La Vida- A Very Brief Early History

Photo Above From Left to Right: Rich Obenschain, Steve Oliver, Jim Kielsmeier

By Rich Obenschain

La Vida began in 1970 as a follow-up, discipleship program for Young Life’s newly acquired Saranac Village in the Adirondacks near Lake Placid, NY. There were many involved in La Vida’s initial beginnings. George Sheffer Jr., Pete Weaver, and Tuck Knupp were part of the early history before I got involved. These men helped lead the first 21-day patrol to recon the Adirondacks and figure out where to send groups in the future. Once I got involved in 1976, I served under four other men who were also very involved and added much to the La Vida ministry’s mission and educational model.

Rich from the 70's

Scott Dimock was a Young Life trainee and attended part of a Colorado Outward Bound course in the late 60s. It was on that course that he hatched the idea to take Young Life kids into the wilderness in order to help develop their faith, character and leadership.

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Dean Borgman who was serving as a Young Life leader in the early 70s in the lower east side of New York city, helped get the first groups out into the wilderness.  Some of those first groups were kids from Harlem and spoke mostly Spanish. Legend has it that those kids were sitting around the fire one night after a hard day of hiking, saying “Eso es La Vida.” When the leaders, later to be named Sherpas, asked what they were saying, they said “this is the life” and that’s how La Vida got its name.


Jim Kielsmeier had been an Outward Bound Instructor and was leading the expedition that Scott Dimock attended. He was getting a PhD in Experiential Education from the University of Colorado and was asked to review the program in its early days. Jim added much of the experiential curriculum to La Vida and was very energetic about service/learning. He first proposed that the leaders be called Sherpas to signify how one becomes a leader, first by serving.  At the beginning, 15-day expeditions were the norm; half canoeing and the other half hiking.

Steve Oliver on the Left

Steve Oliver was a Young Life area director from Hingham, MA and was there for the inaugural trip and the first few summers of La Vida as one of the first Sherpas.  He also helped to lead the rock climbing portion of the expedition and served as one of the early summer directors.

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All of these men have stayed connected to the program for 44 years.  They have served on the La Vida Advisory Board, led many leadership workshops, spoken at La Vida anniversary gatherings, welcomed the full-time staff to their home for fellowship and supported the ministry financially.  Thanks to such a great group of men who had a vision for developing young people through adventure challenges, time in the wilderness and Christian Community.

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