2021 Hope Awards nominees
Every year, WORLD recognizes a handful of non-profit ministries serving on the front lines of poverty fighting. Those ministries are nominated by WORLD readers and listeners. We call it our annual Hope Awards. In this episode of Effective Compassion, we highlight the four finalists for 2021.
ANNA JOHANSEN BROWN, HOST: Welcome to this special episode of The World and Everything In It and Effective Compassion. I’m your host, Anna Johansen Brown.
Every year, WORLD recognizes a handful of non-profit ministries serving on the front lines of poverty fighting. Those ministries are nominated by WORLD readers and listeners. We call it our annual Hope Awards.
Typically, we visit nominees across the country. But this year, COVID travel restrictions forced us to narrow our emphasis to just one region: the West Coast. WORLD sent three experienced print and radio reporters to visit seven nominated organizations. Sophia Lee, Sarah Schweinsberg, and Bonnie Pritchett.
After spending time at each organization, our team narrowed the list down to four finalists. Each will receive at least some prize money. But you get to help us choose the organization that gets the grand prize award: $10,000. Voting is now open at wng.org/compassion.
To help you decide which ministry to vote for, this is your opportunity to hear about each of our finalists: who they’re helping and how.
First we’ll head to Southern California. Homelessness is a growing crisis on the West Coast and especially in California. The state has spent $13 billion dollars in just the last three years to help homeless people.
But WORLD’s Sarah Schweinsberg visited a homeless ministry in Southern California that’s addressing more than just the physical needs of the homeless. The East County Transitional Living Center is also challenging men and women to see their depravity and God’s sovereignty.
SOUND: Cart Rolling Across Parking Lot
SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: Joey Aleman pushes a bright red, Target shopping cart out from an alley where Someone left it here.
ALEMAN: We find carts that are empty, we find carts that are full with stuff. I mean, I found a rubber Rubbermaid container filled with clothes.
38-year-old Aleman wears a bright yellow safety vest, khaki shorts, and thick work gloves. He loads the cart along with an abandoned couch into the back of his work truck.
The city of El Cajon in Southern California pays him and his crew to clean up trash and abandoned furniture and to wash sidewalks.
Aleman takes a lot of pride in making the city beautiful.
ALEMAN: No matter where you live, you know, um, you know, you want to take care of your community.
Aleman says most of the messes he cleans up are left behind by the city's large homeless population. El Cajon has the second highest number of homeless people in San Diego County.
Last year the city spent $1.5 million dollars on programs addressing homelessness. But Aleman doesn’t see that money making much of a difference.
ALEMAN: Just giving them money or putting them up in a place momentarily or whatever, is obviously not working. So I think we all need to come together and find a better solution.
Joey Aleman found his own solution to homelessness at the East County Transitional Living Center or E-C-T-L-C. The Christian ministry’s one-year program offers homeless men, women, and families a chance to get on their feet and then keep standing.
Before joining, Aleman had a tumultuous life. He sold drugs, had been shot, ended up in prison four times and was out of friends. He googled “homeless shelters.” ECTLC popped up.
ALEMAN: And they took me in right away, and it's been a blessing from day one. They've really helped me out a lot. Physically, mentally, you know, emotionally. And my life has changed for the better.
Eighteen years ago, a group of local Christians noticed the growing number of homeless people in the city.
So one of them offered to buy a rundown, crime-ridden motel right off a freeway. The plan? Use it to house the homeless.
SOUND: AMBI OF COURTYARD
Harold Brown helped fix up the motel and get the program started. Today, he directs ECTLC.
Standing in the middle of the motel courtyard, he points out its features. There’s a swimming pool, a small playground and picnic tables.
All of the motel’s rooms open directly to the courtyard.
BROWN: So as you look it’s 101 rooms... The two story is all families. The single story is women, I have about 10 rooms that are families and then men.
Right now, the motel can house up to 500 people.
Each family gets their own room, while the single men and women live in a dormitory-style setting.
BROWN: These are standard single, women's single men's. Five bunks in a room.
ECTLC packs people in tight because demand to enter the program is high—especially for families. There’s consistently 100 families on the ministry’s waitlist.
When a new resident arrives, ECTLC provides for all their physical needs. Shelter first, but also clothes, hygiene items, and meals.
BROWN: We have a clothing room, we have a laundry room, we're well, I'll show you this I call Fort Knox.
Fort Knox is a supply room named for all of its valuable essentials. Diapers, baby formula, laundry detergent, and toilet paper.
BROWN: We use 2,000 rolls of toilet paper a month.
But meeting physical needs is only one component of helping the homeless. Harold Brown says many of the program’s participants need more than just a job. They need help overcoming addictions. They also need emotional and spiritual healing, as well as discipleship.
BROWN: There's a myth out there that if you give a homeless person a job, that's all they need, and that that's not what they need. Not initially anyway, eventually they do need that job... they have to be prepared to actually be a good employee report to a supervisor, even become a supervisor.
