By Michelle Brooks
RUSSELLVILLE - As a second grader, Kaley Payne looked up to the Sports Crusader coaches. As a seventh grader, she started helping with the campers.
This summer, as a recent Cole County R-I High School graduate, Payne continues more than a decade of involvement with the international, not-for-profit working in its Holts Summit office.
And next summer, after her first year at Hannibal-LaGrange College, Payne hopes to become a coach, too.
"When I was younger, I looked up to the Sports Crusaders," Payne said. "It's exciting to know I could be that person."
Knowing the children admire the coaches, Payne said she recognizes the responsibility of being a Sports Crusader.
But already she has been a role model for the younger athletes, said Denita Jenkins, Russellville camp coordinator.
"When she played volleyball and basketball, the kids could see her attitude on the court," Jenkins said.
More important than teaching quality athletic skills, Sports Crusaders camps focus on sportsmanship.
"I think about kids watching me and I may not realize it," Payne said. "As a person, that helps you to check yourself before you say or act.
"It's definitely a good thing to know kids are watching you."
The college-athlete coaches are recruited mostly from Missouri colleges. Then, they must fill out a 10-page application, followed by a minimum of three personal visits, in addition to the background check and a review of social media.
"We want to make sure they will be a good role model for the kids and have a good relationship with the Lord," said executive director Tricia Alberts. "It has to be the perfect formula - love God, love kids and be able to teach your sport."
The camps pause for Half-Time each day, where the college athletes who had been teaching sporting techniques then provide lessons on faith and scripture reading.
The greatest expression of the camp's faith component comes through actions, Payne said. But they do set aside Thursday Half-Time to discuss the Plan of Salvation and local pastors are available, if children have more interest.
The devotions are written in simple terms and are considerate of a variety of denominations.
Jenkins, who was a Sports Crusader herself in 1998 to Belarus, said her favorite part is seeing character development in the individual youth, especially when they see the value of putting others first.
"We have had lots of youth come through our program over the years and it has been great to see them grow," Jenkins said. "The improvements in the sports has been great to see but the spiritual growth has been even more rewarding."
Unlike a traditional outreach like Vacation Bible School or youth group activities, the sports emphasis draws children who might attend a church-based event.
Sports Crusaders is celebrating its 20th year.
Founder Bobby Shows became a Christian while in college and as an athlete, he wanted to use his talent to pass on the joy that life change had brought him.
While working for the Missouri Baptist Convention, Shows received permission to develop a sports evangelism program. He easily found college athletes and host churches to make his dream a reality.
That first year, 18 camps were held for 273 campers where 28 professions of faith were made. Shows thought his dream fulfilled in 1994.
But requests for these faith-based sport clinics continued and international opportunities opened up.
Sports Crusaders became an independent, not-for-profit ministry in 2001.
And camps have been held almost every year since then in Russellville.
This year's clinics are hosted by Russellville and Corticelli Baptist churches.
Each church provides room and board for the college athletes, who are the camp's coaches. They also commit that 50 percent of their campers will be "unchurched," Alberts said.
"We take something they're already interested in and show them other ways to use your talents," Jenkins said.
That is Albert's testimony, she said.
"I'm so blessed I could do mission work with sports," she said.