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Teen Challenge: conquering drugs and AIDS.


Two men in white lab coats stepped from the AIDS MOBILE and mopped their brows. They had just finished processing the last of the 86 young men and women from inner-city Detroit who had come to be tested for AIDS, and this was their first chance for a breather. "You know,' said a counselor-technician, Andy Burnett, "this has been absolutely amazing--and inspiring. After we've read so much about high-risk groups being driven underground at the prospect of mandatory AIDS testing, here is a high-risk group who absolutely wanted to be tested voluntarily. We offered confidentiality, of course, but that wasn't the most important thing on their mind--do you know what it was? They wanted to know, so that if they did test AIDS positive they wouldn't infect someone they loved. There was no hesitation or fear.'

Walter Dann, a phlebotomist, nodded in agreement. Wherever they had taken the big white mobile lab, people lined up to take advantage of the free, confidential AIDS testing. Almost invariably the people were from low-risk backgrounds--heterosexuals who had never taken drugs intravenously --but they had received blood transfusions. And although they appreciated the personal counseling available, they did not expect to need it; indeed, most simply wanted to make sure that during surgery they had not been infected by a tainted transfusion.

But testing for AIDS was being attacked by some who claimed that it would drive underground the very people it purported to help--those with promiscuous lifestyles and drug abusers who freely exchange dirty needles. Now, as if in answer to such charges, here were 86 young people from high-risk backgrounds who lined up to be tested.

"The thing I can't get over,' Walter said, "is that they're the last ones you'd expect to demonstrate mature social responsibility. You should have seen some of the needle-marks; I've never seen more needle tracks in my life. One boy had to show me how to find the only usable vein he had left. I had to thread the needle through a large, hard scar.'

Andy nodded. "That's what makes it all the more remarkable,' he said. "Street toughs have a phobia about being mistaken for homosexuals. In their culture AIDS is still regarded as a homosexual disease. But these kids have learned that it can be transmitted by heterosexuals and unsterilized needles too. And another thing: I found out in pre-counseling sessions none of them seemed to have any fear of dying themselves. All they wanted to do was protect their families and others. It was really inspiring.'

Had the counselors been outside the vehicle when a Canadian TV field crew covered the event with the Reverended David Mainse and Dr. Cory SerVaas, they might have obtained part of the answer from some of the interviews. These young people were eager to tell their stories on a Canadian network program on AIDS the following day. A powerful-looking young black man named Nathaniel responded to a question from Dr. SerVaas: "Yeah, I was a little nervous, but after praying and asking forgiveness for the things I'd done, there was no more nervousness.' He said with a smile, "They had a little trouble finding a vein; I'd used them all up.' When was the last time he'd taken drugs? "Ten months ago--just before I came to the Detroit Teen Challenge.'

Curious about Teen Challenge, Dr. SerVaas asked a good-looking young white man named Brian how long he'd been in the program.

"Nine months,' the reply came.

Why had he volunteered to be tested?

"Being in the sort of life I was in before--immorality, drugs, sex--I thought I'd better take it. The way it is spreading across the country, everyone should.'

What was so special about Teen Challenge?

"I'd been to secular programs before, but nothing worked, because they were trying to change the outward me and not the inward me. Then I studied the Bible and came to know the Lord. That changed my heart, and that made me want to change the things I wanted to do.'

Earlier, Norma-Jean Mainse, David's wife, had looked out the window of the AIDS MOBILE and called Dr. SerVaas over to see what was going on outside. Holding hands in a circle, three of the Teen Challenge young men were bowed in prayed before they were to come in for their AIDS tests.

The next day, female Teen Challenge students came to be tested. For them, it wasn't just a question of passing AIDS on to a sexual partner should they be AIDS positive. They knew that pregnancy can trigger full-blown AIDS in a hurry and that their babies had nearly 50-50 chances of being born with AIDS.

The AIDS MOBILE had come to Detroit at the request of Teen Challenge to test the young men and women currently in its year-long program. The men had volunteered to appear with Dr. SerVaas on David Mainse's "100 Huntley Street' TV program in Canada.

The staff, which included graduates of the program, was also tested, for the AIDS virus, once contracted, can lie dormant as long as seven years. To a man-- and woman--staff and students were anxious to be tested; some had new families now, and they wanted to know if they were at risk.

As Brian had indicated, this unusual mind-set can be explained by the core of the Teen Challenge philosophy. There are two ways to rehabilitate an addict: change his external environment or change his outlook on that environment. Conventional rehabilitation programs concentrate on the former; Teen Challenge achieves its results by focusing on the latter.

Those results have been astonishing. The federal drug-rehabilitation center at Lexington, Kentucky, closed because its cure rate was no more than 4 percent. The highest cure rates being achieved by psychosociological clinics have been somewhere between 10 and 15 percent. By contrast, the Teen Challenge Training Center at Rehrersburg, Pennsylvania, a nine-month residential program in a rural farm setting, claims a cure rate of 70 percent.