Brown knows all of this firsthand. He was once a homeless addict with 121 felony charges. Meeting Jesus at a rescue mission finally changed everything.
BROWN: The core of our program is to introduce them to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and then prepare them to be successful people out in the community.
To do that, the program doesn’t actually start here. When someone joins, ECTLC first sends them to an off-campus location. Single men go to a 12-acre ranch. Single women go to a 10-bedroom house.
There, the men and women do work projects and Bible studies. Brown says it’s a chance to detox: from substances, from toxic behaviors and relationships, from life.
BROWN: Because you have all kinds of excuses inside of you that justifies this behavior that you're living in. And you have to get rid of all of that. And the tool we use is the Word of God. It's simply the Word of God.
That detox made all the difference for Jonathan Heuberger. Sixteen years ago, he was a five-time felon strung out on meth and on the run from the police. Members of a biker gang dropped him off at ECTLC.
He went to the ranch where he encountered Scripture and broke down.
HEUBERGER: At just the right time Christ died for the ungodly. And that was that day for me.
A few days later, police came to the ranch to arrest him. The officers had dealt with Heuberger before, so they were surprised at the man they encountered.
HEUBERGER: They saw a difference in me... And they said, Don't leave. And we're gonna make everything disappear.
Jonathan Heuberger ended up staying at the ranch for the next six years. Eventually, he joined the staff and became a pastor. Today, he directs the men’s program.
HEUBERGER: I think that the ranch is crucial. It gets you away from all this down here.
After men and women finish three months off-campus, they move into a motel room at ECTLC’s main campus, where the next nine months of the program begins.
When a homeless family joins the program, they live on campus right away.
At ECTLC, everyone spends time in life classes, Bible studies, and counseling. They can get their highschool GED and take college courses. Through it all, they’re also required to work.
AMBI: FRONT DESK AREA
At first, staff assign residents jobs around the motel: cleaning, maintenance, and working the front-desk. Then later, they get jobs off-campus at restaurants, a meatpacking plant, and in landscaping.
Once a resident has a job, they pay a third of what they make to ECTLC for living expenses. Another third goes into savings. And the last third is for day-to-day needs.
Resident Danny Guzman is working in the cafeteria this evening. He’s handing out silverware and red and green trays that get filled with chicken sandwiches and coleslaw.
GUZMAN: Hello, my brother. Bless you.
Guzman came to the East County Transitional Living Center with his wife and 4-year-old daughter, four months ago.
He used to be a well-off businessman with a big house. But after a series of failed business ventures and bad decisions, his family ended up living in a hotel for five months.
GUZMAN: Once you get to the point where you're living day to day, oh man it gets hard… you don't know if you're going to eat or not.
When Guzman came to ECTLC, he was mentally and emotionally defeated. Here, he realized that his problem hasn’t been a lack of skills or intelligence. It’s been a lack of character.
GUZMAN: When things got rough, I was like, it was easier for me to start something else than to like, endure the hardship and see the fruits of it, you know what I mean?... That's what I'm learning is.... that character, the integrity.
While Guzman and his wife work around the motel, a co-op of parents watch their daughter in a colorful daycare room. ECTLC parents rotate childcare between their work schedules.
SOUND: Ping Ball Bouncing Back and Forth
And for teens, there’s an afterschool game room. It has video game consoles and ping pong tables where older kids can hang out until mom and dad get home.
Director Harold Brown says many people who join the program quit. They aren’t ready to accept living with a structured routine. They aren’t ready to give up old habits.
BROWN: About half of the people that go into the first phase, leave... 25 percent of them, they'll come back. They'll be back out there for a week or so and come back and say can I get another chance?
Solving homelessness isn’t easy, because people aren’t easy.
But for those who stick with ECTLC's program, there’s hope for a new beginning.
SOUND: Shopping Cart
Remember Joey Aleman collecting shopping carts and abandoned furniture? ECTLC helped him get work with the city of El Cajon.
He’s finished the program, but he isn't ready to head back out on his own just yet. When he does, he’ll have savings and a built-up resume. And he says the same man won’t be leaving.
ALEMAN: I've always had Jesus in my life but just the whole putting more and having faith that no matter what I do, he's got me and not to worry about things. He’s lifted so much off of my mind the whole time I’ve been here. Just focus on what's in front of me and do the best I can.
AJB: Next, we visit an agricultural community in California’s Central Valley…. Where a poor, minority neighborhood has struggled with homelessness, joblessness, and high crime rates for generations. But an afterschool program rooted in the community is helping children build a brighter future.
WORLD’S Schweinsberg brings us the story of Westside Ministries.
SOUND: (Kids Singing) "Waves of mercy, waves of grace. Everywhere I look I see your face. Nah-nah-nah, hey! Nah-nah-nah-'
SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: A loud group of children sit on a tile floor. An outdoor canopy protects them from California’s hot Central Valley sun. They wave their hands in the air as their teachers lead them through songs about Jesus and faith.
