street in Marion, enabling the club to have lunches, programs, and games outside. Tuesday afternoons during the school year, ReaLife will also be able to use it.

The groundwork is being laid. All of the fencing, equipment, and labor is paid for. August 31, 2015, the first Monday of the fall semester, Taylor students will load up in Taylor vans and head to the club for a community build.

“[ReaLife] allows students who are at Taylor to put some feet on their ideals,” Jeanie said. “[Betsy] would be so thrilled that something tangible is being done to bless the kids of that community.”

This fall, the final Betsy Smith 5K will be held on September 26, starting at St. Mary’s Hospital in Decatur, Ill. To find out more visit thebetsyrun.com.


*Name has been changed.