Like most kids, Shawn Yinger, 22, grew up watching television. Unlike them, he had a crack-addicted mom who'd pawn the family's set around the middle of every month for food and rent money. "It made me feel lesser to everybody else, because a lot of other people in 'hood, you know, go through struggles. But they had their TV all month," Shawn remembers with a shrug.
Shawn is one of many teens in the tough Franklinton neighborhood of Columbus, Ohio, whose life prospects have brightened through Central Ohio Youth for Christ's City Life program. The initiative pairs poor kids with mentors and engages them in a variety of discipleship and vocational programs. Recently, City Life won first prize in the 10-state "Partners in Transformation" awards program sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts, besting 101 other Ohio applicants.
Nine faith-based groups from other states also received $5,000 cash grants for effectively partnering with non-religious organizations. The winning programs from among 475 entries move homeless families into stable housing, keep troubled kids in school, help ex-offenders to walk the straight and narrow, mentor refugee families, and train the chronically unemployed for work.
Shawn's mentor Jack Strack admits that at first he was pessimistic: "Shawn was hardly able to sit and listen to five minutes of biblical instruction. He and his buddies would just laugh and joke and at times it seemed like this was just never gonna work." But over the years, Shawn cultivated a relationship with Christ and a desire to influence others' lives. At 16, he moved in with his mentors. Today, as he works on his GED, he is one of three "Volunteers in Training" with Youth for Christ (YFC). "A lot of people do the suit and collar thing," Shawn explains. "I still want to have baggy jeans and have people say, 'That's good to see this guy stayed right here in the 'hood and didn't leave; that he's willing to go through the struggle to help spread the Word for less fortunate kids.'"
Because of Shawn's influence, Mo Smith, 21, joined City Life and now works as a paid intern with the ministry. Mo could relate to Shawn's story: When Mo was 2 his dad died of a drug overdose, and his mom has long been addicted to crack. As a sophomore, Mo came to realize that his job at Long John Silver's was mainly just supporting his mom's drug habit. With help from mentors Brian and Lisa Gintz, Mo extracted himself from the unhealthy relationship and completed high school-a noteworthy achievement in Franklinton, where nearly 60 percent of students fail to graduate. Today, Mo, Shawn, and other City Life grads eat at least weekly with the Gintz family. Lisa explains that this affords many "teaching moments" in which she and her husband can tutor the youth in life skills such as setting boundaries and managing money: "We want these kids to be thriving to the point of philanthropy, to giving something back."
Such a goal sets apart deeply transformational programs from those that provide temporary Band-Aids but encourage little permanent change. YFC Executive Director Scott Arnold uses an evaluation grid for tracking individual progress in the areas of relationships, finances, job skills, and "civic literacy." His ambition isn't just "fixing" kids, but moving them from getting to giving.
That's also the desire of another winner, Second Genesis. The Little Rock--based faith-based organization's intensive, residential program works with parole officers to help Arkansas women with prison pasts, such as Melissa Shireman, stay out of jail for good. During previous paroles Ms. Shireman, 43, had moved back in with her mother in her "itty bitty" hometown of Beebe, Ark. But in 2001 her mom drew a line: Knowing her daughter was likely to fall right back into old associations and patterns, she told her to look elsewhere for housing.
Hurt, but sensing deep down that her mother was right, Ms. Shireman applied for an interview with Cynthia Martin, then the director of Second Genesis. The applicant recalls, "She looked me in the eye and I looked her in the eye and I totally poured my heart out. I was so tired of doing the same old thing and getting the same result. And she told me that they could help me with new life skills, and that they'd give me that opportunity if I honestly wanted to change my life." Ms. Shireman moved into a house with six other women, and for the next three months she worked 30 hours a week at Chik-Fil-A, abided by a 5:30 p.m. curfew, shared chores with her housemates, and participated in evening classes most weeknights.
"I did the program and all the classes-everything. I applied it to my own life," she emphasizes. "If you don't apply it, that's where you go wrong." With help from mentors and lessons learned from classes on parenting, budgeting, and boundaries, Ms. Shireman began to thrive. She moved into the program's Phase II-sheltered living in affordable housing for up to two years-and repaired her relationship with her teenage son and her family. Last fall she began working as the weekend relief person for her house manager, and early this year became the full-time house manager. "She is one of the best people we've had in the position," Ms. Martin said. "She saves the program money by finding out about goods and services that can be donated, and has done a lot of legwork to find out where the women can obtain free medicine."
And like Shawn, Ms. Shireman has been able to effect change in those around her who share her life experiences. She tells of a 24-year-old single mom just out from her first offense, who recently graduated Phase I: "Her self-esteem was underneath her shoe when she came. She had some teeth missing in the front and some real problems with her self-worth. I've worked on that with her one on one. And a few days ago we went and got her some teeth. And now she just smiles all the time. She has really blossomed."
The anecdotes from City Life and Second Genesis are encouraging, and so are the statistics. In the face of Franklinton's high drop-out rate, 93 percent of youth engaged in City Life stay in school. Though 15 percent enter the program with a juvenile record, only 5 percent of program graduates continue to run afoul of the law. Second Genesis' recidivism rate among program graduates is just 9 percent, versus the 42 percent Arkansas state average.
Other faith-based award winners also boasted impressive outcomes. A 1998 HUD study showed that about half of the participants in typical transitional housing programs move on to permanent housing, but in Michigan 80 percent of the homeless families Good Samaritan Ministries mentors in its Community Housing Program move into stable, affordable housing, and 20 percent become homeowners. And in New Jersey, the Elijah's Promise job training program has put 97 percent of its 150 graduates into jobs, with a 95 percent job retention rate. That's 20 percentage points higher than the New Jersey state average.
-Amy L. Sherman is a Senior Fellow at the Sagamore Institute for Policy Research. For details on the 2006 Partners in Transformation contest, visit www.FASTENnetwork.org