SOUND: (Kids Singing) I said whose side are you leaning on? Leaning on the Lord’s side. I lean I lean, I lean, I lean, I lean.
TEACHER: You’re not leaning!
After song time, the kids gather around lunch tables with pencils and crayons. Teachers pass out alphabet worksheets and have children recite the day’s memory verse.
TEACHERS: I lead you along straight paths. Proverbs 4:11. (children echo) So look it, this is what we’re going to do. Write over the top of those letters ‘cause we’re going to practice writing our letters. Start tracing your I’s.
Leaders also ask students to pray for their families.
STUDENT: I want to pray for my grandmother because she is kind of struggling with her health right now instead. My prayer request is for the homeless because they have no home...
This is the after school program at Westside Ministries in Turlock, California. Kids in preschool all the way up to high school can come here four nights a week. Many of the kids in the Westside neighborhood come from minority families and are up against difficult circumstances. Most families are poor. Affordable housing is scarce so homelessness is common.
Parents work long hours at the local turkey processing plant or in the fields caring for walnut and almond trees. And while parents are out trying to make ends meet, children are unsupervised. That makes it easier for them to get mixed up in gang or drug activity, leading to higher crime rates.
Westside Ministries works to offer young people an alternative…as well as emotional, spiritual, and academic support. Kids also get the freedom to just play. The center has a basketball hoop.
SOUND: AMBI OF BASKETBALLS BOUNCING
A Big grassy lawn for soccer. A library. Computers for homework. And a dance school that kids can enroll in for $20 a month.
This evening an instructor is teaching a hip hop class.
SOUND: Hip Hop Music
Children can take piano lessons. Perform in plays. Or get their hands dirty.
DIGRAZIA: There's tomatoes and peppers, and eggplant up there. And there's cucumbers.
JoLynn DiGrazia is the founder and director of Westside Ministries. She’s walking through a small, glass greenhouse with shelves covered in flowers and foliage. Students learn how to grow and care for these plants.
DIGRAZIA: The succulents, Ajay plants. coleus. Have lots of different things going on.
Outside the greenhouse, rows of more flowers, vegetables, and fruit trees wave in the breeze. And some friendly poultry run around.
DIZGRAZIA: They love the chickens. This is something new. We've only had these for a year…. We show pigs, we'll show you the pig facility. It's off campus. One of our kids has a goat.
DiGrazia says Westside Ministries wants to help kids discover their gifts and talents. She also wants to keep kids excited to keep coming…and get them excited for their future.
DIGRAZIA: Whatever you want to do, we're going to try everything we can to do it.
JoLynn DiGrazia started Westside Ministries almost 40 years ago out of her classroom. She was a young teacher at an elementary school in Turlock’s Westside. She noticed her students were hungry. Some even came to school without any shoes.
DIGRAZIA: So then, we started asking people can you bring us your good usable clothing.
She started selling school families clothing items for 10 cents. She also brought cereal to school to feed her students breakfast. Then she began a weekend Bible club.
DIGRAZIA: And we would drive around, pick up kids and… give them KoolAid, cookies, and Jesus.
After a year, DiGrazia decided to move to the Westside neighborhood.
DIGRAZIA: Because Jesus came and lived amongst them. He didn't live away from them and visit on the weekends.
Eventually, she and her husband opened the Westside Ministries center. Kids like Rosa come to the center after school. Rosa is 11-years-old. She and her mom have been homeless for much of her life. Her dad just got out of jail. She hasn’t come to the after-school program in a couple of weeks, so DiGrazia jumps in her car to go pick her up. She happens to meet her on the road.
DIGRAZIA: I was coming to get you, Rosa!
Rosa says since her dad got out of jail she’s been spending time with him. But she’s excited to get back to Westside Ministries.
ROSA: I like that they teach kids like, like all around town, they teach kids, like you don't have to be in gangs and stuff. And they teach about God. They have a playground in the back where kids can play and stuff. They feed us.
Rosa especially loves taking care of the chickens.
DIGRAZIA: We're getting 25 new chicks on Saturday, Rosa.
As kids grow up, some of them decide to make their home in the neighborhood. JoLynn DiGrazia says these Westside adults strengthen the community.
DIGRAZIA: We've really stressed to our kids buying houses, moving back in the neighborhood. So like 25 of them have done that.
Many of those adults also now volunteer at Westside. Estrella Isiordia grew up coming to the afterschool program.
ISIORDIA: I joined dance classes here. And then I just kept growing up in the ministry.
Isiordia’s dad died when she was young and her single mom struggled financially. At one point, they were homeless, living in her uncle’s garage. Westside stepped in.
