Russ Smith is the founder of SOAR Youth ministries and a Kaleo who has brought kids to Kids Across America for twenty years. Two powerful questions led him to cross paths with Kids Across America and ultimately changed his life forever. One question happened when he ran a 10K. He could barely feel his legs as he ran a seven-minute mile pace in the race. As his friend ran beside him, they kept each other’s minds off the grueling run by asking questions.
One particular question weighed down Russ’ thoughts: how long have you had a personal relationship with Jesus. Russ did not know. He had never thought much about a personal relationship with a living God. He read the Bible and went earnestly to church on Sundays, and Russ considered himself a religious, good, and moral person. But now that the question presented itself before him, he realized he had never repented of his sins or trusted in the saving power of Jesus. In that moment, Russ allowed God to charge a defibrillator and resuscitate him. As physically dead as he felt after running the race, Mr. Smith was now a regenerated and spiritually alive man.
The second question was asked when Mr. Smith was in an unfortunate boating accident. Russ was enjoying a day on the lake with friends. While driving, Russ turned around to check on his friend that had fallen in the boat. In that split second, Mr. Smith collided with a comber. He was immediately ejected out of the boat and plunged into the lake. When he surfaced, Mr. Smith noticed that his friend was in the water, too. They both seemed to be fine, but the unmanned boat was circling toward them like a great white shark. The propeller blades cut his friend’s arm, snipping off his wedding ring and tearing into flesh straight through the bone. Feeling helpless, Russ yelled as loudly as his lungs would permit. A nearby neighbor heard his cries for help and came to rescue them. As his friend was rushed to the emergency room, the second question came to Russ: God, is there is something you want me to do? If so, what is it?
His answer came from an unexpected source: the classic 90s movie The Mighty Ducks. The film follows the story of a lawyer who reluctantly coaches a misfit hockey team. But instead of hockey, God called Russ to coach soccer. He organized a soccer team that became an overnight success and kids could not wait to be part of his program. The success was great, but it began to take its toll on Mr. Smith as he grew tired of the routine and busyness of it all. One day, the boys on the soccer team did not show up for practice. Frustrated, Russ retreated to his car and sat in his car in the parking lot waiting. Why was he even coaching soccer? He didn’t feel qualified, and he was confused why God would choose to keep using him. He wasn’t a social worker or a counselor, and it’s not like there weren’t better people than him for the job. A Bible lay in the passenger seat. Mr. Smith picked it up, randomly fluttered through it, and landed on Matthew 18:10. “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.” The words on the page were like a splash of cold water to Russ’ face. He shook with conviction. God had encouraged him, and he knew what to do.
The boys had missed practice because they were competing in a championship basketball game. Russ turned on his car’s engine and drove to the rec center to watch them play. The parking lot was nearly empty—only four cars, and two were police vehicles. This was the championship game, right? He went into the center to watch the game and found a seat on the bleachers. Someone sat down beside him. It was one of his boys who had wandered over to keep him company. Soon, another one of his soccer players joined them. They were waiting for their turn to play in the game, but while they waited, they wanted to wait with their coach, Russ. The boys didn’t say anything, but their presence was a reminder that Russ had an impact, and his impact mattered.
As Russ watched the game, he thought about his next steps. The kids didn’t necessarily need more sports teams, they needed support. He wanted to see kids strive in education and in life. He wanted them to soar beyond statistics and stereotypes, and, ultimately, he wanted them all to know the saving power of Jesus Christ. He knew his next step would be to start a ministry. Russ no longer saw Knoxville as a soccer field, but as a mission field where he could creatively share the gospel through education and recreational and spiritual means.
Russ Smith created SOAR Youth Ministries. Mr. Smith recruited volunteers for his program by visiting local Sunday school classes and sharing the mission and vision of serving and reconciling the community. As a non-profit, the ministry serves over 1,000 youth supported by up to 300 volunteers in a 15,000 square foot facility located directly across the street from the local elementary school. The summer program consists of integrated reading, education, choir, and various clubs, but he wanted to do a little something else, too.
That’s when he heard about Kids Across America. Russ visited a ministry in Memphis who just happened to be sending their youth to KAA, and Bruce Morgan, now KAA’s CEO, was across the hall recruiting staff. Then, Mr. Smith heard a radio where Focus on the Family was interviewing Joe White. This was a clear sign to him that Week 7 of the summer program, he would bring kids to camp.
Twenty years later, the tradition continues as Russ Smith brings campers to Kids Across America each summer. SOAR is now a year-round program, and when the need arose, the city donated computers to the ministry. Russ has not regretted his calling. Instead, he his delighting in obedience to the Lord. Reminding himself of that moment in his car in the empty parking lot, Mr. Smith planted his mustard seed of faith in the ground, and God watered and fertilized the seed that is still producing growth twenty years later. It is amazing what God will do when people are just a little obedient.