Like any good story, the story of Youth Specialties is filled with intrigue, excitement, sorrow, hope, and mystery. To actually tell you the whole story, we'd need more bandwidth, so here you'll get an abbreviated history of YS, with as many of the juicy details as possible!
Once upon a time, way back in the crazy days of the 60s, there were two guys in their 20s who were "youth workers." Back then, youth ministry hadn't really caught on—not many churches took it seriously...but Mike Yaconelli and Wayne Rice were about to change all that.
Mike and Wayne set out to convince senior pastors and church boards that youth ministry was absolutely vital if the church was to remain strong. They determined there was a need for relevant, fun, truth-telling youth ministry resources—and that youth workers needed help connecting with teens in a real and relevant way. So Mike and Wayne borrowed money from their in-laws and self-published their very first resource (titled Ideas of course!) on a press in the garage. They took the books on the road, sold them for five bucks a pop, and held seminars to show youth workers how to use them to reach students. And people actually showed up.
Youth Specialties was born.
The first annual YS National Youth Workers Convention, in 1970, reflected what became a YS trademark: off-the-wall and slightly irreverent humor, yet deeply serious about encouraging, training, and equipping youth workers. Since then, thousands of youth workers—paid and volunteer—have come together every year at NYWC for training, encouragement, and community (except for 1989, when the San Francisco earthquake forced us to shut down that event). Tic Long has been president of events for just about forever. He probably loves NYWC more than anyone else on the planet! For the past several years, YS has been active in Latin America, where it's known as Especialidades Juveniles. Lucas Leys heads up EJ, and we've had a Spanish international youth workers convention (Convención Liderazgo) every year since 2000. In fact, in 2008, we're even adding a Spanish convention to the US! YS has also recently partnered with friends up north for the Canadian Youth Workers Conference.
Youth Specialties' passion for youth workers caught the attention of Zondervan in 1974. Zondervan came to YS and said, 'You guys are weird and unpredictable. We want to put your books in bookstores,'" recalled Mike. Together, YS and Zondervan have gone on to publish hundreds of resources for youth workers and even teenagers, which can be found in Christian bookstores and in the YS Store. Eventually, Zondervan would play a new role in the YS story, but that's later. Don't skip ahead!
YS has been part of starting a few magazines: Youthworker Journal (now published through Salem) and Journal of Student Ministries. For several years, YS published the Wittenburg Door, which was the place many people outside the youth ministry world came to know about Mike Yaconelli and YS.
Back in the day, YS started a one-day training seminar, a lot like what Mike & Wayne first started with their first Ideas book. The National Resource Seminar became the CORE, and the CORE became YS One Day, which continues to travel to nearly 100 cities every spring, bringing affordable and valuable training to youth ministry teams across the U.S.
In 1994, Wayne left YS to start his own company, Understanding Your Teenager, at which point Mike and his lovely wife, Karla, led the company into the next millennium.
From 2001 to 2005, YS was involved in the National Pastors Convention, lending our event-planning wisdom, and our desire to help bring pastors and youth pastors closer together to this event. It eventually branched out to include the emergentYS Convention, which has gone on to live a life of its own.
Mike began to feel strongly about caring for the soul of the youth worker. That's when YS started to incorporate more of the Soul Care elements into its resources and events, including several Sabbath retreats. You'll see the element of Soul Care in everything YS does for youth workers now, because we know that if your own soul isn't connected to God, you can't lead your students into a connection with God. (Ok, enough preaching. Back to the story.)
In 2002, Mike appointed a new president to the company. Little did we know that Mark Oestreicher (or Marko, as he's commonly referred to) would go on to lead the company by getting a new haircut/colorevery year or so. Marko had been the VP of ministry resources, but before then had been a middle school youth pastor for 20 years. Marko stepped into the new role not knowing that only a year later he'd have really big shoes to fill.
Mike and Karla remained very involved in YS as owners. But in 2003, Mike died tragically, leaving Marko, Karla, and YS to figure out the next steps on their own.
In 2007, Youth Specialties and Zondervan teamed up in a whole new way. The ownership of the company was becoming more than Karla wanted to handle, especially as she strived to move on in light of Mike's death. So long-time partners and friends at Zondervan approached YS and together, they decided that Zondervan would acquire Youth Specialties—allowing YS to continue doing exactly what it's always done, but with new support behind them.
Over the last several years, YS has started a ton of new and exciting things. The publishing department started invert, a line of books specifically for teens. YS began running DCLA, a life-changing event for students, in 2006. And every year, EJ continues to grow and move into new Spanish-speaking countries, bringing youth ministry training and resources to people who would otherwise never receive them. In 2007, YS launched a new logo (see the YS logo history).
Then in December 2009, more big news sent the youth ministry world into a frenzy. Zondervan sold Youth Specialties to a non-profit youth ministry organization, YouthWorks! For the first time in its history Youth Specialties became a non-profit organization.
As YS continues to move forward, there are always new and exciting things on the horizon. But of course, we can't tell you what those are, or we'd spoil the surprise! Suffice it to say that we at YS continue to do everything we do because we're passionate about youth ministry, youth workers, and students.
So to wrap up this story of YS, and to leave it open for more chapters to be told, we'll close with a quote from Mike Yaconelli:
"We sure didn't know where youth ministry or our little company was headed. All we knew was that God was somehow inviting us into this thing. It's been a wild ride—and one that I hope continues for a long, long time."