ISIORDIA: They provided us with a lot of clothing that we couldn't afford at the time, shoes, food, like dinner and stuff like that. They taught me how like what it means to like, be a Christian like. They taught me a lot of lifelong skills, like how to be a hard worker.
Today, Estrella Isiordia teaches dance at Westside Ministries. And she’s pouring back into the kids the way she was poured into.
ISIORDIA: Receiving so much...like receiving emotionally, receiving financially, and all these things, it's really important for us to give back... it lets the kids relate to you more and lets the kids not just ignore your advice, but really kind of take it in and really kind of grow and evolve from that.
Westside Ministries also challenges children. To be involved in raising animals, gardening, or dance, kids attend Saturday work days. They clean and do yard projects. And the kids have to follow Westside’s rules or else they’ll be sent home.
Jolynn DiGrazia says expectations are important.
DIGRAZIA: If they become rebellious to us, they're gonna be rebellious at school. They're gonna be rebellious everywhere.
AMBI: OUTSIDE CHATTER
A group of older tweens and teens sit on the grassy lawn before game time. A volunteer reviews club guidelines.
VOLUNTEER: Raise your hand if you can tell me an expectation that we have here. Amoria?
VOLUNTEER: Dresscode! Adrian?
ADRIAN: No electronics.
VOLUNTEER: No electronics. So if you brought your Chromebook today for homework, that's okay. But only during homework club. If not, I do not want to see any cell phones. Millie? Yep, no put downs
Westside Ministries also works to help kids study and succeed in school. So part of the evening is called “Homework Club.”
VOLUNTEER: It's Wednesday. So what does that mean we have? What’s Wednesday?
KIDS: Homework Club!
VOLUNTEER: Homework club, okay, so I'm gonna have half of you come with me the other half are going to stay and do free-play today.
Extra tutoring was especially important during the mostly-remote COVID-19 school year. Sunshine Sakuda is the youth director. She says because Westside has relationships with the local schools, they could coordinate with teachers.
SAKUDA: And so we asked the teachers, hey, do you have print out so that we can print it out for them and then we'll scan it and we'll turn it help them turn it back in? And a lot of the teachers were very accommodating to that.
Westside also encourages older teenagers to become student leaders who help teach the younger kids and lead activities. Sakuda says that teaches them responsibility.
SAKUDA: Half of our youth workers are in the special education program at school. But when they're here with us, you know, they can do everything that they put their mind to….And so the kids, they work directly with them.
Erica Figueroa is a youth worker.
FIGUEROA: I take care of the kids. I take mostly care of the staff kids, like the staff members, like littles.
She says working with the children here helped her realize she loves helping people. And the program helped her keep her grades up.
FIGUEROA: They make you focus about school... and help you with all your homework
Now she plans to enroll in a nursing program.
FIGUEROA: I want to be a CNA and help like the old people.
Seeing kids like Erica Figueroa succeed is what keeps Jolynn DiGrazia planted in the Westside. But ministry here also comes with a lot of heartbreak. Over the years, she’s seen many lives end in tragedy.
DIGRAZIA: We've buried a lot of kids from gang violence, from drug addiction. Some of their children have died from gang violence and drug addiction… It's very discouraging to see people fall... The loss of jobs, the loss of opportunity, seeing people flounder because they don't have an education.
But DiGrazia says Westside Ministries won’t stop fighting for each child, one at a time.
DIGRAZIA: Life isn't easy but the key thing that we try to do is just stay here and not give up, and understand that what we can do is be Christ to them, to live John 1 to them, to live incarnationally, to not give up.
AJB: Now, we head north to Washington. … Healthcare can be expensive and difficult to access for poor Americans. In a small town just north of Seattle there are working families who can’t afford health insurance. But their salaries are also just over the cutoff to qualify for Medicaid. Without either, some have gone years with no medical care. So the Safe Harbor Free Clinic stepped in.
WORLD Correspondent Bonnie Pritchett visited the free medical clinic that is providing a balm of relief.
CORRESPONDENT, BONNIE PRITCHETT: Getting a pay raise is usually a good thing. But for Catrina Rains, it meant two years of declining health.
RAINS: I was very sick, just from not having had meds in so long that I went to the walk-in clinic in Smokey Point. And they really just couldn't help me. And they told me about the clinic, one of the nurses actually stepped in after the doctor had left and told me, have you heard about Safe Harbor Free Clinic up in Stanwood…?
Two years earlier, Rains’ husband had received a $1 an hour pay raise. That raise put the family beyond the monthly income limit to qualify for Medicaid.
RAINES: So, all of those meds that I had been on when I had insurance, for diabetes, for hypothyroidism, for depression, for pain and everything—was all of it was gone. And I was very, very ill, by the time I made my way in here…
Rains represents most of the patients who find their way to Safe Harbor Free Clinic in Stanwood, Washington. She’s among the uninsured or underinsured living in this farming community bordered by Skagit Bay. They’ve learned to live with their aches and pains and even their life-threatening illnesses because they can’t afford treatment.