What is Teen Challenge's secret? Its secular counterparts have disparagingly dubbed it "the Jesus factor.' As the head of a New York drug-abuse commission once put it: "There is no denying that evangelical organizations like Teen Challenge, involved in one-on-one street ministry, are achieving remarkable results. But once you bring God into the rehab equation, it is impossible to evaluate their results rationally, and statistics become meaningless.'

Nevertheless, the Teen Challenge claims were originally so startling that they attracted the attention of Health, Education, and Welfare's National Institute on Drug Abuse, which funded a carefully monitored survey to determine if Teen Challenge was guilty of evangelical exaggeration.

Heading the study was Catherine Hess, M.D., the former assistant chief of the Cancer Control Program of the U.S. Public Health Service, who previously had directed the initiation of New York's methadone program. Dr. Hess and her colleagues discovered there was a discrepancy in claimed results--because Teen Challenge used a more rigorous set of criteria. By generally accepted standards, a graduate of a rehabilitation program is regarded as "drug free' if he consumes no more than a six-pack of beer, a bottle of wine, or seven ounces of hard liquor a week--"social drinking,' in other words. He can even use marijuana two or three times a month.

But Teen Challenge takes the term "drug-free' literally: to this program the term means the use of no alcohol or addictive substances whatever, not even nicotine. By the government's more lenient standards the HEW survey, published in 1975, revealed that a phenomenal 86 percent of Teen Challenge graduates were drug free--seven years after completing the program. Recently queried about that Teen Challenge study, Dr. Hess went on record: "It was probably the most effective rehabilitation program I have ever seen anywhere--and it still is.'

Teen Challenge had its beginnings in February 1958, when a young Assemblies of God pastor in a small Pennsylvania town in the Appalachian Mountains sold the family TV set and determined to spend his former late-night viewing time in prayer. Soon afterward David Wilkerson's eye fell on a Life magazine article about seven members of a Brooklyn street gang who were on trial for murder. David felt led to pray for them, and the more he prayed, the more he felt impelled to go to New York to help them.

He arrived too late to affect the outcome of the trial, but just in time to be expelled from the courtroom by the judge--and wind up on the front page of the evening paper. But other members of the gang remembered that he had tried to help, and so they listened as he began to reach out to street people. Against all odds he persevered, and he ultimately wrote a book about it all, which became a 20-million-copy best seller and a movie, The Cross and the Switchblade.

From its beginning nearly 30 years ago, Teen Challenge has been grounded in reality, not wishful thinking. The program's pioneers knew that they could not change the nature of a murderer or a rapist--but that Jesus could. Expecting such a miracle, they introduced street gangs to Him, and miracles followed--like the dramatic conversion and transformation of Switchblade's gang leader.

The influx of heroin in the '60s turned the violence of the streets inward. Now, instead of killing one another, gang members began destroying themselves with heroin habits that often cost more than $100 a day to support. For street junkies there was only one source of such funds, and across the country inner-city crime rates soared.

If it had been hard to reach cynical, street-wise youngsters before, now it was almost impossible. Yet the faith and courage of the Teen Challenge staff remained undaunted. Patiently they would explain to the newest crisis-center arrivals that God loved them and would forgive them and help them lead a new life. And often the newcomer's new-found faith would be a great comfort through the agony of withdrawal.

But detoxification was one thing; rehabilitation and preparation for a return to society were another. In effect, the students had to be mentally repatterned, and so the three- or four-month induction phase was followed by a nine-month training phase, to which several centers have recently added a one-month postgraduate phase.

In a long-term training center like the one at Rehrersburg, the standard curriculum consists of classroom work (mostly Bible study and application of the lessons to everyday situations) in the morning and vocational training in the afternoon--in the print shop, the auto-body shop, the dairy farm, and so on. But morning, noon, and night, students are encouraged to "live in the light' in openness and honesty with one another and with the staff. Indeed, for Teen Challenge, LIGHT is an acronym for "Living in Group Harmony Through Truth.' They learn how to "speak the truth in love' to one another, and because the greatest obstacle in dealing with any addiction is self-deception, sometimes that love has to be tough love.

The program worked, and as the need for it grew, new Teen Challenge facilities opened. Today there are 107 centers, 74 of which are prepared to offer residential care. Of these, 25 are long-term training centers, including 10 for young women and 6 for adolescents 13 to 17 years of age. (Despite its name, Teen Challenge is traditionally for young men 18 to 35.)

Over the years, addition problems became more complex. Young people began experimenting with amphetamines, hallucinogens, and all manner of chemical and biological stimulants --often simultaneously. But gradually alcoholism, the parental addiction of choice, emerged as the No. 1 drug-abuse problem among American teen-agers--and it still is, cocaine following close behind.

