Sea Lion Spotlight of the Week: Meet Elena Yoder

Photo courtesy of Elena Yoder.

Known for leading Point Loma Nazarene University’s Wednesday night Homeless Ministry, Elena Yoder, a second-year health and human performance major with a minor in Christian studies, is a competitive triathlete with the hope of one day getting sponsored to fund mission trips.

In addition to her involvement with PLNU’s Prayer Team, Ministry with Mexico and Christian surfers club, Yoder trains six days a week for her triathlons — a run, bike and swim sport.

She has competed in two half Ironmans — a race completing a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride and 13.1-mile run. Her most recent one was in Oceanside in April 2023.

Yoder has placed in the top 10 of her age group in multiple short triathlons (half a mile swim, 12.5-mile bike ride, 3.1-mile run). She’s also competed in an Olympic triathlon (1-mile swim, 25-mile bike ride, 6.2-mile run).

Yoder began competing in triathlons during her sophomore year in high school. 

She ran cross-country and track from first to ninth grade at Parkridge Elementary, then Liberty High School in Peoria, Arizona. In eighth grade, she suffered stress fractures in both of her hips and sprained her ankle, causing her to quit long-distance running after one more year.

In recovery, Yoder met Charlie Boeyink, her physical therapist who competes in triathlons and now coaches her remotely from Arizona.

“It wasn’t about how fast I can do [a triathlon], it was about how far I can go,” Yoder said.

Yoder’s goal with her triathlons is to get sponsored and use that to fund her missions around the world.

With a desire to pursue the missionary field full-time, Yoder wants medical experience to aid her in that career path. In addition to her health and human performance major, Yoder is a part of the Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) program at PLNU to gain knowledge on first aid abilities and better equip her for work in the mission field. 

She also has an interest in coaching triathletes as a side job.

In May 2024, she will take the National Registry EMT certification to become certified.

“First aid ability in the mission field is something that is super impactful and can be very helpful no matter what the situation is,” Yoder said. 

At six years old, Yoder began working with a Christian nonprofit organization called New Community Project (NCP). With this organization, she has traveled to several places to participate in learning tours, which are trips focused on teaching sustainability for missions. 

Through NCP, Yoder has done work in Navajo, New Mexico, in the summers of 2016 and 2022, and Nepal in 2020.

In Nepal, Yoder worked with a human trafficking organization called Shakti Samuha, the only anti-sex trafficking organization in the world founded by victims of trafficking.

She explored the sustainability there and got to listen to the experiences of the women through the organization. 

“That’s what [NCP] focuses on; telling the stories of the people you’re learning from and raising awareness about it,” Yoder said. “It was life-changing.”

In the summer of 2023, Yoder went to Costa Rica where she interned with a youth group through a local church, Iglesia de la Costa. There, Yoder had the opportunity to join a women’s Bible study with a range of ages from 11-19 years old. 

“It was the most insane Bible study I’ve ever been a part of in the best way,” Yoder said. “It didn’t matter the age of whoever shared, everyone saw each other equally.”

Costa Rica has little to no people who experience homelessness, according to Greater Change. With a rate of 0.06%, that leaves about 3,387 people out of the population size of 5 million citizens who experience homelessness.

During her time serving in Costa Rica, Yoder said she noticed Venezuelan people who would sit on the street outside of a local supermarket. 

“If there were people on the streets [in Costa Rica], they were Venezuelan,” Yoder said.

Due to the rise of inflation in Venezuela, citizens flee to Costa Rica on foot and attempt to gain money from people there to travel by bus to Mexico where they can cross the border to reach and settle in the United States.

According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), approximately 262,633 Venezuelans crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in 2023.

Yoder would meet with these people after their eight-day journey by foot from Venezuela and provide them with snacks, Spanish Bibles and conversation.

“We’d sit with them, talk with them and listen to their faith stories,” Yoder said. “I don’t remember one person I talked to who didn’t know who Jesus was. Some woman was like, ‘You think I could’ve done this without Jesus? He’s the reason I made it this far.’ There’s so much benefit to just meeting a person where they’re at.”

Even with all the places she’s been, South Sudan is Yoder’s dream mission. 

“I’ve always felt called there,” she said.

When Yoder was six years old, NCP raised money to build an all-girls boarding school in South Sudan to save them from being married off at a young age.

“It hasn’t been safe yet for me to go [to South Sudan], but I really want to meet those girls who go to that school and be a part of that experience,” Yoder said.

This awareness at six years old is what inspired Yoder to pursue the mission field once she graduates from PLNU.

“I have this innate desire to change the world of missions,” Yoder said. “From a young age, I’ve had this passion to do things just a little bit differently that’s centered on justice, love and unity that I want to see more of.”

