Something haunted Steve Ware. He overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles in his personal life, succeeded in the business world, and raised a beautiful family. An observant outsider would look at Steve and assume he was at the top of his game. But inside his heart, he felt misaligned. Something was missing.
Poverty is complex like this. Those well acquainted with it know that it is not simply economic. Poverty is deeply personal — emotionally and spiritually. Like an invasive species, it climbs the walls of the heart and haunts its host with lies:
You are not worthy.
You have no purpose.
Your life is meaningless.
Steve was in the process of dismantling these terrible lies, tearing them out by the roots, one prayer at a time. They started growing when he was a baby — abandoned by his parents and passed from home to shelter and state to state. As a child, Steve lined his tennis shoes with pieces of cardboard to protect his feet from the holes in the soles. He was undisciplined and unruly, lacking respect for himself and others. For 14 years, Steve was entangled in the complex trap of poverty until, one day, a kind man at a church took notice of him and changed the game — dramatically altering the trajectory of his life.
Steve can still remember the look on the man’s face and how his voice resonated when he said, “We’re going to find you a place to live and get you back in school.” And that’s precisely what happened. Within one year, Steve moved into a home with a loving family and made the honor roll in a Christian school. He not only found freedom from economic poverty but began to experience the richness that comes with self-discipline and loving relationships.
Ironically, what saved Steve was the thing that now haunted him — this game-changer. Where would he be, and what would he have, if it wasn’t for this ordinary man on a typical day taking notice of him and making a simple decision to help? The answer was sobering and unsettling. And it was keeping him up at night.
What Steve did next was one of the most significant decisions of his life. He bought some property, began to dream, and believed something brand new: he had a bigger purpose than he had ever imagined. He looked his past square in the eye and decided that poverty in all its forms would not define him or anyone else if he could help it. And he developed a strategic plan to go toe-to-toe with this insidious liar. He was going to be a game-changer, too.
It has been 15 years since Steve purchased the pine tree studded property at the edge of the Saluda River. After school and during the summers, the six acres at Rivers Edge Retreat become a haven for children in the heart of Columbia. They swarm the complex to swim, play, craft, and create under the hot South Carolina sun.
This camp is a relief for many families in Columbia, where one in four people live at or below the poverty line — 90 percent higher than the national average. Twenty percent of those who live in poverty in Columbia are under the age of 18 and regularly face food insecurity and the threat of homelessness. But at this camp, children are provided with regular meals, shelter, and opportunities to learn and grow. And as children play, trained counselors carefully untangle the lies that poverty has twisted around their hearts and minds by speaking words of truth:
You are worthy.
You have a purpose.
Your life has profound meaning.
For the first several years, Rivers Edge Retreat exclusively served children in economic poverty. “My vision was to help homeless kids just like me,” says Steve. Generous donors and sponsors afford children in need a summer of safety and fun. But over the past two years, Steve’s nonprofit, appropriately named Game Changers, has expanded to serve all children ages 5 to 16, regardless of their socioeconomic status. “We are open to every kid, no matter what,” says Steve.
Steve’s holistic view of poverty, born from his personal experience, is one of the distinctions of his organization. “Just because kids have the luxury of not thinking about where their food is coming from, they still need character grounding and a road map to success — whatever that might look like for them,” says Steve. “We have a lot of emotionally and spiritually bankrupt kids in our community. We are here to break the cycle of poverty — not just economic poverty, but also the poverty of character.” Every aspect of the Game Changers program focuses on the health of every child’s mind, body, and soul — fighting poverty on all fronts.
Each day, children from various backgrounds play together, engaging in academics, scripture memory, art, music, and technology. Sports camps are also offered to allow a targeted focus on a specific area of interest. But regardless of the chosen track, character development is always the crux of the program.
Expanding the Mission
What began as a fun haven for children facing economic poverty has expanded into a multifaceted ministry with multiple locations. River’s Edge Retreat is still the heart of Game Changers, but a renovated skating rink in Lexington now buzzes with music, energy, and potential. The Sports and Skate Station is home to a nostalgic rink and cafe on one side and state-of-the-art batting cages on the other. Any child in the Game Changers program receives a significant discount to use the facilities and participate in sports development. “My hope is that kids learn they can have fun without going out and smoking, drinking, or hanging out with the wild kids,” says Steve. “They can have a lot of fun over here!” He also hopes that local churches will use his facility to attract students that might not as readily attend a church.
“We’ve got great facilities and great people,” says Steve. But his motivation for providing these accommodations to the community is to help all children build a solid foundation. “We’ll work with you on how to be a more successful athlete, student, and person,” says Steve. “But if you don’t have a solid foundation, all of that success can just disappear.”
Not only has Game Changers expanded geographically, but its impact on the community runs deeper than ever. This past year, Game Changers hosted a Back-To-School-Bash for more than 300 boys and girls. Children in attendance received shoes, socks, clothing, and other necessities for the school year. At Christmas, Game Changers assisted 90 families by providing more than 1,000 gifts for their children. And most recently, Game Changers has begun to connect homeless families with housing assistance to meet both immediate and long-term needs. Families formerly living on the streets, in shelters, or in and out of hotels now have a reliable roof over their heads thanks to Game Changers. “When I started this thing, I thought if we could just help 10 kids, that would be great. I never thought it would become as big as it has.”
Generous donations from corporate donors and individual supporters have made the expansions possible and sustained the ministry year after year. “God takes care of us,” says Steve, who refuses to take a salary for his work at Game Changers. Funding goes directly to outreach.
Finding Peace and Passion
Steve now possesses peace as he lives out his passion for changing the game for children and youth in his community. The lies that once haunted him have been hushed, and his heart is full of purpose. Poverty has lost its hold on his heart.
One of Steve’s passions is inspiring others to engage in the fight against poverty in the Midlands, too. There isn’t a supporter he doesn’t know by name, and he loves building relationships with others who find purpose in helping others. “If someone is donating, I want to know who they are and why they want to give,” says Steve. “I get on the phone and ask how soon we can meet.” In addition, Game Changers hosts a gala and silent auction every winter to celebrate supporters and share their impact. This past year, more than 1,000 men and women were in attendance, along with 78 corporate sponsors.
Steve has witnessed firsthand the power of ordinary people who notice a need and offer help. And he has experienced the richness of living a life beyond a paycheck. Connecting others to this experience is another way Steve strategically fights poverty — dismantling its lies, inspiring hope, and changing the game. As each Game Changer supporter gives, they experience the same profound truths as the camp participants:
You are worthy.
You have a purpose.
Your life has profound meaning.