Texas youth group raises $50K to wipe out neighbors’ medical debt
A youth group from a United Church of Christ congregation in College Station, Tex., is hoping to make life easier for thousands of their neighbors.
The young people at Friends Congregational Church have just wrapped up a four-month fundraising project to wipe out medical debt in the Brazos Valley and beyond. They’ll soon be turning over more than $50,000 to RIP Medical Debt, a New York based nonprofit that buys up debt for pennies on the dollar. They hope to forgive $5 million.
“As Christians, we believe it’s important to be concerned about medical debt,” said 15-year-old Ariana Hinojosa. “When someone asked Jesus, ‘Who is my neighbor?’, he told the parable of the Good Samaritan and then turned the question around by asking right back, ‘Who was more of a neighbor in that story?’ So Jesus doesn’t need us to be asking who our neighbors are; Jesus just needs us to be good neighbors by helping each other however we can with whatever we have.”
Charity with justice
The youth at Friends Church decided to launch their initiative last July during their annual mission trip that had to stay local because of the pandemic. They focused on charity with justice, said Friends Senior Pastor, the Rev. Dan De Leon — on service efforts with a learning component.
They heard about the UCC medical debt initiative from one of their guest speakers, the Rev. Tim Tutt, senior minister of Westmoreland Congregational UCC in Bethesda, Md. He explained how the wider church collaboratively started abolishing debt for their neighbors, first in Chicago in 2019, then in other regions around the country. Tutt’s congregation helped lead the effort in the Central Atlantic Conference, which abolished $9 million in medical debt in Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey and West Virginia in the spring of 2021.
“We learned that falling into medical debt is surprisingly easy, even with insurance,” said 17-year-old Mac De Leon. “We found out that medical debt is something that happens all over the country and even in our own community. So, when we heard about how giving just a dollar could forgive $100 in debt, we thought, ‘We can do that. That’s a good place to start.’”
Debt’s ‘debilitating effects’
“The youth group was troubled by the debilitating effects of medical debt,” Dan De Leon said. “They learned that Texas is fourth highest in the country with medical debt and were excited about the ease of forgiving it. So, they decided to pool their efforts.”
“Me personally, I don’t have to worry about having to choose every day between paying for simple stuff like groceries or paying my medical bills, and I hate the thought of anyone having to do that,” said 16-year-old Kat Fouch.
“So we wanted to combine our efforts to make it so no one would have to worry about that. As a teenager, I don’t have much money, but if it’s easy for us to make a little bit of difference, we should work together to make an even bigger difference to help our neighbors.”
Gifts exceed expectations
Their original vision was to try to get other faith communities involved. Since Friends UCC is located in “a conservative part of Texas,” Dan De Leon said, and doesn’t have UCC collaborators locally, the youth wanted to reach out to others in the Brazos Valley. But as they planned to start their campaign at end of 2021, COVID surged. So they set a modest goal of $15,000, increasing it when an initial offering exceeded expectations.
“They have been pleasantly surprised from the word go in the support from the congregation,” he said. “They hit that $15,000 goal, doubled it, and raised it again to $40,000.’’
Friends Church planned a community party, a Spring Fling, to celebrate the effort, as the young people once again raised their fundraising goal to $50,000. They hoped that the event on April 23 – with food trucks, live music and games — would raise more awareness and invite others to give. By that time, the group had raised just shy of $45,000. On Saturday, they collected another $627, but were a bit short of their goal.
That changed during worship Sunday morning, Pastor De Leon said, when a donation came in “that put them over the finish line. … The congregation erupted with applause when that announcement was made at the end of the service.
“As of this morning, the youth group of Friends Congregational Church has raised $50,627.15.”
RIP Medical Debt will now be looking to abolish debt for Texans in the Brazos Valley and beyond with the donations from the Friends youth. It will be a month or so before they know just how much they were able to forgive. But as Dan De Leon said, the youth aren’t done yet.
“At the South Central Conference annual meeting at the end of May … the youth will give testimony to try to spur a Conference effort.
“The young people of our church family get it, and our entire congregation has been challenged and blessed by them for it,” Dan De Leon continued. “They took their faithful awareness and put it into action in ways that have not just made our congregation proud, but that have also inspired our church and the wider community to do whatever we can, no matter how great or small the effort, to make sure that accessing healthcare is never a burden for anyone.”
“This is what being the Church is about,” said the Rev. Sekinah Hamlin, UCC minister of economic justice. “Learning the stories like the Good Samaritan and putting our faith in action with compassion to repair the gaps that so many have fallen through in our economic system.
“We truly see how the spark that started in Chicago in 2019 continues to burn with a Holy Spirit-type fire causing many to help some of our most vulnerable neighbors who earn less than two times the federal poverty rate, and are facing severe financial hardship and insolvency.”
“If our small youth group is able to forgive over $4 million in medical debt, imagine what an entire community could do,” said 17-year-old Alejandro Hinojosa. “If all of us gave just a few dollars, we could make a massive change in this state.”
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