His eyes fill with tears and his voice breaks when he talks about the privilege he now has of helping kids in trouble. What drives that passion?
It turns out, Jeff had a tough childhood himself. His parents divorced. His mother was an alcoholic and drug addict. They spent a lot of time “moving around, getting evicted.” And he “went to seven different schools the first four years of elementary school.” As a result, he was just drifting, looking for some place to belong.
“In high school I played baseball, but I got cut because I was out drinking on weekends and wasn’t practicing,” he says. “While I did have a passion for it, I didn’t have a direction or any goals about it. Then, God sent me an angel.” In his senior year of high school, Jeff had a locker next to the “prettiest girl” in school. “It was amazing,” he says. “One day she offered me a Tootsie Roll lollipop … and I took that and parlayed it into some conversations, and I spent a lot more time around my locker waiting for her to show up. We became friends and later started dating and she became something that was, for the first time in my life, far greater than I ever thought I could achieve. “She asked, or demanded, a few things that I needed to change in my life, including hanging out with some of the folks I hung out with and doing some of the things I did, and so my life started changing. I quickly went from an underachiever to … an overachiever. When I got into college I got out three-and-a-half years later with a double major in accounting and finance.”
Jeff’s job with a public accounting firm opened the doors for him to work with entrepreneur Lee Roy Mitchell, who put Jeff’s energy, passion and analytical skills to work for Cinemark Theaters. At age 30, Jeff became the company’s chief financial officer. In the 1990s, Cinemark grew almost tenfold to a company with more than $800 million in revenues and 3,000 screens.
Jeff, who helped raise more than $1 billion in capital during those years, credits Lee Roy with giving him the opportunities to pick up “a lot of creative skill sets – the ability to pass on a vision and tell a story and to follow through and execute on that story. It was an incredible journey.” Oh yeah, and along the way he married Lisa – the “prettiest girl” from high school, whose locker had been next to his.
As he clicked through the milestones of success,however, Jeff felt a “sense of loss and emptiness” in his life. Then in 1997, at Lee Roy’s invitation, Jeff and Lisa went to a Young Life camp so they could learn more about the organization Cinemark supported financially. When they got to the camp, they were immediately struck by the sense of God’s love and compassion for the kids. Lisa had been a Christian since junior high, but Jeff didn’t begin a relationship with God until that weekend at the Young Life camp. He was 34 years old.
Lisa was “blown away,” he says, but also scared by where such a radical change in Jeff’s heart might take them. As it turned out, it took them to the Rocky Mountains, but only after Jeff and Lisa caught a vision for how his skills and experience in the world of finance could help meet the needs of millions of kids who are adrift like he was growing up. Jeff will tell you that his background has given him “an incredible amount of empathy for people that live in tragic situations and have dysfunctional families. You know, the kids that are lost but … may not know that God is going to be pursuing, protecting them and sending angels all along.” Now, as you may know, the theater business is all about “butts in seats.” The more seats that are full, the more money you make. Below the surface of that simple formula, however, there are complex financial systems that help make it work efficiently and profitably. Imagine taking the skills of the CFO of a large theater chain and using them to help a global organization change teens’ lives forever rather than just entertain folks for 90 minutes.
Jeff didn’t jump at Young Life’s offer to join their team. He loved what Young Life does for high school kids who are at a precarious stage in their lives. However, it seemed ridiculous to consider leaving the life he and Lisa enjoyed. His latest business venture was turning into a financial success. Plus, they had settled into their lives in Austin, Texas. It was home. It was where they wanted to raise their budding family. “It was probably the happiest we’d ever been in our adult lives,” he says. Increasingly, it became clear to Jeff that God had prepared him not only professionally for the role at Young Life, but emotionally and spiritually, as well. “God walked me through the first 43 years of my life specifically for this,” he says. “Lisa got to that same conclusion. I didn’t see how we could not do this. It was clear. We were supposed to be there.”
When Jeff arrived at Young Life as CFO, he realized just how helpful his skills and experiences would be. Within two years, he had replaced many antiquated financial systems enabling the organization to pass approximately $1 million in savings on to its field ministries while adding greater accountability. Most of all, Jeff loves the thousands of hours it saved Young Life staff that they can now spend with kids. He also helped redesign the model for funding camps scholarships, all with an eye toward getting more students involved. Now he’d come full circle, back to “butts in seats.”
Jeff knows that every empty place at a camp each summer is a lost opportunity to change a kid’s life, and seeing the changed lives in kids is what drives his passion and fuels his gratitude. “God allowed us to participate in all this stuff,” Jeff says. “He doesn’t need us to participate in any of this stuff. He allows us to do it only because He wants us to know how deeply He loves us. We are feeling that, so it’s an exciting way to live life. It’s an abundant life.”