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Harrison minister emphasizes youth work

| Monday, Feb. 21, 2005

HARRISON -- When Robert Cameron Malcolm IV - or Cam as he prefers to be called - had the opportunity to return to the Valley in 1987, it was with a mission.

"When I interviewed for the minister's position at Natrona Heights Presbyterian Church, I was one of 50 candidates," said Malcolm. "They wanted someone who would devote the time and energy necessary to reviving the youth group. And that is why I was hired."

While it was the time factor that other ministers did not want to accept - the average youth group worker only lasts a few weeks - Malcolm took up the challenge knowing full well there would be no instant gratification.

"It takes a lot of hands on work, and you have to stick to it over the long haul," said Malcolm. "You have to develop a trust factor, and that takes time."

Malcolm knew going into the task that he had several factors working in his favor.

"There are three things that really contribute to making this a success," said Malcolm. "First, the general congregation was in favor of the time I would have to spend with the youth group. Second, the church was very supportive and provided the financial resources necessary. And third, there have always been a lot of very capable people helping. That is extremely important because nobody can do this alone."

While there have been literally hundreds of people who have helped during the past 14 years, Malcolm said one person stepped up right away, giving the youth program instant credibility.

"My predecessor's son, Doug Deemer, helped me right away, and that was extremely important," said Malcolm.

A 1973 graduate of Highlands High School, Malcolm subsequently went to Westminster College where he graduated in 1977. Four years later he graduated from the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and became the minister at the First Presbyterian Church of Bentleyville for six and one-half years before coming to Natrona Heights.

Though it was only his second church, Malcolm plunged into the task head first.

"I started on Aug 17, and four weeks later we had our first youth group meetings," said Malcolm.

Though there only a handful of junior and senior high students in that initial group, Malcolm was not discouraged.

"Initially it was small and remained so for a few years," recalled Malcolm. "In that first year we averaged almost five junior high kids and ten senior high kids at each meeting."

Malcolm said his approach to reaching out to youth has always been the same.

"We play hard and we study hard," said Malcolm. "We have a lot of fun, but we also get serious."

Over the years, through determination and maintaining the course, Malcolm saw his efforts bear fruit for the church.

"By the tenth year, we had an average of 26 kids in the junior high group and 27 in the senior high," said Malcolm. "It was just basically very slow and steady."

Today the group borders on being large with more than 100 kids in each of the groups (though many do not attend regular meetings).

Sunday evening youth group meetings can be a mix of fun, entertainment-type activities coupled with serious Bible study and discussion.

"There are nights when we might just have a game night, and there are others we devote to discussing teen issues or just Bible discussion," said Malcolm.

Even on game nights there is a larger purpose. For example, anybody who comes to game night might have to make a small contribution that will go to one of the group's favored beneficiaries, ranging from the local food bank to sending Bibles overseas to sponsoring an orphan's literacy school in Haiti.

Mission work - whether it be working for Habitat for Humanity, collecting food for the food bank, or going on a one-week retreat - plays a central role in teaching and learning.

And all those activities produce very tangible results for the community and others. Last year for the food bank alone, the youth raised $4,500 along with 2,600 food items.

While the group may be young, Malcolm said he teaches them the same as he does adults.

"I never teach down to them, or dumb-down the material," said Malcolm. "They would know that."

Despite the years of success, keeping the program vital and getting kids involved is still something that does not come easily. Malcolm and the youth group have to compete against a host of diversions and activities including sports, after school jobs and even video games.

"There are so many other activities for kids these days, especially in high school," said Malcolm.

"We have a lot of kids who may only come a few times a year because they have so much going on in their lives," said Malcolm. "I hear it all the time that they are running almost every night of week doing one thing or another, and that Sunday night is their only night to relax."

While the mix of activities varies from year-to-year, the same approach - plus his steadfast presence and support of the youth - have earned him something that has been critical to the ultimate success of the program: the trust and respect of both the young people and the congregation at large.

Additional Information:

Robert Cameron Malcolm IV

Age: 50.

Hometown: Natrona Heights .

Family: Wife Laurie, son Cameron V.

Favorite thing about the Valley: 'The people here are extremely genuine and can be very compassionate.'

Motto for the Valley: 'My motto would be the same as it is for our youth group. We play hard and we study hard.'

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