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Opinion >  Column

Sue Lani Madsen: Teen Challenge is a model for how to offer a hand up

Handouts got in the way of a hand up for one man. It was a shockingly easy slide from hardworking small-town student athlete to homeless urban addict.

“There was always a well-intentioned charity handing out sandwiches, making it easy to stay on the street,” said the formerly homeless Tyson West. Now he serves as executive director of the Spokane campus of Adult & Teen Challenge, part of a global ministry with more than 1,400 programs in 125 countries.

Global Teen Challenge is an unabashedly Christ-centered organization. In the United States, 75% of the men, women and teens who enter a 12-month Teen Challenge residential program have been in treatment before. Past studies put the five-year success rate for students who complete the program at 70% to 86%. The National Institute on Drug Abuse cites an average 40% success rate for all long-stay therapeutic community programs, secular and faith-based.

West is a Teen Challenge graduate like one of every three employees. It keeps the curriculum grounded in student realities.

In the dialogue over homelessness in Spokane, West emphasizes a critical distinction between simple financial hardship and substance abuse and/or mental health issues. “You have to get to the root of the problem, not just take away the drug that is more important to the addict than paying rent or holding a job.”

People in rebellion don’t see value in respecting the system but feel entitled to what they want right now. He knows. He was that rebel. He needed a vision for the future and a solid foundation to support it. Therapeutic communities like Teen Challenge transform the heart in addition to providing skills and tools to empower a transformed life.

There is at least one Teen Challenge campus in every state. Washington has four residential locations, plus a jail outreach ministry in Richland. “Our mission is to put hope within reach of every addict,” said West, “and we have a vision for growing the Spokane campus.”

The campus occupies 32 acres north of Fairchild that once housed a missile installation. The treatment program currently occupies less than a third of the site, with plenty of room for physical expansion. But buildings were not top of West’s mind this week. He estimates about 30,000 self-identified addicts in Spokane County, based on data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. With only 50 residential beds at Teen Challenge, it’s clearly not possible to “residential bed our way out of the Spokane problem,” said West.

Chris Hodges, CEO for the Teen Challenge Pacific Northwest Region, began developing the physical potential of the campus when he served as Spokane executive director. That vision has expanded. “With one in seven Americans struggling with substance abuse, we realized we need to do things differently to fulfill our mission,” said Hodges. The 1960s residential treatment model can’t expand fast enough. Teen Challenge has plans to add more prevention and outreach ministries in the region.

West is in the process of adding evidence-based clinical treatment and assessment to the Spokane residential program, with state-certified counselors. It will add government red tape but be worth it if it puts hope in reach of more addicts, according to West. He sees a future campus providing workshops for specialized job skills training for an expanding West Plains industrial base. He sees a permanent home for the annual Teen Challenge Pumpkin Patch, connecting campus to community. He sees transformation of 20 acres of weeds into an orchard and gardens in the middle of a slowly urbanizing neighborhood.

Pastor David Wilkerson had a vision of a call to ministry in New York City from his rural church in Pennsylvania in 1958. He tested his vision in prayer, and what started as a modest outreach to urban gangs turned into Global Teen Challenge. West knows he needs a master plan and a capital campaign, but that’s not the first step on his vision quest. In the Wilkerson spirit, Teen Challenge is organizing a Pray the Vision event on Sept. 21 from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Teams will walk the campus at 2400 N. Craig Road. God only knows where it will lead.

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