The Christian-based Teen Challenge treatment program is growing in Minneapolis and just earned its first county contract thanks largely to its successes with adults
Minnesota Teen Challenge operates two faith-based, residential chemical dependency treatment programs in Southwest Minneapolis and a third in Elliot Park. Yet despite their name, the organization is more popular with adults.
"Teenagers don’t always see the need for treatment," said Rich Scherber, the executive director for Minnesota Teen Challenge. "The addiction hasn’t caught up with them yet."
The name is a misnomer, but changing it is problematic, Scherber said.
David Wilkerson started Teen Challenge in 1959 as a street ministry for young drug addicts and gang members in Manhattan. His story became famous thanks to the book "The Cross and the Switchblade."
There are over 350 Teen Challenge programs worldwide.
"We haven’t changed the name because, among a lot of Christian circles, people equate Teen Challenge with the story of David Wilkerson and ‘The Cross and the Switchblade,’" Scherber said. "To change the name would change the history of the program and who we are."
Changing the name could also affect fundraising, he said.
Treatment costs roughly $2,550 per month per participant — but the program is free for those who don’t have the ability to pay, Scherber said. Teen Challenge relies on its own fundraising for 70 percent of its $3-million-plus annual budget. The other 30 percent comes from government "group residential housing" payments.
Andrew Ward, 44, heard about Teen Challenge when its choir sang at his Hastings church, New Life Evangelical Free Church.
Ward had formerly worked as a chemical dependency counselor at Hazelden, the famous Center City, Minn. organization, leaving after his own drug relapse, he said. Afterwards, he worked several years as a carpenter.
"I went in and out of losing money and not being stable," said Ward, who has finished 11 months in the program. "Teen Challenge was the only place I could go. I didn’t have any money. I didn’t have any insurance for treatment. They took me right in."
Ward said he did good work at Hazelden, which teaches the Minnesota Model — that addiction is a physical disease.
"I have come to know it is sin and immorality," he said. "It makes treatment a different way of doing things. … I was ready to give my life to Jesus Christ as a new way of living."
A county contract
Teen Challenge currently serves 100 men, 40 women and 37 teenagers. Unlike most residential programs that last 28 days or 60 days, those entering Teen Challenge commit to a 12- to 15-month program.
The rules are strict.
Students — the term used for teens and adults — cannot smoke. They are limited to two cups of coffee a day. They get limited, and highly regulated, off-sites passes and are drug tested upon return.
Each weekday they get up at 6 a.m., have a set schedule of chapel, classes, chores and evening homework and recreation, with lights out at 10:30 p.m.
Everyone sings in the choir, which tours to different churches on Sundays.
Teen Challenge operates three locations in Minneapolis, a men’s and boys’ program at 1609 Portland Ave. S., a men’s program at 3201 1st Ave. S. and a girls’ and women’s program at 1717 2nd Ave. S.
In May, Teen Challenge contracted with Hennepin County to provide 60-day inpatient chemical dependency treatment. Teen Challenge students have always had such a course in its program, but this is the first time the county has paid to place people.
The program covers the traditional issues, like pharmacology and relapse issues, Scherber said, "integrated with Bible verses."
The contract pays $89.74 a day, the county said.
County-paid participants only commit for two months. Teen Challenge will encourage them to stay for the full year, Scherber said.
Teen Challenge also plans to start a two-and-a-half month outpatient drug and alcohol treatment program at 3201 1st Ave. — its first outpatient program. It would serve one or two groups of 16 each, Scherber said.
The Lyndale Neighborhood Association gave its approval in May, requesting updates. The conditional use permit awaits action from the city of Minneapolis Planning Commission.
Teen Challenge has leased the upper floors at 3201 1st Ave. from Stevens Square nursing home since 1993, Scherber said. In October, it took over the basement and first floor of the building and is in the process of remodeling it. Teen Challenge has a 15-year rent-free lease, as long as it maintains the building and doesn’t have behavior problems.
Patricia Behrendt, executive director of the nursing home, wrote a letter of support for the outpatient program, saying Teen Challenge had shared the campus, "with absolutely no problems with their programming or participants. They have been wonderful neighbors and tenants."
A watchful eye
Students do not leave Teen Challenge on their own until they have completed a 60-day chemical dependency program. After two months, they qualify for a four-hour pass to leave Saturday afternoon — but they may only leave with people pre-approved by staff, and for pre-approved activities.
"No one leaves on their own — never," said Terry Francis, program director at 3201 1st Ave.
"One student, his wife is on drugs real bad," Francis said. "He loves his wife. We are trying to get her help. We are not allowing him to see her."
Student Paul Gale, 42, said he had been in treatment six times before, up to 60 days long.
"I needed the time," said Gale, who has completed 8 months in the program. "Anyone can fake it for 28 days. You go nuts if you don’t change here."
"It’s not a bed-and-breakfast. It’s not sit around and drink coffee and smoke cigarettes."
The longer students stay in the program, the longer their passes, Scherber said. Teen Challenge even regulates personal hygiene.
"It’s a requirement that they take a bath. It’s a requirement that they brush their teeth. It’s a requirement that they do their laundry," Scherber said. "If they care for themselves, they will have some esteem."
During the last two months of the program, Teen Challenge works to connect students with churches where they will live, he said: "We hand over responsibility for their souls and their lives."
Teens still challenged
The program still serves youth, like Bonnie and Kaitie, 16.
Bonnie had "a lot of sin problems" she said, cutting herself, drinking, smoking, and having "bad relationships with men."
She also had no relationship with her mom, she said. After eight months in the program, "God, in his grace, has started to restore that relationship."
"My mom is accepting me. She is showing me the love and affection I have always craved."
And that has created another problem.
"I want to go home," Bonnie said. "It’s called Teen Challenge for a reason. It is a challenge to stay."
Kaitie’s case is perhaps more extreme. Her boyfriends were drug dealers. She never got beyond the eighth grade. She knew every cop in her hometown in Decatur, Ill. after arrests for such things as intoxication, obstruction and domestic battery — for physical fights with her mom.
After two months in the program, she said she is thinking differently about her family, "and what I could have had if I had done things differently."
"I can’t wait to go home and have my mom’s food," Kaitie said.
Women’s program struggles
The women’s residential program started in 1999, but enrollment has lagged below 50 percent of its 104-bed capacity, Scherber said. It has dormitory-style living arrangements — two women in each small room with shared bathroom facilities on each floor. The set-up precludes children.
"A lot of moms feel pressure to go back to their children," said Debbie Jonnes, program director, noting three-quarters of the women have children.
In May, the women’s program started a children’s weekend, where girls under 12 and boys under 10 could stay overnight with their moms one Friday a month.
Teen Challenge is investigating whether it could adapt the program to allow pregnant women and women with infants up to age 2 as a way to boost numbers, Scherber said.
"The big piece of the puzzle is day care," he said. "We don’t want to become a licensed day-care facility."
Student Kelly Palmer said women band together because they all miss their kids.
For her first two months, her only contact with her kids was two 10-minute phone calls a week plus a two-hour on-site visit Saturdays, she said.
It’s tough to split the phone call three ways, Palmer said. "When they are upset and crying, I am not there to comfort them."
The measure of success
Citing national studies of Teen Challenge programs, Minnesota Teen Challenge says 86 percent of graduates stay chemically free for years after they leave. It is "a phenomenal success rate in the chemical dependency treatment area," according to its literature.
The figure gets an arched eyebrow from some in the chemical dependency treatment industry, like Dan Cain, president of Minneapolis-based RS Eden. It’s tough to compare success rates between programs, he said.
People choosing faith-based programs have the beginnings of a moral compass and will likely do better in treatment.
Secondly, Cain said, publicly funded programs have to measure the success of everyone who walks through the front door — regardless of whether they complete the program. Teen Challenge statistics don’t do that.
Scherber said 50 percent of those who start Teen Challenge graduate.
Numbers aside, Cain isn’t critical of Teen Challenge program, he said.
"Faith-based programs have value," he said. "They often get rejected out-of-hand because they are faith-based. There are probably a lot of people who don’t benefit — who could benefit — from faith-based programs."
Now that Minnesota Teen Challenge has a Hennepin County contract, its numbers will get added scrutiny.
Bob Olander, director in the county’s children, families and adults department, said the county collects its own data.
"We do very specific outcome-based management of our programs," he said. "We look at retention rates. We look at the number who return to treatment a year later or get rearrested. Teen Challenge goes in the same queue as every new vendor."
The county spends roughly $15 million a year on all forms of chemical dependency treatment, Olander said. Between 1 and 6 percent of that budget goes to faith-based programs, he estimated.
Kelly Palmer: from prostitution to a four-hour pass
Kelly Palmer, 38, mother of three, was a crack addict feeding her habit through prostitution.
A police officer came to her house — a "high-traffic house," she said — and cut her a break. "He could have come in with a felony warrant," Palmer said. "He told me to get the kids out of the house and get treatment."
She had seen dramatic changes in her younger brother who was going through the Teen Challenge program, she said. She started the program at 1717 2nd Ave. S. two months ago and now boasts her longest period of sobriety in 12 years.
Friends of the family are watching the children, she said. And it’s her kids who keep her in the program.
"When I talk to them, I say, ‘I can always come home,’" Palmer said. "My daughter says, ‘no.’ They know what it’s like. They see how well my brother is doing and they want that for us."
After two months, she received her first four-hour pass to leave the facility with her kids.
"We are going to see a movie," Palmer said. "I want to see ‘Star Wars, Episode II. ‘ That or ‘Scoobie Doo.’"
Paul Gale: loving Jesus and liking himself
Paul Gale of South St. Paul, 42, said his family all but said "go die by yourself" because they couldn’t stand watching his drinking.
He hadn’t had an extended stretch of sobriety since he was 13, and during the last 5 years of addiction he was homeless, he said.
His wife left him. He lost contact with his three sons, now 9, 17 and 22. He lost his remodeling business and three houses, he said.
He stayed in his car for a time — until he lost that after his third Driving Under the Influence arrest, Gale said.
A street minister encouraged him to try Teen Challenge, Gale said. He has been in the program for 8 months.
"I am not court-ordered here," he said, taking a break from his afternoon chores. "I can’t tell you the number of times I wanted to leave."
Now, Gale said, his wife is back in his life (she has remarried but they are friends), as are his kids. His brothers and sisters come to visit on Saturdays.
He has a small savings account, Gale said. The pastor helped him get a car. He can get his license back in September, a month before he leaves the program.
"I gave my life to Jesus Christ," he said. "It has given me a purpose and a reason to change my life. Because he thinks something of me, I was willing to change my life. I’m beginning to like me too."