Jeff and Ashley Umbarger know Campus Life can do good things. It’s where they met.
The husband and wife duo have been leading the nonprofit, which provides wholesome activities and hangouts for teens, since September. But when they were teenagers themselves (Jeff grew up in Pendleton and Ashley grew up in Hermiston) they spent plenty of time in the blue metal-fabricated building across the street from Hermiston High School.
“It’s really cool that we’re here doing this, because there are so many stories we have here,” Jeff said.
Jeff moved away after high school, but when he came back years later he looked Ashley up on social media and couldn’t believe she was still single. After asking a mutual friend to make sure she really was available, he asked her out for a day of four-wheeling and fishing. The rest, as they say, is history.
Although they had initially followed different career paths, both felt called by God to work with youth. They eventually ended up running Jubilee Leadership Academy, a Christian boarding school for troubled boys in “the middle of nowhere” near Prescott, Washington.
The atmosphere there was different than Campus Life — it was all boys, who were being forced to be there. But Ashley said a lot of the experience she and Jeff got at Jubilee has helped them better relate to the teens that hang out at Campus Life.
“We had a lot of training relating to kids with a lot of hurts, habits and hang-ups,” she said.
Jeff said he learned to “look past the attitude” and realize that kids who were acting out were often doing so because something else was going on behind the scenes. Seeing former gang members from big cities get scared of coyotes or a rustling in the bushes helped him remember that even though they had seen a lot, they were still “just kids.” And there were students at Jubilee who started out trying to make his life miserable and later trusted him enough to confide about trauma they had experienced.
“You definitely have to have a heart for (working with teens),” he said. “You can’t just be doing it as a job.”
Now the Umbargers host high school night on Mondays and a newer middle school night on Tuesdays at the Campus Life building, plus take groups of teens out on weekends for snowboarding or rafting trips. They also open up the building after high school football and basketball games to give students a safe place to hang out together after the game.
On Monday, teens started to trickle in after 7 p.m. A group of boys and girls sat on a circle of couches, chatting, while one teen grabbed dinner from the snack shack and ate it while scrolling through his phone. Other groups gravitated toward air hockey or ping pong, and a few sophomore boys started a game of pool.
At the pool table, Connor Carr, Logan Ham and Nate King said Campus Life provided a safe place where they could hang out with friends without being under the watchful eyes of their parents.
“It’s nice to slow down on a Monday,” Nate said.
Logan said he liked that the Umbargers were cool and “not very strict.” There are also more activities to choose from at the Campus Life building than at friends’ houses.
Connor appreciated the Umbargers, too.
“They’re really chill and easy to talk to,” he said.
After free time on Mondays and Tuesdays, students usually gather for some ice-breaker games and a 20-minute message. The high school night usually attracts about 30 students and the middle school nights sometimes get as many as 50.
Campus Life is an independent nonprofit not run by a specific church, but it does have Christian overtones. Sometimes the talks at the end of the night discuss religious themes. Other times they show scenes from uplifting secular movies such as “Up,” then use it to discuss bullying, peer pressure or other topics relevant to high school and middle school students.
Jeff said Campus Life isn’t meant to replace church youth groups, and he and Ashley try to make sure they aren’t infringing on local church activities. But some students who would never set foot in a church are willing to come play pool with their friends and might hear a positive message about Christianity in the process.
Ashley said they are also planning on starting a Celebrate Recovery night on Thursdays that will help teens deal with addictions, bad habits and “hang-ups” they might have.
On Saturday, Campus Life is hosting a fundraiser dinner to support its mission. “The Gathering” will take place at 6 p.m. at the Hermiston Community Center, 415 S. Highway 395. Tickets are $20 per ticket or $140 for a table seating eight, and the event will include a silent auction, dinner and live music. For more information or to purchase tickets contact Ashley Umbarger at 541-969-1017.