SOUND: VELCRO CUFF, PUMPING, AIR RELEASE.
Circumstances beyond their control only made matters worse. In 2008, hospital conglomerates began absorbing independent medical practices. Charitable care didn’t factor prominently into the bottom line. Then the economy tanked. People lost their jobs … and their insurance.
Physician Jimmy Grierson and his friend Keith Erickson, a physician’s assistant, began seeing the fall-out in their own practices.
GRIERSON: And so, I’ve been thinking a lot about really, how do you effectively kind of reach people…
That’s Grierson. On a return flight from a second medical mission trip to Haiti, he felt God calling him to provide free medical care at home.
GRIERSON: And I don't really want to hear that because I was a busy guy, right? And so, I have this new baby, right, and two other young kids and a practice that’s just starting. And you know, I kind of call this my Jonah experience…
Still, he went through the motions of inquiry, assuming—perhaps hoping—each step would lead to a closed door. Then he received a check.
GRIERSON: We found out that if you're going to start a nonprofit, you have to have board insurance for your board of directors…
So, he made some calls. One company said they would send a quote the following week.
GRIERSON: And like, on a Monday, we get this check from someone in the congregation who said, ‘The Lord just said, you know, you guys need $433.67.’ And I said, well, that's really bizarre because A, how did you even really know we're doing this. And B, where did this random number come from? And then like, the next day, we get this quote from the insurance company. It was that exact amount. And so that's when I decided I better try to stop running from this…
God’s consistent provision emboldened Grierson, Erickson, and the growing number of volunteers, staff, and board members to keep asking God for more.
VOLUNTEER: Well hello Ursula, come on in…
Safe Harbor Free Clinic opened in 2009 in a borrowed space. The volunteers saw patients every first and third Friday of the month and quickly realized they’d be treating more than coughs, colds, and ear infections. Erickson recalled conversations he had with his patients.
ERICKSON: I have no insulin, I have no medicine, my blood pressure is up to you know… [14:18-] Then we came up with a tally, I think 40 or 50 percent of our patients were chronic care. So, we were like, you know what, we need to start Chronic Care Clinic…
Patients like Catrina Rains benefit from the Chronic Care clinic.
With each new patient, Safe Harbor’s medical volunteers discovered new needs and more opportunities to serve. So, they prayed God would provide the medical professionals needed.
ERICKSON: And just somehow it’s like the Lord knew that we needed the services. And then we just kind of, follow. We just follow. We don't try to go hunt people down-- we never did. It's always, we just ask the Lord, we need this…
Calls, texts, and emails from specialists arrived out of the blue. They wanted to be part of what Safe Harbor was doing. Today the clinic is open nine evenings a month. It offers general and specialty care, including cardiology, respiratory, and ultrasound services.
While the board of directors, paid staff, and spiritual counselors must adhere to the clinic’s statement of faith, clinic volunteers don’t. They come from a variety of backgrounds and faiths. That might look like an amalgamation of worldviews to some. But clinic nurse Karen Schmidt sees it as God’s providence and grace.
KAREN SCHMIDT: A lot of them feel like this is a different kind of place, and they want to be here. They feel like - they wouldn't use the term ministry - but I think that's how it feels to them. Like they're doing something meaningful in this community by serving here. So, they are seeing how we're a part of the big picture. And we're a part of their big picture. And the reputation I think Safe Harbor has is a very strong reputation. I think God has honored that and blessed that…
Grierson’s trips to Haiti revealed to him poverty’s devastation. But he also learned how some of their good-faith efforts to provide medical assistance were undone by those they sought to help.
GRIERSON: I quickly found out that the goal there for people was to get as much medicine as they could, so they could sell it, and then get money for that. And so, really made me think, you know, on the second mission, how do we actually perform a medical mission that actually helps people and not hurts people?
Some of Safe Harbor’s patients, like Catrina Rains, know how to jump through the paperwork hoops when applying for government aid. But many don’t. Renee Hendrickson, clinic manager, says leading patients to the resources and then requiring them to follow through is part of caring well.
RENEE HENDRICKSON: So, I think that's something that we consciously think about, like, okay, they need to be responsible to turn in this paperwork. And when they get it in, we can help them but they have to take that ownership. So, from my perspective, that's kind of how I try to think, am I helping them? Or am I hurting them? And how can I help them help themselves...
But sometimes, patients need direct, immediate intervention. On a Tuesday evening in early May, Maria Robledo came for a routine check-up. Her husband had been there on a prior visit after being released from the hospital where he was treated for a severe case of COVID-19. Grierson and Robledo tell the story.
GRIERSON: And a big part of that was is that there wasn't a translator when he was discharged. He didn’t understand any of the discharge questions. He didn't know what to do. They had no follow up plan, they had no oxygen. And so she brought him here to the free clinic…
Through her broken English and Grierson’s broken Spanish the doctor realized more was at stake than her husband’s health.
