Cover Story

Stamped Out

Ten years ago Governor George W. Bush jump-started his faith-based initiative by standing up to Texas bureaucrats over licenses for Teen Challenge. Now Bush administrators in Washington are hassling Teen Challenge groups around the country. The reason? Licensing.

Issue: "Faith-based about-face," Aug. 27, 2005

On a steamy August morning in Brockton, Mass., 23 men in crisp, red shirts sit shoulder to shoulder in the tunnel of a full-service car wash, praying that the equipment will run smoothly and that their souls will remain steady. It's 6:15 a.m., and the staff of the Star Shine Car Wash is beginning the day with worship. After prayer, Dave Mazzarella, one of the managers of an operation that services nearly 100 cars a day, walks through an immaculate, lemon-scented check-out area stocked with everything from car mats to key chains. "If you could have seen this place four years ago, it was a total wreck," he says. So were the lives of many of the car wash's staff.
Star Shine Car Wash, with its blue-and-white sign advertising "the proven cure for the dirty car epidemic," is an initiative of a local chapter of Teen Challenge, a Christian-based, residential drug and alcohol recovery program. Founded in 1958 by David Wilkerson, Teen Challenge has 185 centers across the United States serving some 5,000 residents with a recovery approach that's Christ-saturated and work-driven. More than 2,000 men and women graduate annually from the one-year program, and Teen Challenge boasts long-term success rates of 67 percent to 85 percent among graduates.

The program's impressive results have drawn accolades from Presidents Ronald Reagan and both presidents Bush. George W. Bush, who credits faith in Christ in his own victory over extensive alcohol use, has praised Teen Challenge for a decade, saying it works "to change people's lives by changing their hearts." In 2003 Mr. Bush invited Teen Challenge graduate Henry Lozano to sit in the First Lady's box as an honored guest during the State of the Union address in which the president told the nation: "Let us bring to all Americans who struggle with drug addiction this message of hope: The miracle of recovery is possible, and it could be you."

But just two years later, Teen Challenge is surprised to find itself ensnared by the same administration that has been one of its biggest cheerleaders. The battleground: federal food stamp regulations hindering men and women who are working to overcome addictions at Teen Challenge centers in four states.

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Teen Challenge gained national attention in 1995 when the Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse (TCADA) threatened to shut down Teen Challenge of South Texas because its counselors refused to trade in their faith-based approach for a "medical model" based on the concept that alcoholism is a disease rather than a manifestation of sin. (All Teen Challenge centers pass local health and safety inspections, and the national organization maintains tough internal standards.) After a much-publicized rally at the Alamo, George W. Bush, then governor of Texas, rode to the rescue, pushing forward state legislation that exempted many faith-based social programs from state interference. It was a major victory for Teen Challenge and the opening of what became Mr. Bush's faith-based initiative.

Ten years later, tables have turned. Roy Follis, director of Teen Challenge San Antonio, was bewildered when he received a memo last August from TCADA stating that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) had determined that residents of Teen Challenge centers in Texas are no longer eligible to receive food stamps. The reason: The centers aren't licensed by the state.

With Teen Challenge receiving no direct government funding for its programs, and most residents unable to pay the $3,000 monthly program costs, the organization has found financial relief through the USDA's food stamp program for 30 years. Almost half of Teen Challenge residents are eligible for food stamps, and they typically turn over the stamps to Teen Challenge staff, who pool them and buy food for the program residents.

Mr. Follis says his center counted on the food stamps for nearly half its annual food budget for the 65 men at the 36-year-old center on 108 acres of rural Texas farmland. "Those stamps meant a lot to the center," he says, but they stopped coming last November: "Being cut off is breaking us."

The cutoff also threatens to break Teen Challenge centers in Oregon, Florida, and Massachusetts. Teen Challenge New England received a memo early this year from the Boston Field Office for the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service (FNS). It stated that Teen Challenge Boston must apply for its residents to continue to participate in the food stamp program, so the Boston center applied, only to be denied. FNS upheld the action, stating in a memo, "The basis for your denial was that your program is not licensed by the state of Massachusetts." Teen Challenge Brockton received a memo this month from the Boston USDA field office indicating that its residents would be cut off from food stamps as well.

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