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.
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.
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."
When men in the unit are released from prison, Ms. Haaland encourages them to enter one of the Teen Challenge centers in Massachusetts. That's what Michael Plant hopes to do if he is paroled this month. Mr. Plant, 37, sporting a neat haircut and a khaki prison uniform, has been in the county jail's Teen Challenge unit for six months and says, "I've experienced more growth here than in all my time in prison combined. . . . I feel more productive, more real." Mr. Plant says he's learned what it takes to keep his commitment to Christ and to his family, and he plans to enter Teen Challenge Brockton to complete his recovery when he's released: "With all my heart, if they told me I could go home today, I'd go straight to Brockton."
Back in Brockton, Mr. Hart is working with Bob Woodson of the Washington, D.C.-based National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, who fought for Teen Challenge during the Texas controversy in 1995. Mr. Woodson has asked the White House for a meeting with the Secretary of Agriculture to discuss what he calls the agency's "hostile" actions toward faith-based groups. If that meeting doesn't materialize, Mr. Woodson and Teen Challenge leaders plan to stage a protest rally in the capital next month. Teen Challenge supporters will also be seeing if Jim Towey, head of the White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives, can help.
In the meantime, the USDA continues a national advertising campaign to drum up takers for the federal food stamp program. The agency's Food Stamp Outreach Coalition laments that "only 62 percent of the people eligible for food stamps actually receive them," and that in 2001 "about $6 billion available to fight hunger and improve nutrition was lost" because not enough people signed up for the program.