GRIERSON: The big thing we're able to help with is that you got a bill. Right? Yeah. How much? How much was your bill for?
GRIERSON: Because her husband was sick. And yeah. And and nobody, nobody had ever actually talked with them about how do we work on charity care, what happens? And they were devastated. They're like, we're gonna lose everything we have…
Safe Harbor volunteers facilitated a meeting between the Robledos and the hospital to get the bill reconciled.
GRIERSON: And he had been working for like two months and like three weeks. He just was like two days short of his insurance kicking in. And so, it was really tough.
Before leaving the clinic, patients are invited to speak with one more volunteer. The spiritual counselors ask the non-medical questions that might not come up in the exam rooms. And those questions might reveal the need for additional resources. Questions that get to the fundamental healing that all people need.
Sometimes those conversations do take place in the exam rooms. And sometimes it’s what isn’t said that speaks volumes.
RAINS: My doctor gave me a hug when I left and cried with me. Because I was so relieved…
Following her initial one-and-a-half hour doctor’s visit, Catrina Rains was overwhelmed.
RAINS: I got in my car and I cried. Because it had been so hard to make it this far just to come into this office. And I could breathe for the first time in a long time because there was help. There was no shame. There was no sideways looks about gosh, you can't even pay your bill. There was no judgment. It was a beautiful thing (crying).
Reporting for WORLD, I’m Bonnie Pritchett in Stanwood, Washington.
AJB: Next, we visit our final ministry.
Across the country, millions of teens are struggling with mental health and substance abuse. 8 percent of teens report using drugs in the last month. And about 1 in 5 teens suffer from a mental health disorder. A youth residential program in Northern California is helping troubled teens deal with these issues. Their main tactics? Letting the teens experience the unconditional love of a family and Christ.
WORLD’S Sarah Schweinsbergtakes us to Christian Encounter.
SOUND: Ping Pong Ball on table.
SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: A group of rowdy teenagers are killing the last few minutes before lunchtime…talking on squishy couches, pounding out tunes on a piano…and challenging each other to a serious game of ping pong.
STUDENT: Let’s go! I’ll beat you again.
When it’s time to eat, the staff at Christian Encounter call the teens into a circle for announcements.
STAFF: I have an announcement. Um, so tomorrow night for family night, we're gonna do a conversate video and conversation on the top on a topic of your choosing…
STAFF: I have an announcement...So all week this week when we're doing chores. And this weekend, just put our trash into the dumpster not into the trashsed…
Then a staffer asks for prayer volunteers. One of the teenage girls raises her hand.
STAFF: Go for it, Kayla.
KAYLA: Dear heavenly Father, I just want to thank you for everyone in this circle. Thank you for the day you've given us.
AMBI: EATING LUNCH
In the lunchroom, the teenagers and staff sit at circular tables. Over bowls of potato soup, they talk about comics, camping trips, favorite foods, and to-do lists. It’s a scene that plays out in many homes across the country. But something many of the troubled teens here have never experienced. Family mealtime. Family prayer, and conversation. Here’s staffer Sharon Palmer.
PALMER: The overall goal would be like doing fun things that healthy families do together.
Since it began in the 1970s…Christian Encounter has been working to help struggling young people. At first, those young people were hippies living in the woods of Northern California. A couple of young men from a local college saw these young drifters needed structure and Jesus. So they purchased 180 acres of land in the woods an hour north of Sacramento. Current Christian Encounter director Nate Boyd says, overtime, volunteers began to make the ministry more permanent.
BOYD: At first it was just tents, and then generators....And then slowly bit by bit, the program formed and buildings were put together, and many, many amazing stories of the Lord's provision as he started to shape what this was becoming.
Today, Cristian Encounter’s focus has shifted to caring for troubled teenagers from across the country. These young people come from an array of family situations: single-parent homes and two-parent ones. Christian and non-Christian. Big cities and small towns. Some are in foster care. But they all share similar struggles. Trauma. Physical and sexual abuse. Mental health issues. Or substance abuse. Teens come here for a minimum of one year to process, heal, and grow.
BOYD: When a kid arrives, we get to slowly start getting to know them and figuring out what does this person need?
The program has four umbrellas: counseling, education, discipleship, and work training. Director Nate Boyd says dealing with each of these areas allows the program to address every part of a teen’s life.
BOYD: And the people who are running those departments talking together every week about each kid. There's no silo thinking that develops. It's so thoroughly and carefully integrated.
Christian Encounter hosts up 16 teenagers at one time. Keeping the program small is important to the staff. They want it to feel like a family. Not a program.
BOYD: We try to maintain this like small tight knit community with lots of love and support.
During the week, most of the teens attend classes at Christian Encounter’s small school. This afternoon, it’s English class. They’re learning how to cite sources in their research papers.
