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Lake Tahoe

BSU summer missionaries introduce children to the spirit of Christ


TAHOE CITY, Calif. — Barrett Fantozzi knew she had made a difference in a child’s life when she overheard the kindergarten student telling his parents that he wanted to attend church next Sunday. His mother honored his request and when the day rolled around, there they stood as first-time visitors at First Baptist Church.

But it wasn’t their one-and-only visit, she stresses. The mother and son have returned for repeat visits as they become comfortable with other visitors and learn about the gospel through the church staff and Georgia Baptist summer missionaries like Fantozzi.

“You never know how much a five- or six-year-old little boy is listening to you during Big A Club or other summer activities. It’s hard to know when children are giving you their full attention or just daydreaming.

“But when you learn that one of them can quote a Bible verse word for word to their parent, you feel like you’ve planted a seed not only in that life but in the life of that family,” the December graduate of the University of Georgia explains.

This summer Fantozzi became one of a long line of alumni of summer missionaries who have ministered with Debbie Wohler and the staff at the church just blocks from Lake Tahoe. It’s a ministry that could not happen without volunteers from around the country, and through which Georgians have played a prominent role for nearly 30 years.

“We literally could not exist without the help of volunteers,” Wohler explains. “They come from around the nation and work around the year and around the clock, and Georgia has been one of our strongest supporters.”

During summer months Baptist Student Union summer missionaries such as Fantozzi, Sarah Ballew of Suches, and Jessica Johnson of Augusta work long hours through an extensive ministry with children. They lead crafts, teach Bible stories, and model Christian values to many who have never been in church.

They are seed sowers who make it possible for others to reap a harvest.

Wohler knows the value of their traveling from Georgia to California for a few months of ministry. While there is some time set aside for sightseeing, most of their days are spent in labor-intensive ministry that sometimes don’t end until 10 p.m.

“I attended a recent state evangelism conference and heard an interesting statistic from the Barna Research Group. We were told that most people die with the belief system they had at age 13.

“That convinced me, more than ever, of the value of our ministry with children. If we don’t lay the groundwork today, what foundation will these boys and girls have as they enter their teen years? It’s too late then to get them thinking about attending church; the die has been set.

“Our problem is not the darkness that encompasses the world; it’s doing exactly what it’s supposed to do. The problem is what are we doing to dispel the darkness,” she added.

That’s where the summer missionaries come into the picture. Eighty percent of those in Tahoe City are unchurched, and the population of the resort community is very transient. Many come only for vacation, and others work two or three jobs in order to live in the scenic area. That means they don’t have much discretionary income for childcare. And that’s where First Baptist Church has carved out a spiritually profitable niche.

On a recent hot summer day, Ballew, who attends Dahlonega Baptist Church when she’s home from Berry College, took a break from a beanbag game to rest in the shade.

“Every student should have a summer missions experience. If they are not comfortable with going overseas they can find a lot of opportunities right here at home.

“This has taught me just how important it is to be sensitive to God’s call and to respond to that call. I’m ready and waiting to hear from Him what He wants me to do with my life, and I feel that this is helping to prepare me to be open to that call.”

Johnson credits the BSU at Georgia Southern University, where she is enrolled, at introducing her to the idea of serving as a summer missionary.

“I had heard a lot of missionaries speak to our group during the past year and I saw how God was able to use their availability. That taught me that I had an obligation to make myself available to whatever He wanted me to do.”

That’s why she was playing games with children on a recent July afternoon at the church. About 130 children crowded the church parking lot for a carnival as cars drove lazily by, some slowing down to observe the activity.

That fit perfectly into Wohler’s strategy.


‘Hey, church can be fun.’

“We are praying that people driving by will see all this activity and think to themselves, ‘Hey, church can be fun. I thought it was just about rules.’”

Once that stereotype is broken, some parents bring their children for a day or two and, if they have a good experience, they slowly begin to attend on a regular basis.

“We have 675 families on our mailing list, many because we reached them through our children’s ministry. To be on the mailing list means they came to at least one church event during the past year where they felt comfortable with registering with us,” she explained.

“That gives us a list to pray over – to pray for the parents as well as the children – that they will be open to God’s leading in their lives and will be open to become a part of our fellowship.”

And when they do come, summer and semester missionaries like Fantozzi, Ballew, and Johnson will be there to minister to them and help them learn more about the love of Christ.

Joe Westbury

At the start of each day children gather to sing songs and repeat Bible verses they had memorized from the previous day.

Joe Westbury

Sarah Ballew guides a group of children up a steep hill near the church for a view of Lake Tahoe and a round of Bible stories.

Joe Westbury

Children from Tahoe City homes gather around the foot of the cross overlooking Lake Tahoe as Georgia BSU summer missionaries tell Bible stories. For many of the children it is their first introduction to the story of Jesus.

Joe Westbury

December University of Georgia graduate Barrett Fantozzi entertains some of the 130 children attending a carnival at First Baptist Church. After the event the children gather in groups to learn about the life of Christ.

Joe Westbury

Jessica Johnson, a member of New Life Baptist Church in Augusta, holds a child during an afternoon story telling session during Big A Club. Johnson was dressed with pipe-cleaner eyeglasses during the Nerd Day emphasis.

Joe Westbury

Children take their turns fishing for prizes as summer missionary Sarah Ballew of Suches oversees the activity.

Joe Westbury

Longtime missionary Debbie Wohler, jointly appointed through the California Southern Baptist Convention and the North American Mission Board, has been working with Georgia summer missionaries for more than two decades. Georgia has been sending missionaries to the church for almost 30 years.