‘He Had a Fantastic Impact on My Life’
Art Rorheim’s influence helped guide a grieving boy into a follower of Christ

Otto Melby was a carefree 13-year-old from a loving Christian family in Chicago when an unexpected event rocked his world.

When his father passed away in 1949, Otto struggled profoundly with the loss. His mother became deeply concerned as she watched her son grow Otto Melby looks back over his life and says he owes a lot to his experiences in Awanaincreasingly confused and angry with God and those around him. It was clear to her that he needed a male mentor to fill the void left by his dad’s death.

Though the family attended Salem Free Norwegian Church, she contacted another local church’s youth director, Art Rorheim, to reach out to her son. He agreed to take Otto under his care.

‘I owe a lot to my experiences in Awana’
Art directed the Awana program that Otto began attending at the North Side Gospel Center. Though he had a family of his own and a budding youth program, Art committed himself to being like a surrogate father to Otto.

“Art was there to help me through that difficult time,” Otto said. “Art was my Awana club leader. He listened, offered direction and guidance, taught me from Scripture, encouraged me, gave me responsibilities and invested in me when I needed it most. He had a fantastic impact on my life, as did the whole ministry. I owe a lot to my experiences in Awana.”

‘A ministry I’ve always believed in’
As a close bond formed between Art and Otto, Otto’s heart and faith were not only restored but flourished. Otto plunged headlong into Awana. He participated in the weekly program, attended Camp Awana (a former summer camp program) and served as a junior Awana leader.

As news of North Side’s burgeoning Awana program spread – it attracted up to several hundred young people to weekly meetings – other churches began asking for materials. In 1950, Art co-founded Awana as a curriculum and training provider to other churches. Otto enthusiastically assisted Art with the new organization. At ageOtto and Donna Melby used Awana as one tool in the biblical parenting of their children 14, Otto took a bus to the Gospel Center after school to help print Awana handbook lessons on a mimeograph machine.

Later, after graduating from high school, getting married and enlisting for a stint in the army, Otto served for nine years as an Awana volunteer at Medinah (Illinois) Baptist Church. Otto eventually oversaw Medinah’s Awana ministry as commander. His leadership demonstrated the same sensitivity and passion for kids and for Christ that Art had shown him after his father’s passing.

“It’s a ministry I’ve always believed in,” Otto said. “When I was asked to serve in Awana, I considered it a privilege and accepted it. It’s the greatest thing going for reaching families for Christ, including moms and dads.”

Family matters
After Otto and his wife, Donna, started a family, he made sure the ministry that impacted his life also influenced his children’s lives. Five of their six kids placed their faith in Christ for forgiveness and eternal life in Awana and grew up attending the program. In fact, most of his 14 grandchildren, who range in age from 7 to 21, have participated or currently participate in Awana as well.

But, nearly 50 years before Modern-Day Joseph launched, Otto and Donna also understood that the Bible calls parents to lead their children’s spiritual development. Throughout their kids’ upbringing, Otto and Donna poured time, energy and creativity into raising Christ-following children.

“They taught us through every teachable moment,” recalled their daughter Sandi. “They practiced Deuteronomy 11:19-21. When we got up, Dad loved waking us by singing praise songs. Mom woke us at night on occasion to see the Northern Lights and talk about God’s creation. In our walk along the road, they loved taking us on mystery trips. We would talk about all God provided for us, sing praise songs and hymns – if it was to the zoo, they would point out how God gave a particular ability to an animal for that specific climate.

“When we sat at home, Mom and Dad loved to have family meetings – sometimes to teach us from specific Bible passages, talk about something we learned at church or sometimes for family worship time. They also had a ritual. When we would say, ‘Thanks, Mom!’ She would turn to Dad and say, ‘Thanks, Dad!’ In turn he would say, ‘Thanks, Father!’ It’s something we all still say. Some of my siblings use this with their families as well!”

Otto and Donna also took their children on summer mission trips to the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation in Arizona.

“Those trips instilled a deep love for missions in our lives,” Sandi said. “To date, most of my siblings and even nieces and nephews that are old enough have gone on short-term mission trips and vision trips around the world.”

Otto and Donna’s spiritual parenting philosophy can be summed up in a Norwegian phrase they consistently infused in their kids that in English means “All of Grace.”

“To this day, Mom and Dad use that phrase as their mantra,” Sandi noted. “It embodies Christ’s grace and how His grace permeates all parts of our lives.”

‘It’s amazing what God has done’
Being involved in Awana for 60-plus years has given Otto a unique perspective on the ministry. As a child, teen, volunteer, parent, grandparent and member of the Awana Board of Directors, he has seen first hand how Awana helps families and churches raise children and youth to know, love and serve Christ.

“It’s amazing what God has done in Awana,” Otto said. “The emphasis always is on the gospel of Christ and bringing kids to trust Christ as their Savior – and their parents, too – and training them to serve Christ. As long as Awana maintains that emphasis, God is going to bless this ministry and those it reaches.”


It’s Amazing
What God
Has Done

Otto Melby was a carefree 13-year-old from a loving Christian family in Chicago when an unexpected event rocked his world.

When his father passed away in 1949, Otto struggled profoundly with the loss. His mother became deeply concerned as she watched her son grow increasingly confused and angry with God and those around him. It was clear to her that he needed a male mentor to fill the void left by his dad’s death.

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