TEACHER: Do you know what that means? The date of access? Okay, if you're doing research, and you're on a website, what day did you actually go in and read about Harriet Tubman...
Suzanne Hartley is the school principal. She says many of the students arrive with big gaps in their education. Some struggle to read.
HARTLEY: I'd say probably at least 80 percent come here with some deficit in, in their schooling.
Christian Encounter teachers look at each student’s transcript. Then they decide what classes they need to take or retake to graduate. Teachers keep the classes really small: three to five students.
HARTLEY: When they're only three kids....in a classroom, I can slow down for somebody if I need to, or I can spend a Saturday with them working.
As the students reach the end of their time at Christian Encounter, teachers help them figure out what’s next…whether that’s the military, trade school, a university, or getting a job.
HARTLEY: We want to have school be a place where we're equipping them for whatever that is and helping them also figure out what's realistic for themselves.
During the day when the teens aren’t in classes, they are working around the property. Doing dishes, making lunch, sweeping, or doing building maintenance. They also take care of the large grounds.
SOUND: Fire burning
Today after classes, three of the guys are raking up dried pine needles and branches and throwing them into a controlled bonfire. By keeping dead brush cleaned up, they’re protecting the property from wildfire. As they work, they joke around and talk about where they grew up.
AMBI: Chatting, laughing
TEEN: While we're doing this, we're talking a lot.
Kevin Campbell watches over them. He’s an intern. Interns are young people who commit to living full-time at Christian Encounter for up to two years. At Christian Encounter every student gets their own intern who acts as a friend and mentor.. The interns also oversee the work programs. Campbell says being out here all together, working and accomplishing a goal is healing. It also teaches practical life skills.
CAMPBELL: We actually love these kids well, by creating a structure for them that they can expect… even having a schedule is actually therapeutic.
The interns spend a lot of time with the students. That gives them a chance to show unconditional love. It also opens the door to a lot of conflict.
CAMPBELL: Some student conflict is like, they just don't want to go to the Work Program, or they don't want to go to school…to as big as they're dealing with things with the past. They really just ready to take it out on you and they want to fight and like sometimes physically. Not very often, but… Conflict doesn't mean things are wrong, necessarily. Like conflicts actually a sign of healthy relationship that there's growth being had.
Sometimes that conflict is internal. 17-year-old Timothy came to Christian Encounter two months ago. He’s from Los Angeles. He wears a black stocking hat and a black T-Shirt. Pen drawings cover his arms. Before he came here, Timothy was suicidal. His parents admitted him to a hospital psych-ward.
TIMOTHY: A lot of it started when I was younger. Stuff going on with between my mom and dad… that caused a lot of pain.
Timothy says at Christian Encounter he’s wrestling with his past, and he’s wrestling with who God is.
TIMOTHY: There's just anger towards God, and for some things that's been happening and has happened.
He’s been going to counseling, attending church and Bible studies and talking with his intern and staff. Working and being outside, laughing and being away from his phone and social media, all helps him feel better.
TIMOTHY: I'm a lot less anxious… I'm not as depressed being here as I was at home.... You're around each other all the time… And you know, at some point they'll see your lowest lows and like you're really happy times… And they want to get to know you. And because they want to get to know you're like, these people are pretty, pretty cool.
A family and unconditional love is what many of the teens that come to Christian Encounter are looking for. And when they find it, it can change everything. Jackie Turner came to Christian Encounter when she was 19. Before that, she spent a lot of her life in foster care. When she was with family, they abused her. Even though they were in ministry.
TURNER: I would go to church, and I would experience hearing the gospel, but then behind the scenes be treated really poorly... I looked out at the world. And yet it was like I was screaming outside and inside. And yeah, it was like no one could hear.
At Christian Encounter, Turner says all of her scars were ripped wide open. She remembers how an older woman on staff would hug her and show her love, even though she was often cold and withdrawn.
TURNER: When I came here, I was so angry…it was just anger, pure anger. And she would—despite what I looked like, and despite my nonverbal cues.. she would come close, and she would hold me tight. She would come close and give me that hug anyway.
Jackie Turner ended up staying at Christian Encounter for two years. When she left, she was a different person.
TURNER: My whole life before here, was all destruction, chaos, pain, abuse, trauma and all types of stuff. I got here in rage, I left here with full hope.
Turner is now 34. She went on to graduate from college with honors. And now, she works with homeless and abused women and children. Director Nate Boyd says it’s difficult to think about the thousands of other teenagers like Jacqueline Turner who are suffering somewhere…with no one to rescue them. But here, they focus on being the hands and feet of Jesus to the ones God does bring them.
BOYD: The Lord puts His love for them in our hearts. They are such treasures. And we get to see that.
Before we end today, we return to a roundtable discussion between our three reporters that took place after their field reporting trips. WORLD’s Bonnie Pritchett is our moderator.
