by Deb Seminary

1382824029glx79What happens when a teen gets in trouble, does some time in a correctional facility, then returns to society? Do they repeat the cycle or use the skills they learned ‘inside’ to change their ways?

Pastor Renee Splichal Larson along with her colleague Shera Nesheim are working to ensure more successes as teens re-enter their communities across the state. Larson has been the pastor at Heart River Lutheran Church in Mandan for almost five years.

The congregation has been concerned with the lack of community support for youth leaving the North Dakota Youth Correctional Center for many years. In November of 2011 they started getting serious, developed a program named ‘Heart River Bridges of Hope’ and had their first mentor pairing in November, 2012.

Mentor Power

“The mentors come from our church congregation, as well as from our community – primarily from churches, although it not a requirement they be a member of a church, just passionate about this demographic of young people,” explained Larson. “They are mostly from Bismarck and Mandan, however we have been doing some trainings across the state.”

Mentors help the teens in many ways, mainly by showing them that someone actually cares about them. They develop relationships and work to help the youth achieve their goals. “The primary thing people have to offer is time to build a relationship with a teen,” said Larson. “When people ask what this ministry needs most, I say we need people. Quilts and money are good, but people are great.”

Mentors must go through five hours of training. There is some paperwork they must fill out, as well as two different background checks.

“We are constantly changing the training, based on training we attend,” said Larson. “We heavily emphasize positive youth development and use the 40 Developmental Assets identified by the Search Institute. The whole foundation is ‘youth are not problems to be solved, but rather assets to be developed.’ All of them have unique gifts and when we foster assets in them, they are less likely to engage in high risk behavior.”

Some of the activities include a game night, and there is a garden on the campus. There can be one-on-one mentoring relationships, or there are team mentorships available, too.

How to Get Involved

A lot of people might not feel like they have anything to offer, or think a teen might not want to associate with them because they are too old or boring. “I like to tell people they don’t care about your age, as long as they know you care about them,” Larson said. “A lot of people can talk themselves out of being in a relationship with a teenager simply out of fear. There are barriers from both sides. Teens may be scared to talk with adults, as well. Both adults and teens are guilty of stereotyping and casting judgement. Once they get a chance to talk they usually find similarities and realize they are just a person. The young person has the power to change us as much as we have the power to change them.”

Larson would also like congregations to discern if this could be a part of their outreach ministries. “Congregations are a powerful force in their communities,” she said.

“I am really impressed with the teenagers I get to work with,” said Larson. “We recently had a drive to gather things for the Lutheran Social Services Refugee Resettlement Program. One of the boys asked me if I thought they could use a lamp. He had just made one in wood shop and wanted to donate it for one of the families. That was so impressive to me. Teenagers teach me things all of the time.”


For more information contact: Pastor Renee Splichal Larson 701.595.3961, or Shera Nesheim, Diaconal Minister 701.595.3962,

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