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Thurston, his mother, brother, and sister all endured violent physical abuse from a family member during the first five years of Thurston’s life. While he experienced trauma being beaten, Thurston says watching abuse toward relatives caused even deeper emotional wounds. Lessons taught to him by his mother about the love of God kept him going.
During his high school sophomore year, Thurston became acquainted with Young Life, a ministry aimed at reaching kids from junior high through college with the love of Christ via intentional relationships with adults. The experience profoundly changed the direction of his life. Thurston quickly became friends with the Young Life leader and began to make connections that would spark a new fire in his spiritual life.
From then on, Thurston set a goal of becoming the first in his family to graduate from a four-year college, with his sole intent to be a Young Life area director.
Thurston graduated from the University of Arizona in 2012 and began serving as a Young Life volunteer in Tucson. He eventually moved to Princeton, New Jersey, with his wife, Stephanie. He met Stephanie through Young Life in 2004 and they wed in 2012.
Thurston connected with Rob Hankins, the Young Life regional director, who told him about a need at Ewing High School in the heart of an economically struggling community. The vice principal of the school welcomed Thurston with open arms in 2014.
“When we met, he just started calling kids out of class to come down to his office and meet me,” says Thurston, 36. “That’s actually how I connected with the first students at the school.”
Before long, Thurston realized the Young Life Club needed a place of its own to meet. In 2015, God divinely opened doors that connected Thurston to Frank Lovero, associate pastor of Pennington Assembly of God. Lovero offered Thurston use of the church’s youth space to hold Young Life Club meetings and events.
“I had worked with Young Life before and know what an incredible job they do of getting kids in a position to hear the gospel who would not otherwise come to church,” says Lovero. “There is a huge need for programs like that, so we were excited to support them in any way that we could.”
The collaboration has flourished into a ministry that has turned at-risk youth into community leaders. Thurston says two of the boys who originally started attending Young Life are now serving alongside him as leaders in the club.
“Casting a vision for communities that are depleted, full of crime, and impoverished to hear about God is at the core of what we do,” Thurston says. “When churches in communities catch our vision and reach out with us the way Pennington Assembly of God did, the mission and the movement become unstoppable.”
The club has grown exponentially and now runs up to 60 kids on any given night. Pennington Assembly of God provides meeting space, plus a basketball hoop, sound stage, and use of the church’s café to help Thurston’s ministry thrive.
Pennington Assembly, which averages 150 attendees on Sundays, has been a crucial part in ministering to the community through this strategic partnership.
“My goal is to continue to cast a vision for neighborhoods like Ewing and get them connected with community resources, like Pennington Assembly, so that they are sustainable far after I’m gone,” Thurston says.