BONNIE PRITCHETT: So tell me about it. Because y’all have done this before. Like I said, this was my first road trip. What was striking about some of these once you got to talking to the people and seeing what they were doing?
SOPHIA LEE: I actually really liked that there was quite a diversity. Some of them, like when you went and visited their website, I was like, “Okay, here's another homeless shelter. Oh, here's another after school program. Oh, I know you have residential program.” But when we actually went to visit, it was definitely way more amazing than I thought it was in print or on their website.
SARAH SCHWEINSBERG: For me, it's just seeing the holistic—that word might be overused—but really the holistic care that they offer, and how thoughtful they are and how they do that. And so at the after school program, they're helping these kids with meals, tutoring, and getting involved in dance and music and the arts, but they also know their families. And, you know, they're discipling them, they're helping them fill out college applications. They're not just, you know, really looking at one need.
They're caring about their entire life from the time that they're 4 years old to when they're adults in a lot of cases. And I think, like Sophia mentioned, you don't get that from their website. But being there in person, and just hearing the love and the passion and how that love and passion isn't blind, but it translates into really smart strategies that help kids out.
SOPHIA LEE: Yeah, this is a very complex issue. And these nonprofits weren't just dealing with an individual, which is very important, but they also saw the broken systems. And they addressed it. And not just where they harp about self-sufficiency and personal responsibility, but they also saw that poverty is more than just an individual issue.
BONNIE PRITCHETT: Kind of on a similar note, when you and I were in Washington and Oregon, we were also assigned to get a story on Seattle and Portland, one year after the protests. And I'll, of course, the protests are still ongoing, mainly in Portland. But they had also been sporadic throughout Seattle, and we'd visited the Chop Area and talked to folks there.
But I'd been doing some reading to try to get up to snuff on those issues in Portland and Seattle, on the violence and all. And so that was in the back of my head, as we were doing these stories, as we're doing the interviews. These places were removed from those downtown events, but at the same time, the violence and the upheaval just represented to me a lot of the things you were just talking about Sophia, when people are frustrated or angry or sinful—can we say—and they and they vent in a way that is destructive and so there's this chaos going on.
And yet there's this, if I can use the phrase, this glimmer of light, I think of the 1000 points of light, you know, Bush got mocked for that. But it really is true, it's just this little weak point of white that you can see when things are really, really dark. That's the one thing you can see. And it’s these ministries that are just plugging away. They're just doing what God called them to do right there in that neighborhood and that little community. And it may not seem like it's having an impact on the big stuff that gets on the nightly news. But they persevere, they keep doing because that's what they're called to do. And they're helping people change their lives. And that's just really encouraging.
SARAH SCHWEINSBERG: I would just add one more thing. What struck me also is that none of these ministries were really concerned with outcomes, in the sense of, you know, success rates, or, you know, only wanting to help certain people, if they were at a certain place in their life. Or if they thought, you know, this person could get straightened out in the end. They really just throw out the love of God, to anyone who's willing. And when people aren't ready to get help, they're not ready to comply with the program, or stick around, they're okay with that. They can leave. But they don't worry about who deserves help or who doesn't. It's just, you’re human. We love you because Jesus loves you. We're here to help.
SOPHIA LEE: Yeah, one thing that was convicting personally for me, is, I think, going to these places reminded me again, that these are human beings made in the image of God. And obviously, I know that, but also just highlighting the fact once more that these are not just flesh and blood walking around. There is an actual spirit in there.
There are a lot of secular nonprofits that are really doing really good work. But what I really appreciate is that these Christian nonprofits go even deeper. They address not just the individual's physical and mental and emotional needs, but the spiritual needs. And that's something that's very lacking and in secular nonprofits, that ultimately, it's also a spiritual issue. Yes, it is a physical, material, mental and emotional issue.
So Sarah, you talked about the holistic part. I mean, it's, it's Yes, it's an overused word. But it is vital that you address all of these components of what makes up a human being. And we are created in the image of God, meaning we have a spirit that has deep, deep need that has to be met. And these nonprofits don't forget about that. They don't forget that people have a soul too.
You can change the behaviors, you can change that person's conditions and income level by this, but at the end of the day, you also have to change that person's entire being, by going through death and resurrection in Christ.
AJB: That’s WORLD’s Sophia Lee, Sarah Schweinsberg, and Bonnie Pritchett with reflections on their reporting trips for this year’s Hope Awards for Effective Compassion.
Again, our nominees this year are:
East County Transitional Living Center
Safe Harbor Free Clinic
And Christian Encounter.
Voting is open now. Cast your ballot at wng.org/compassion.
And remember, we can each be the hands and feet of Jesus all year round, anytime, anywhere.
Thank you for listening to this special episode of The World and Everything In It and Effective Compassion. Our script writers are Sarah Schweinsberg and Bonnie Pritchett. Our managing editor is Leigh Jones, and executive producer is Paul Butler. I’m your host Anna Johansen Brown.
WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.