In the beginning, nearly all Teen Challenge enrollees came from inner-city ghettos; today they come from all backgrounds and walks of life, from the doctor's daughter to the ditch-digger's son. Parents may be upstanding pillars of their community and their church, but that's no guarantee their offspring won't get into trouble.

According to Teen Challenge's national spokesman, Snow Peabody, as the ministry enters its third generation, the attitudes of churches toward it are changing. "We always knew you were there,' they seem to be saying, "but we never thought we would need you.'

To churches who request help, Teen Challenge centers send teams to share firsthand experiences, answer questions, and raise the awareness level of the churches' young people (and their parents) to the terrifying reality of drugs. In addition, pastors are increasingly looking to Teen Challenge as a valuable resource to which they can refer young people in the grip of life-controlling problems and in need of 24-hour residential care. Clergy and youth leaders are delighted when these troubled young people return from Teen Challenge to become actively involved in the church and their community. Quite a few go on to college, and a number who once robbed businesses now start businesses of their own. (Anyone desiring further information about Teen Challenge or the location of the nearest facility should contact: National Teen Challenge, 1525 North Campbell Avenue, Springfield, MO 65803, or call 417-862-6969.)

Reviewing Teen Challenge's remarkable 30-year track record, one wonders what the dropout rate is. That question was recently put to David Wilkerson's brother Don, who for many years has been executive director of the New York center, the flagship of the Teen Challenge fleet. There, as at several other inner-city centers, an emergency crisis center treats young people whose cases are so desperate that they are sometimes delivered by ambulance. They stay at the crisis center for 30 days, and the dropout rate for this preinduction phase is about two-thirds, many being interested only in what Don calls "three hots and a cot.' From there, they so for three to four months to an induction center, from which another 20 percent leave. The remainder go on to one of the long-term training centers, where 5 percent to 14 percent fail to complete the program.

Because enrollment is strictly voluntary, students are free to leave at any time--and a few, unable to give up their rebellion, are invited to leave. Although this expression of tough love may seem extreme, it is often the key to bringing a student into reality. The program's files abound with examples of dismissed students who determine to reenter the program and complete it--and go on to lead productive lives. Most of them point to the shock of dismissal as being the thing that finally turned them around.

"Our biggest problem is not how many drop out,' Don Wilkerson said with a smile, "but how many more are waiting to get in than there's room for! All of our centers across the country are full; on any given day some 2,500 students are occupying beds.' He added, "Do you know, they camp outside our doors here? We tell them there's no room, and they say, "O.K., maybe there will be tomorrow.' And sure enough, when we open the doors in the morning, there they are, sleeping on the hoods of cars parked in the street out in front.'

The sun was setting over the Detroit skyline as Andy Burnett and Dr. SerVaas wearily began the proccess of closing up the AIDS MOBILE. "You know,' Andy said, putting away the confidential file marked TEEN CHALLENGE, "I think that we should offer to go to any Teen Challenge center who will have us. The attitude of these kids towards AIDS is an example to the entire nation.'

Walter, closing the refrigerator door on the serum samples, laughed. Knowing Dr. SerVaas, he knew she'd already thought of it.'

Photo: A high-risk group of 86 young men and women wanted to be tested for AIDS when the AIDS MOBILE came to inner-city Detroit. "They didn't want to infect someone they love,' says a technician, Andy Burnett.

Photo: All these Chattanooga Teen Challenge members let the pleased First Lady, Nancy Reagan, know they've adopted her "Just Say No' advice.

Photo: John White, a former Chicago gang member, helps clean up the Teen Challenge center that helped clean him up.

Photo: At the Rehrersburg farm in Pennsylvania, hard work builds big appetites!

Photo: "The Teen Challenge [no alcohol or addictive substance] is probably the most effective rehabilitation program I've ever seen,' says Catherine Hess, M.D.

Photo: The Teen Challenge program in Orange County, California, has restored hundreds of students as productive members of society; here a few are restoring a newly purchased facility.

Photo: The first Teen Challenge Training Center was this dairy farm in Rehrersburg, Pennsylvania (above). Today it houses 244 students in its ten-month program. "Jessica' has plowed thousands of miles of furrows in Pennsylvania soil for Teen Challenge (right).

Photo: A Norfolk Teen Challenge group visits the AIDS MOBILE in Virginia. These young men include former needle-sharing, drug-addicted youths whose lives have been resued by this local rehabilitation program. Their leader (second from right), the Rev. Emory DeBusk, is a minister in the Assemblies of God church. These men are in school and are too young to go to the Teen Challenge Training in Rehresburg, Pennsylvania.
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Copyright 1987 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Manuel, David
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Dec 1, 1987
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