A journey that started with Columbine led to a youth center in Nashville and a new album release
I often get asked where my inspiration comes from when I’m working on a new project. More often than not it comes from what is happening around me – whether it be personal or worldwide events. As I was working on my new release, SOVEREIGN, I reflected on memories of an event 15 years ago – one that I never want to neglect or forget. An event that forever fed my passion to reach out to kids who so desperately need our help.
April 20, 1999: I remember sitting in front of the TV screen – staring in disbelief at blurry images of high school kids jumping from windows, running from their school with their hands held over their heads as though in a war zone. Distraught parents were held back by police, not knowing if their kids were dead or alive. Confusion only escalated as news media swarmed the area.
I was still numb from shock when Governor Bill Owens called, asking if Amy Grant and I would come to Columbine and participate in the memorial service for the thirteen who died. In all my years on the stage, I have never experienced anything like the pain of those that gathered for that service.
In truth, there were fifteen lives lost that horrible day. To me, the loss included the shooters that had wreaked such senseless havoc before taking their own lives.
I remember wondering, “Would things have been different if these two troubled teenagers had had a place to go? A place to talk, to feel loved and valued? A place to belong?”
With the help of a phenomenal group of supportive friends, I created such a place in Nashville, called Rocketown, after a song I recorded years earlier. It started as just a safe club for teenagers to gather, but that barely scratches the surface of what it has become.
Rocketown has become a place that provides common ground for the outsiders–the troubled and misunderstood kids—as well as student leaders. It’s a place to matter, to receive the love, attention, and encouragement of a staff that truly has a heart for kids–all kids.
It’s a big place—2.5 acres in downtown Nashville—36,000 square foot building. Under one roof, we have a concert hall, an indoor skate park, a coffee bar, a recording studio, a dance studio and a whole lot more. But we know the real story: the kids don’t come for the “things” we have. They come to be loved, accepted, heard, counseled, and mentored.
At Rocketown, we refuse to draw the lines of separation—the kids from public housing and those who live in the most affluent neighborhoods connect on the basketball court, in an art class, at a music workshop. Friendships form. Trust builds. Straight A students help the kids that are struggling to keep a D.
Can a place like Rocketown keep another tragedy from happening? Honestly, I can’t say. But I do know this: lives are being changed there, one kid at a time. Hopeless kids begin to dream about what their lives can be. Shy kids find a safe place to open up and learn to build relationships. Kids who feel worthless are opened up to the truth that they are “fearfully and wonderfully made” by God, that they can have “a hope and a future.”
We’ve been around for almost 20 years now. Some of the impact can be measured, and some of it can’t. I know in my heart that we are making a difference in the lives of many of these kids. It’s powerful to watch our teenagers completely transformed just because someone took the time to learn their name, praised them when they turned in their homework on time, laughed with them, and constantly reminded them that their life matters.
Michael W. Smith is a singer, songwriter, and musician who has sold more than 15 million albums. His first worship album since 2008, Sovereign, is available May 13.