Exclusive Interview: Terry Ann Kelly Shares Her Passion to Encourage and Equip Students to Be Bold in Their Faith

February 28, 2020
Terry Ann Kelly | First Liberty

by Jorge Gomez • 10 min read

Over a decade ago, Terry Ann Kelly founded Students Standing Strong (S3) to help young people of faith stay firmly grounded in their Christian beliefs. Today, her organization is active across the country with clubs that connect thousands of students in public schools with peers who are eager to share their faith and desire to live according to Biblical principles.

In the exclusive interview below, our team sat down with Terry Ann to learn about the incredible story of her organization, its long-standing relationship with First Liberty and how S3 students recently rallied to support Daniela Barca, an FLI client who was targeted for living out her faith at school.

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What is Students Standing Strong?

Students Standing Strong—abbreviated as S3—is an organization that connects students to learn, live and lead Biblical truth in our nation’s public schools. S3 equips students to form clubs that are student-led. Our curriculum allows students to lead their peers in Biblical teaching on their public-school campus. In the 16 years since the organization started, thousands of students have attended a club at their school and have used our curriculum to learn more about the Christian faith.

What’s the mission—the “heartbeat”—of the organization?

Our mission is to help students build their Christian faith on a solid foundation, on something much more than just emotions or feelings. What really sets us apart from other similar Christian or faith-based student groups—all who do great work in their own respect—is our commitment to connect students and give them in-depth, hope-filled, life-sustaining knowledge from the Bible.

Since I was very young, I’ve felt that schools are my mission field. Even in elementary school, I was burdened that my friends at school might not know Christ. My passion has long been to equip and prepare student leaders, including our five children, to be firmly grounded in their faith. That’s why our foundational verse is 1 Corinthians 15:58:

“Stand firm, don’t let anything move you. Always give yourselves completely to the work of the Lord.”

How was S3 initially formed?

It goes back 16 years to when my husband and I decided to send our five children to public school. I can honestly say, I felt uneasy about it at first because they were leaving the protective environment of Christian school. My heart was particularly heavy for my son, Colt, who was in fifth grade and about to enter middle school the following year. I wanted him to be able to find other people who shared his faith and to stand strong in the world without compromising what he believed.

That sparked an idea to invite 100 or so fifth graders from Colt’s new public elementary school to gather in our home. We would also invite parents and siblings. With the help of other moms, we hosted about 250 people in total, and had to move the party to the park near our house. It was clear to me this was an opportunity to share my faith with our son’s new classmates and to fulfill my passion of giving students Biblical truth. You could say that first meeting—which we now call the “Strong Send-Off”—was the start of Students Standing Strong.

How did S3 grow after that first meeting?

Soon I saw the opportunity to pull together the two local high schools, one of which our older children attended. The schools were known rivals on the athletic field, but I thought, “Why not unify the two schools spiritually?” So, I helped our kids and their friends start a club that would do just that.

In our home, high school students from those schools began planning Students Standing Strong “rallies” that included student worship bands and testimonies. Four times a school year the new S3 club consistently packed the high school gyms. At that time, we had an average of 750, even up to 1000, students who gathered to hear the message of Jesus Christ. Sometimes students invited Christian guest speakers, like author Josh McDowell and Avery Johnson, former coach of the Dallas Mavericks. These events later led to our weekly, on-campus S3 Bible study clubs.

From that point forward, I began receiving phone calls about what we were doing, and S3 was featured on the front cover of newspapers and getting national attention.

Please share a story or moment in S3’s history that impacted your life.

Years ago, during an S3 middle school club meeting—which averaged about 150 students in attendance, including one of our sons—student leaders taught a lesson called, “Why am I so hard on myself?”

In a room packed full of students, a 7th grade boy who’d come for the first time stood up and said aloud, “This lesson is all about me!” He went on to tell his story to his fellow students about the difficult background he’d been raised in. He even went on to apologize to everyone he’d been unkind to. He was the school’s biggest bully, who’d even beaten up a teacher. Right then, two other students stood up and in prayer, led him to Christ! Can you believe that happened in a public school classroom? Later, club members planned a birthday party for him, because he’d never had one.

To this day, I’m in contact with that young man. He still has his ups and downs, but I’m proud of him and recently went to see him receive his G.E.D. That’s one story, among countless stories, that made a difference and reminds me why I do this.

Tell us about S3’s relationship with First Liberty Institute.

I’ve been a friend of Kelly Shackelford since we attended Baylor University. I wanted to know I wasn’t hurting my local school district by helping students form their faith-based clubs. So, knowing Kelly was a religious freedom lawyer, I called him. He became my “go-to” whenever I had legal questions. Kelly and First Liberty’s resources continue to help me be sure that S3 is following the law. It’s been great journeying with Kelly and the First Liberty team all these years.

Tell us how S3 recently rallied to support FLI’s client, Daniela Barca.

I happened to turn on Fox News on a Saturday morning, and saw one of First Liberty’s attorneys, Keisha Russell, doing a segment with a young girl who’d been told she couldn’t form a Christian club at her school—which is precisely what S3 does. I was incredibly proud to see Daniela share how she’d stood strong for her faith. I had the idea to share the news clip with S3’s student leaders around the country suggesting they have their club members write letters of encouragement to her.

It was a joy to see how encouraged Daniela was through these letters. It was a great learning experience on how “iron sharpens iron.” It was also a great civics lesson for Students Standing Strong’s students to know it’s possible to boldly, but respectfully, stand up for your constitutional rights and your faith.

Daniela Barca - Her Story | First Liberty

FLI client, Daniela Barca, opens and reads letters of encouragement from S3 students.

Are students afraid to live out their faith on campus especially during these times of increased hostility against religious expression?

I’ve seen a real boldness in students who want to start a Christian club at their schools. In many cases, it’s not the students who are afraid, but instead it’s school administrators or staff who think a faith-based club will cause controversy. Most of the time, this comes from a good place. They want to make sure they’re following the law, but sometimes it takes someone showing them student-led Christian clubs are legal.

At S3, we challenge our students to “fight their own battles,” giving them resources they need to ask administrators for permission to form their clubs. Since they may face opposition, we’re also equipping them with the legal knowledge to defend their rights in a respectful way.

What are some words of encouragement that you want to say to America’s students?

REALIZE: You can find hope in a relationship with Jesus Christ. And if you’re already a Christ-follower, you may grow deeper in your knowledge of Him and stand strong in your faith with one another. The largest youth group in America is the public school and you are a part of that youth group! You can make a difference in your friends’ lives so they too can receive an earthly and eternal reward by learning, living and leading God’s Word!

REMEMBER: Galatians 6:9 says, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”

To learn more about Students Standing Strong, visit their website here.

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