The growing Christian group First Priority has clubs in high schools across Hernando County.
John Walker thinks First Priority, a Christian club, is popular with middle and high school students because it fills an emptiness.
"Students are searching and finding fulfillment in a void filled by God," said Walker, 29, the youth pastor at Northcliffe Baptist Church who brought the program to Hernando County in 1998.
The program got off the ground after youth ministers were trained and then shared ideas with students. Meetings are held weekly on campuses after school. The non-denominational Christian club is student led; adults are there only for encouragement. Meetings typically feature guest speakers, and students offer each other support for standing up for their faith.
"I think it's working pretty well," Walker said.
He said Fox Chapel has about 25 students; Springstead about 10 to 20; West Hernando Christian School and Hernando High have about 130 students each; Central High has had up to 60 students but averages about 20 each week.
"There are schools in other parts of the nation that have hundreds at each school; i.e., Fort Lauderdale, Atlanta and Birmingham," he said.
Chris Basciano, Andrew McKeown, Tim Ratcliffe and Heather Cowling attend Hernando Christian Academy and are four close-knit members of First Priority.
"We follow an acronym _ ACTS: Accountability, Challenges, Testimony and Seek," Basciano said.
A member of the club for three years, the 16-year-old Hernando Christian Academy junior has led his group during this past school term. Co-leader is 14-year-old freshman McKeown.
Basciano joined the group "because I believe in the mission statement: equip, encourage and empower students to reach their campuses with the Gospel with local, church-based Christian clubs.
"We do this by keeping each other accountable and uplift each other for the Lord. We challenge each other spiritually with guest speakers . . . share what God's doing in our life and the miracles in other people's lives as well. We seek to bring new people (into the group) and present them with a salvation message of Jesus Christ and how to make him their Lord and savior."
McKeown said being a member of the club has "really changed my life and my focus. I worry about the cares of others and being there for other people."
He plans to attend a Christian college and to prepare for life as a missionary and evangelist.
Cowling, a 16-year-old sophomore, has been with the group for about a year.
"Joining the group has made me realize that God is there (for me). I used to have difficulty because I'd get frustrated in class. It seemed like nothing was there on my side. Knowing someone is here to help makes me work harder."
Cowling said her attitude toward her parents has changed; she listens to them and respects them more.
"I now understand how difficult their job is (raising a family)," said Cowling, who hopes to find a similar group when she goes to college.
The Rev. Slayden MacGregor is the pastor of First Evangelical Free Church. He and Americo Menendez co-sponsor a First Priority club at Springstead High School.
"Our goal is kids from different youth groups would develop relationships at their school, and that has been, and is, happening," MacGregor said. "It's not a ministry to build (any individual youth group) but to consolidate all Christian kids, as many as possible, at the school."
MacGregor said the group is a companion to Fellowship of Christian Athletes. But unlike that group, it does not limit its membership to those involved in sports.
FCA is having a picnic at Pine Island Tuesday, and First Priority members will attend that event.
Menendez, the youth pastor at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church, said the program is a "great opportunity for teens to come and encourage each other at school. It's excellent for them to have a place to say, "Yes, I'm a Christian . . .' and feel comfortable sharing that."
Menendez said participation in Christian clubs is working because they're not mandatory.
"It's been fine-tuned and meets like computer, chess or thespian clubs. Each club caters to the needs of the teens based on the school. What we do at Springstead may be different than Central because of what's affecting the lives of the children," he said.
Menendez said he is satisfied with First Priority's endeavors.
"I think the kids have been encouraged and have grown in their faith life . . . and that alone would make it a successful year," he said.
Although the clubs do not meet during the summer, members are encouraged to get plugged into their home churches and go on mission trips. As far as plans for the next school year, Menendez said, "That's too far ahead for me."
However, he plans to concentrate on guest speakers for the new term. He wants people who relate well to teens and who are comfortable sharing their faith, people who can end up being "sort of a hero, someone they would admire and say, "That's someone I wouldn't mind imitating because they're imitating Christ.' "