Yoder’s global missionary experience inspired her to continue at PLNU.

As one of the Wednesday night Homeless Ministry leaders, Yoder prepares food, coffee, hot chocolate and water, and gathers clothing and Bibles to bring to downtown San Diego. 

“She is just an incredible leader,” said Andi Thompson, director of PLNU Homeless Ministries and a fourth-year psychology major. “She has a way of making everyone feel comfortable and involved in the ministry. She has this infectious joy that brings people together.” 

With a group of volunteers, Yoder walks the streets, engages in conversation and serves people who are experiencing homelessness.

“What I wasn’t expecting in Homeless Ministries was the renewal of connection every week,” Yoder said. “You see the same people, and I developed relationships with them — that was a big piece as to why I decided to be a leader.” 

Yoder brings diverse perspectives to the Homeless Ministry from her experiences serving around the globe. 

“I used to think the only way I could make an impact is global, that I have to cross a border, but the truth is … that’s all around,” Yoder said. “There are people who are not loved correctly, people who feel like they are not worthy or have the basic necessities, so that’s been an eye-opener for me.”

With all that she’s seen in the mission field so far, Yoder’s goal is to create change.

“I want to redesign mission work,” Yoder said. “When humans come together, they learn something. I want to change intentionality, not assuming what people need, not assuming that we have more than [unhoused people] do, but being aware of the different gifts God has given us.”

 Yoder’s leadership qualities developed in high school as she was class president in her freshman, sophomore and junior year. Then, she was student body president in her senior year. She also led her school’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) club.

She currently serves as a junior counselor over the summer through the Arizona Association of Student Council (AAC). This is an applied position and is awarded to students with impressive involvement in the student council throughout high school. If you are offered this position, you have it for four years after graduating high school.

With this position, Yoder serves at a student council camp over the summer for the next two summers.

“All the most amazing kids gather in one place, it’s so amazing,” Yoder said.

Yoder decided to attend PLNU because of the diverse faith experiences among the student population.

“Point Loma is the epicenter of that we’re all united here for a purpose,” Yoder said. “The ocean is kind of the piece that draws everyone here, it’s not necessarily the faith piece. There’s a lot of other things like surfing and partying, and I knew I needed to be in a place where there’s a ton of different people from different walks of life with different walks of faith and backgrounds.”

Yoder is a part of PLNU’s Honors Program. This program is a total of 36 units that covers the Foundational Exploration (FE) credits in different learning settings including the classroom, dinners, sailing, theater experiences, music events and community service with a small cohort of selected students.

Yoder said she appreciates the small community the program has built. She said the vulnerability and intentionality of the group have formed a strong foundation in Christ.

“I applied to the Honors Program because I wanted to dive deeper and learn with the people around me in a faith environment,” Yoder said. “I love learning, I love school and I wanted to be intentional with the general education requirements [students] have.”

With an injury to her quad and a tear in her chest wall, Yoder has taken a step back and begun block training for her triathlons, which focuses on form and strength to keep her body healthy.

Her goal is to compete in the 70.3 (half) Ironman World Championship and a couple of full Ironmans.

“In order to do that, I need to have a strong body, a strong mind and a strong faith, and I’m kind of lacking in these areas because I also want to pour into Point Loma while I’m here,” Yoder said.

Eli Levin, a friend of Yoder’s for seven years, competed in the Joshua Tree National Park half marathon in November 2023 with her.

They met in eighth grade on the track team and began running and cycling together.

Levin, a second-year at the University of Arizona, supports Yoder with her races and training.

“She’s the most caring person I know,” Levin said. “I would say I’m the head of her support group when she does her [half Ironmans]. We’re always there to support each other in races and personal ways.” 

Yoder’s intention with her races is to bring glory to God.

“When I’m good enough to be on the podium, I want people to see that I’m doing this for something greater than myself, and I want to bring people to faith because of that — a mission within triathlons,” Yoder said.

Outside of her leadership roles, volunteering and training, Yoder enjoys surfing on her longboard, skateboarding, rock climbing and hiking.

A piece of advice Yoder would give to someone who is balancing a lot on their plate is to know your “why” for doing anything.

“Look at all the things in your life and analyze if it aligns with your ‘why,’” Yoder said. “Do they cultivate you into the person Christ is calling you to be? If they are, you’re going to make time for them. If not, you may need to eliminate them.”

Yoder also emphasized the importance of taking a Sabbath, taking rest.

“Sabbath can be what you make it, but I think of it as a reset,” Yoder said. “I’m not perfect at it, but if you don’t have time for Sabbath, you must have time to work on your mental health.”