LIFT Wyoming Hosts Fall Symposium for High Schoolers Ready to Change Their Community from Within
One night, when Chad Varga was a little boy, his mother stabbed him. Despite this, on another night, Varga stood in front of her, facing her boyfriend. He took the beating meant for his mom and, after that, he knew that he had a decision to make. He stood up, wiped the blood off of his face, tried to take a deep breath, and he looked at himself in the mirror.
On that night, in that moment, Chad Varga was faced with a choice. He could choose to become just another statistic. He could fall into the world that his mother fell into, using alcohol and drugs to try and bury a pain that would never truly go away. That was one direction.
The other direction was the harder one. It required him to keep getting back up. After every hit that he took, from his mom or his mom's boyfriend or just life in general, he would have to get back up. He wouldn't hide. He would face things, head-on. But maybe, in doing so, he would be able to rise above it all. Maybe, he would make something of himself. And maybe, just maybe, he would use his trauma to motivate himself and others, letting them know that "Down is inevitable...up is a choice."
Thousands upon thousands of teenagers have stories similar to Varga. They come from broken homes where every night is a battlefield. Dad is drinking or mom is strung out and they have to balance homework with taking care of a little brother or sister and just trying to stay invisible so as not to incur the wrath of a parent with an addiction. Still, these young men and women do what they need to do to survive, and to thrive. Every night is like walking on a minefield, awaiting the inevitable explosion. Nevertheless, they persist. They take what life hands them and, though they may get knocked down, they always get up.
They bounce back.
Natrona County is home to so many teenagers with incredible stories of their own. Maybe they don't come from broken homes, but maybe something else has happened to them that could have held them down. Whatever the story, they choose every day not to let it define them. For these students, there is LIFT Wyoming.
LIFT stands for 'Lead, Inspire, Fulfill, Together' and that's exactly what happened on September 29, 2021 at The Lyric in downtown Casper.
The purpose of LIFT is two-fold. The first is, obviously, to prepare young people for their future careers. It's designed to show teenagers what it takes to be a leader in their chosen field and in their community. But the purpose is also to entice these young people to pursue those careers and leadership opportunities in Wyoming.
The LIFT website states that, "In Wyoming, our age demographic has become lopsided with a predominantly older group of citizens. In the years to come, we will be forced to rely heavily on the leadership of our current young people to create a vision for this state and direct it where we want it to go. LIFT creates a platform to engage our young people and entice them with what Wyoming has to offer."
On that day in late September, a carefully selected and nominated group of young people came together with some of Wyoming's biggest leaders, including Jered Stack (Flowstate), Jen Frontiero (Complete Physical Therapy), Amanda Scherlin (Visit Casper), and Sean Peverly (Metro Coffee Co.).
These leaders and young people gathered together for a full day of education, encouragement, and empowerment. The event featured various speakers, telling their stories and offering their perspective on what Wyoming has to offer to our young people.
"The primary goal of what we are aiming for is that these young people feel like they have a voice and that they feel like they can actually go and be leaders in a community that's telling them maybe they shouldn't be," said Tom Grogan, founder of LIFT Wyoming. "We try to give them as many tools as we can today and as many opportunities for them to talk to current leaders and start making some changes that they want to see happen."
On a rainy Wednesday, they achieved that through various breakout groups that took place throughout the city. Groups of teenagers and their designated 'leader' gathered at separate locations in downtown Casper to discuss the changes they wanted to see happen in Natrona County. They discussed the changes they wanted to see happen but, more importantly, they discussed how they, themselves, could instill those changes throughout the rest of the year.
But before they did that, they sat down in one of The Lyric's auditoriums and listened to Chad Varga tell his story.
"Fighting through adversity is probably the one thing that is the common bond between all of us as human beings," Grogan said. "And [Chad's] story of adversity is unlike any I've ever heard. And the fact that he was able to rise up out of all of that and become the man that he is, is an inspiration for not just kids here in Casper, Wyoming but really across the country and globally."
Chad Varga bounced back. He made it through his high school years because he found solace in playing basketball. He loved the game, and he was good at it. That love and talent led to him to the NBA, where he played professional basketball for a short time, before realizing he had a higher calling.
Varga walked away from millions of dollars, sponsorship opportunities, the love and adulation from crowds worldwide. And he did it all because he knew that's not what he was put on this earth to do. He was put on this earth to share his story with young people, and to inspire them to do greater things than he ever could.
"I made a decision to walk away from a professional basketball career," Varga told the auditorium full of young people. "To you, it's a story. To me, I sat across the table from my wife. I had the contract - $60,000 wired into my account. $30,000 a month after that, at 25 years old, coming out of poverty, coming out of a broken home. And I had this thing inside of me that was tugging at me, [saying] that my purpose wasn't just to shoot a ball, but it was to speak to kids."
So, that's what he did. Varga walked away from multi-million dollar contracts to speak, at first, in dimly lit basements in front of 3 kids. But once again, through sincere focus, through intentional determination, and through pointed sacrifice, Varga fulfilled his purpose. He has spoken to over 5 million kids, across a wide array of events and conferences. And through it all, his determination never waivered. He believed in himself and he believed in his purpose, and his goal is to help young people do the very same thing.
Throughout his talk, Varga highlighted ten points that would serve those in attendance the way they served him:
- Success is a choice.
- Success must be earned
- Successful people always fail
- Excuses are a sign of weakness
- Make your weakness your strength
- Who you surround yourself with is who you become
- Never let fear win
- Be teachable
- Never settle for almost
- Hard work always pays off
Those points are the very same points that LIFT Wyoming aims to instill in the young people of Casper.
"The next step, in my mind, is that I want to start seeing some of the work that the kids did today actually happen in the state of Wyoming," Grogan stated. "Really, our mission is, 'How do we make Wyoming better?' And I think with that grandiose of an idea, you can kind of get lost because the idea is too big in and of itself. And by giving kids the opportunity to start making some changes in their schools; I think that's a great jumping off point. I want to start hearing stories from each and every one of these schools about how what they did here today could be used in their schools. And then that can grow into their community, which can grow into our state."
Chad Varga's story as an adult is a unique one. Choosing to leave an extremely lucrative professional basketball career in order to spend his days talking to young people is an incredible account of finding out one's purpose and realizing it, despite how crazy it sounds to everyone else. That story is different and it's inspiring and it's unique.
But his story of being a teenager living in a broken home is, unfortunately, not very unique at all. Every day, thousands of teenagers find themselves in similar situations. Every day is a struggle to survive and there are some days that they just feel like quitting. They consider giving up, giving in, throwing in the towel. But then, there's something inside of them that stops them. It's the same voice Chad Varga heard all those years ago. It says to them, 'You will overcome this. You will get through this. You will rise above these moments and they will not define you."
So, they keep going. They bounce back. And for those kids, when they bounce back up, there's an organization in Casper, Wyoming that will lift them even higher.
To see highlights from the LIFT Conference, as well as key points from Chad Varga's presentation, watch the video below: