Teen Challenge: Kicking Two Bad Habits

Two addictions eating away at American life are drugs and government. Excessive dependence upon either one undermines personal character and individual initiative. In Muskegon, Michigan, a remarkably successful organization is fighting drugs without a dime of public money-in effect, kicking two bad habits at the same time.

Founded in 1969, Western Michigan Teen Challenge reaches out to hurting, broken young people not only in its corner of our state, but across Michigan and beyond as well. As one of the three largest of 126 Teen Challenge centers in the U.S., the Muskegon group is recognized as a model of an effective, private charity that addresses a pressing social problem. "We no longer have to lose loved ones to the slavery of drug addiction," says the optimistic Reverend Phil McClain, program director for Western Michigan Teen Challenge.

Good news on the drug front is hard to find these days. According to Matthew Robinson in Investor's Business Daily, drugs are placing an increasing burden on hospital emergency rooms. He cites a study from the federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) which recently revealed that between 1992 and 1995, total "drug-related episodes" grew an astonishing 30 percent in the U.S. Over that four-year time period, episodes involving cocaine rose 33 percent, while those involving heroin rose 77 percent.

So successful is Teen Challenge in its drug rehabilitation efforts that another HHS study conducted by Dr. Catherine Hess reported an astonishing "cure rate" of 86 percent. That means that six of every seven students who complete the Teen Challenge program are drug-free six years after graduating. Government programs often report success rates of less than 20 percent, and usually at much higher cost. In fact, many who fail in government programs seek help from Western Michigan Teen Challenge.

What makes this private group so effective? Some would call it "tough love." Disciplined work and study are part of the daily routine for the young people in its program. So is prayer and Bible study, which McClain believes are the keys to the program's success. "When a student gets right with God, that is the starting point for progress," he says.

The Muskegon facility houses about 130 students year round. Their work day consists of general maintenance such as lawn care, painting, cleaning, waxing floors, and helping prepare food. Work is essential not only for the mental health of the students, but for the financial health of the organization. Even with all the work the students do, Teen Challenge still needs $6,000 per year per student to operate. Those funds come entirely from the business community, private individuals and families, and churches.

The men and women have separate facilities and dormitories, but they come together for chapel and some classes. Assistance is provided to those who have not yet earned a high school diploma. Since many of the students are from broken homes, Teen Challenge invites them to be part of their "extended family" of pastors, teachers, and counselors. "Some of these kids have been so abused and so abandoned that sometimes they just hug each other, pray, and cry together," says McClain. The counseling received by the students is exceptional, providing the mentoring, character building, and spiritual dimension crucial to successful rehabilitation. Eventually, McClain adds, many Teen Challenge graduates "go on to careers in business, the ministry, or other places where they can practice what we preach here."

Local civic and church groups are inspired to assist Teen Challenge whenever they have an opportunity to hear the testimonies of students in the program. A young man from Boyne City named Allan, for instance, describes the trauma when he was eight years old and his parents divorced. In confusion, he began to "drink and do drugs every day." Finally, he found his way to Western Michigan Teen Challenge. "Since I've been here, I've written my dad and told him how my life has changed. Our relationship is being restored and he's now my best friend."

Teen Challenge's good works are in the best tradition of private, charitable activity for which Americans are famous the world over. Alexis de Tocqueville, the French social commentator who visited America in the 1830s, noted the vast, uniquely American network of voluntary groups. He called them "associations" and argued that they, not government, were best suited to meet human needs and solve social problems. "Feelings and opinions are recruited, the heart is enlarged, and the human mind is developed," Tocqueville wrote, "only by the reciprocal influence of men upon each other."