By Lindsey Ziliak
---- — On Tuesday afternoon 23-year-old Ricardo Aguilar played a game of basketball with some students at Maple Crest Middle School.
That’s part of his new routine.
He works with Bridges Outreach kids four afternoons every week helping them with homework, teaching them Spanish or just hanging out and being a role model.
“I like working with the kids,” he said.
But in the three weeks he’s been in Kokomo, he’s left his footprint all over the city.
Sunday he loaded boxes of canned food onto trucks during the Yes, We Can food drive for the Kokomo Rescue Mission.
He can often be found teaching kids in impoverished neighborhoods how to play soccer – something he enjoys as much as they do.
“It’s a win-win,” he said.
But God led him to Kokomo for one special project, he said.
Aguilar, who was born in Ecuador, is the first intern with the new K-Serve program.
The program aims to train people from all over the country in urban ministries. It’s modeled after similar ministries in Indianapolis, Chicago, Atlanta and Philadelphia.
Students pay to come spend either 10 weeks or nine months in Kokomo to do mission work and gain experience for their careers or find their true calling, said Travis Taflinger, one of the K-Serve creators.
The summer program focuses on youth ministry. People in the program work with children at Bridges Outreach and Kokomo Urban Outreach.
Aguilar chose the nine-month program. It’s tailored to play to his strengths.
He graduated in May from Georgia’s Toccoa Falls College with a degree in counseling and psychology. He spent the next three months working at a summer camp in Florida.
But as the camp came to an end, he started looking for internships that would allow him to stay in the United States on his work visa.
He applied to places all over the country, but only one called him back.
When Taflinger offered him the chance to spend some time in Kokomo, he said he immediately accepted.
“When all the doors are closing and one is obviously open, you don’t question it,” he said. “I like to take leaps like that.”
He considered it a sign from God. But the Lord was at work answering even more of his prayers, he said, and he didn’t even know it.
Aguilar accepted the job without a clear idea of what he’d be doing when he arrived. As soon as his camp ended, he packed his bags and set out for the City of Firsts.
He quickly settled into a new routine that included mentoring Bridges Outreach children almost every afternoon.
His mornings, though, are reserved for his work at Kokomo Urban Outreach. He’s hard at work there launching a new program called Breakthrough.
That’s the special project God had been planning for him, he said.
When it’s finished, it will be a counseling-based program that aims to lift families out of poverty and into the middle class, said Jeff Newton, executive director of Kokomo Urban Outreach.
Aguilar is writing the curriculum right now. He hopes to have it finished by the end of October.
Aguilar plans to include lessons on goal setting and interview skills. He’ll also coach participants on the hidden rules of the middle class, he said.
And he’ll provide counseling for all of the families who come through. That is, perhaps, what he’s most excited about.
As it turns out, Aguilar wants to pursue a career in family and marriage counseling. This program, he said, fits right in.
It’s no coincidence, he said.
“It’s God saying, ‘Here you go. You wanted this. I’m answering your prayer,’” Aguilar said.
He’s known since high school that he wanted to be a counselor. T
Aguilar said he was tormented by bullies in high school. It sent him spiraling deep into a dark place. He remembers having suicidal thoughts and cutting himself to ease the pain.
His family didn’t know what to do to help him. He didn’t know what to do, either.
“Being in that abyss is not fun,” he said. “That’s a big part of why I want to be a counselor. I want to bring a little light to that abyss.”
This week, those past struggles didn’t show. Aguilar smiled and chatted animatedly about his work and about his adventures in Kokomo.
He’s met strangers on the trolley. He admitted he was shocked by their warmth and willingness to strike up a conversation with him.
He spends time in the Kokomo School Corp. international dormitory. Aguilar said he’s making friends with the exchange students who are teaching him to speak Japanese and Danish.
The Ecuadorian saw his first-ever baseball game in Indianapolis.
He said he misses the mountains of Ecuador and is still amazed at how flat it is here. But he’s even managed to find the silver lining in that.
“It gives you a better view of the sunset,” he said.
Lindsey Ziliak, Tribune education reporter, can be reached at 765-454-8585 or at firstname.lastname@example.org