And it all started with a bus
Sometimes, to change the world, all you have to do is learn to drive a bus.
At least, that’s how it worked for Nevada City resident Jim Mills, 67, who has led a youth group called Campus Life out of his home off Bitney Springs Road since 1980. Every Tuesday school is in session, the property floods with high school students.
This week, well over a hundred came.
“God called me to be a school bus driver,” Jim Mills said. He was good at his job, according to his wife Anita – supervisors asked him to train other bus drivers because he never had behavior problems with his passengers.
But he saw a bigger purpose than merely shuttling children to class and back.
It gave him the chance to build relationships with the youngsters.
Mills’ Christian faith was always central in his life; from the time he was a young man, he taught Sunday school classes. He wanted to find a place for the students he shuttled to find God – some place outside the steeple-and-stained-glass setting of a church.
New to Nevada County, he soon learned about Campus Life, a small youth group for high school students based on the national Youth For Christ organization.
Shortly after he started inviting youth to Campus Life, the director left. Reluctantly, Mills took the lead.
Thus began a family legacy that’s heading into the third generation.
“It’s been a ministry to reach out to kids who didn’t have much going for them,” said his son, Scott Mills.
The “Mills Compound,” as it’s affectionately called, comprises the homes of Jim and Anita Mills, son Scott and daughter-in-law Allison Mills, and daughter Trisha Johnson and son-in-law Steve Johnson.
It’s a homey, verdant plot, with a bright red barn-like building near an open pasture. The 7 p.m. gatherings there draws teenagers of all stripes.
A recent gathering included hulking football players with buzz cuts, bespectacled bookish types and a few students sunk into the soft couches of the barn-top multipurpose room, their faces labored with some unspoken teenage anguish.
“You have kids who would never talk to each other, and they talk to each other here,” said Allison Mills. “That’s the most amazing thing.”
Before the evening began, students burst through the door of the Mills home unannounced, chattering about their days and doling out hugs to the folks wearing “Campus Life Staff” T-shirts.
The Mills family has no real privacy. Family vacations almost always include an extra “child” or two. Sometimes, students crash on the couches if they don’t want to – or can’t – go back home.
“Ministry isn’t part of our lives. It is our life,” said son Ben Mills.
It was hard to tell who was family and who wasn’t, but maybe that’s how it’s supposed to be.
Rowdy games began on the lawn as dusk set in. Then, the students crowded into the upper room, filling the air with the scent of teenage boys after a roughhousing session.
At an age when young people are too cool for just about everything, the adolescents at Campus Life are a sight to see.
Dozens of high schoolers enthusiastically belted out “camp songs,” dance moves and all. They kicked up their feet and threw up their hands to the lyrics, “I’ve got joy like a fountain.”
Then the music slowed. Scott Mills strums an acoustic guitar and leads the chorus in an old 1970s ballad:
We are one in the Spirit
We are one in the Lord …
We pray that our unity will one day be restored
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love
They will know we are Christians by our love
Campus Life doesn’t try to replace church or youth groups, even though the calendar is full of activities such as week-long backpacking treks.
“Campus Life’s a stepping stone for unchurched kids,” said Ben Mills. “We partner with the churches” to get participants involved there, in addition to Campus Life meetings.
Students are at different places in their spiritual journeys.
Weston Messer, 15, is home-schooled and attends Twin Cities Church in Grass Valley. He started coming to Campus Life this summer at the invitation of his sister.
“I love how welcoming and kind they are,” Messer said.
Eventually, he may join the 35-member all-volunteer staff, but in the short term, he’s got another goal in mind. He wants to gather his friends and his contractor father to organize a clean-up and repair day on the compound in October.
Others have no church background.
After the group dispersed, one high school girl stayed afterward. She said she’s always known something more is out there – she called it “the universe.”
But she started reading the Bible, one chapter a day, and is exploring whether “the universe” may have a name – like God.
Coming to Campus Life was part of her investigation, as it is for many Nevada County teens.
“We have some amazing, dramatic success stories,” Scott Mills said. Some students don’t stick to their newfound faith, but “the good stories far outweigh the bad.”
A few years ago, a quiet transition took place. Jim Mills passed the baton of leadership to his two sons, Lyman Gilmore School teachers Ben Mills, 28, and Scott Mills, 39.
“It’s so gratifying to see the kids and their spouses carrying on the ministry,” Anita Mills said. “We’ve had to give up a lot of our time to do this, but you see the rewards.”
Eight months ago, Jim Mills was diagnosed with cancer of the blood. It’s ravaged his white blood cell count, and to avoid contracting a sickness that might collapse his frail immune system, he must keep his distance from the hundreds of teens who filter through Campus Life.
On days he’s too weak to leave his room, he can watch the fun and games from his window.
But Jim Mills cheats sometimes.
During an interview, a teenager walked in the door, surprised and excited to see Mills sitting at the kitchen table.
“Can I give you a hug?” he asked.
Mills didn’t hesitate. Slowly, shakily, he rose to his feet and wrapped his arms around the young man.
“That’s my dad’s legacy,” Scott Mills said. “Love is first.”
To contact Staff Writer Michelle Rindels, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call (530) 477-4247.
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