Cover Story

Stamped Out

"Stamped Out" Continued...

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

The Boston field office referred WORLD's questions about the Teen Challenge case to Susan Acker at the USDA, who said: "My understanding is that Teen Challenge is a residential drug and alcohol treatment center, and they are not authorized to participate in the food stamp program." Ms. Acker, saying pending litigation prevented her from further discussing the Teen Challenge case, declined to answer general questions about how the food stamp program works. Nor did she say why the USDA has singled out some Teen Challenge centers and left others alone-but Teen Challenge directors are wondering who might be next.

"Teen Challenge has been participating in the food stamp program since 1975 with no problems," says Teen Challenge attorney Brad Martin. "What happened?"

Mr. Martin filed a complaint against the government in July on behalf of Teen Challenge New England, which also has centers in Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island. "It's ironic because if you're living on the streets and doing drugs, you could get food stamps," he says. "But if you move into a faith-based program to get help, you can't get food stamps."

Rodney Hart, director of Teen Challenge New England, says that creating a separate category for faith-based groups on a federal level is key to solving "a serious glitch that needs to be fixed at a higher level."

"The government does not have a lens to interpret faith-based recovery centers," he says. "It only recognizes the disease model, which is totally irrelevant to us." Mr. Hart adamantly refuses to obtain a state license, saying it would mean "obtaining an identity that doesn't correspond to who we are. . . . It would be like getting a deer-hunting license to hunt crocodiles."

In the meantime, Beto Benitez, supervisor of the Teen Challenge center in Brockton, will be hunting for ways to keep food on the table for the 80-plus men in the local program. "Men come in here looking like sticks," says Mr. Benitez. "When they sit down to eat in our cafeteria, we want to make sure they eat well." Food stamps have provided roughly $150 for each man per month in Brockton, totaling nearly $200,000 a year. "It's going to be very, very difficult without them," he says.

Dealing with difficulty won't be anything new for Mr. Benitez. The 33-year-old native of Paraguay learned about addiction recovery by walking through the fire himself. "I was shooting up by the time I was 12," he says, pointing out track-mark scars on both arms. By the time he was 17 Mr. Benitez was in jail, where he encountered Rodney Hart, who was then overseeing Teen Challenge of Paraguay. "He introduced me to Jesus and has been my father ever since," says Mr. Benitez.

Mr. Hart, a 1976 graduate of Teen Challenge, mentored Mr. Benitez for the next nine years and helped him overcome addiction. In January 2000, when he became director of Teen Challenge New England, Mr. Hart brought his spiritual son to Boston. Mr. Benitez had never been to America and spoke no English when he arrived. Five years later, his English is excellent, and he drives through Boston rush-hour traffic like a pro, juggling a Blackberry and a Dunkin' Donuts iced coffee.

Mr. Benitez is the go-to guy in Brockton, overseeing a center that includes the car wash, a thrift store, a catering business, contract labor, and a choir ministry, all manned by residents and graduates of the program. "Work is recovery," he says. Program residents also study the Bible and a curriculum designed to teach the principles of disciplined, Christian living. "The heart and soul of the program are discipleship and leadership," says Mr. Benitez. "We are a leadership factory."

Peter Fabiano, 37, came to the Brockton program five years ago "broken, desperate, and suicidal," even sneaking drugs into the program. Now he's a product of that "leadership factory" and the supervisor of a center 30 miles south, in Fall River. Mr. Fabiano sits at a large conference table in a short-sleeved dress shirt and gray tie, explaining why Teen Challenge worked for him when other recovery programs failed: "The Lord used it to deal with my heart, and that's what had to be done." In January Mr. Fabiano married the supervisor of the Teen Challenge women's center in Rhode Island, and the couple hopes eventually to open a new center in Maine.

Mr. Benitez is puzzled by the federal government's food stamp revocation, especially in light of Teen Challenge's positive relationship with local governments even in liberal Massachusetts. South of Boston, for example, Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson was so enthusiastic about Teen Challenge that he bought a house with county money and asked Teen Challenge to run it as a halfway program. The sheriff also charged reintegration officer Marcy Haaland with creating a Teen Challenge unit in the county jail. The 22 men in the minimum-security unit work through Teen Challenge curriculum under the daily oversight of two Teen Challenge ministers. "I see a big change in a lot of these guys," said Ms. Haaland. "I send men to our clinical-based substance-abuse program every day, and I see the same guys coming back to jail again and again. The Teen Challenge program really seems to work."

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