“Everything has a story” has become a motto for Clarence Keesman ‘98, the executive director of The Refuge, a youth outreach and drop-in centre in Oshawa, Ont. Each day he encounters the stories of struggling youth and broken homes, but also the beautiful tapestry of stories in the Bible and the figure of Jesus.
The Refuge is a centre for at-risk and homeless youth between the ages of 16 and 24. About 500 youth come through the centre’s doors each year. There is a wide variety of programming: family-style meals, recreational activities, weekly Bible studies and assistance in finding employment and housing. “We’re a drop-in facility that’s so much more than a drop-in facility,” says Keesman. “Our real mission is to get that sense of community, of family. True healing is not doing things for each person, but walking alongside them like a godly parent would and helping them overcome their struggles and their brokenness. We’re just living life together — because, frankly, we’re all broken.”
One such program — known as “The Co-op” — offers youth the opportunity to develop the skills necessary to earn what they need. Youth work at the centre itself, or budget their own cash to purchase discounted hygiene items, coats, footwear and baby supplies — all of which have been donated to the centre. The youth gain a renewed sense of dignity, as they learn budgeting and time management skills, acquire work-related experience and encounter the success of providing for their own needs.
“We’re just living life together — because, frankly, we’re all broken.”
One Refuge alumnus, Keesman mentions, is going through some food security issues and is frightened of going to a food bank to ask for food. For the alumnus, it feels humiliating, and it could mean unwanted judgement from others. Keesman is going to meet the alumnus at a local soup kitchen to sit with him and eat, just as Jesus would. In the story of the ten lepers in Luke, one leper toucher Jesus for healing, but Jesus healed all ten of them anyways. Keesman believes this is how it should be with all of humanity, because we’re all made in God’s image. “Jesus was in the trenches,” he says. “He spent time with those who society deemed undesirable; he touched people physically with healing; he prepared meals for strangers. He just loved people.” Jesus’ actions are exactly what The Refuge is all about.
Keesman says his experiences at Redeemer steered him in the direction of The Refuge and the nonprofit sector — all with a healthy dose of providence, of course. “I always wanted to go into business because I wanted to ‘make God some money,’” says Keesman. A graduate of the Business and Sociology programs, he cuts right to the chase. Though family encouraged Keesman to attend a Christian university — Redeemer, specifically — it was more expensive than a college education and a little too close to home. Heading to North Bay to study business administration was a natural decision.
“It’s kind of a Jonah story,” he recalls. “I knew what God wanted me to do, but I didn’t want to do it.” During four months in North Bay the familiar words of Matthew 6:33 kept appearing, at youth group, during devotions and on the radio: “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Eventually, he knew he had to obey what God was calling him to do. He left North Bay that November and started at Redeemer the following January.
As Keesman describes the experience, stepping foot on campus for classes when the academic year was already halfway through was “absolutely terrifying.” He knew no one at the school besides his sister; most new students knew each other from the games nights, worship services and mudpit tug-of-wars of the fall semester’s orientation week. “My transition was actually smoother than it sounds,” he says. “Because of the setting of the dorms and the family-style environment, I developed relationships quickly. I attribute that directly to the on-campus atmosphere and structure of the dorms.” The tightknit atmosphere on campus is replicated on a smaller scale at The Refuge through communal dinners, recreation and a biblical focus.
“I feel privileged to work here, to be a part of this community and to have these relationships with these youth. I get to see Jesus every day.”
The classroom also played a part in Keesman’s formation. “I always thought that I would be a marketer, in a high-towered ad agency somewhere on Bay Street in Toronto, making a six-figure salary,” he says. Through Redeemer’s Business Co-op program, Keesman was placed at Missions Services Hamilton, where he worked as their marketing coordinator. “I ended up being streamed through the whole charitable, nonprofit field. I realized that the value of one’s work isn’t tied to the value of the dollars earned as much as it is to the lives you impact, the culture that you get to redeem and the service you can offer the Lord. My choice of employment, from thereon, has always been in the nonprofit sector because that’s where God has led and directed me.”
Now, as the director of a youth drop-in centre, Keesman’s responsibilities are extensive, but they aren’t as glitzy or glamorous as one might assume. One minute he’s doing financial work, another minute he’s socializing with the assortment of youth coming through the centre’s doors and the next he’s helping clean the centre’s bathrooms. His ultimate role is to be present and to pay attention to the youth that society doesn’t alway see. “It seems like it’s hard, but it’s easy,” he says. “I feel privileged to work here, to be a part of this community and to have these relationships with these youth.” Like in Matthew 25:38, Keesman says, “I get to see Jesus every day.”
As Keesman explains it, while he has his own to-do list, so does God. Many days are started with prayer as he discerns what God needs him to do each day. Often his task is as simple as interacting with whoever is in front of him. And, usually, this means another story for the books. Everything has a story, after all.