MEMPHIS, Tenn. - Every spring as celebrities strut the red carpet outside the Academy Awards in Hollywood, middle-schoolers in Memphis, Tenn., line up for a different kind of awards ceremony.
They're not sporting gowns from Donatella Versace's spring line, but the teens are formally dressed and their nervousness and excitement rivals that of Oscar nominees. As members of the Neighborhood Christian Centers' Youth Multimedia Ministry (YM3), these kids have spent the entire school year preparing original short films that communicate spiritual truths.
"The awards ceremony is their big moment," said Sameka Ballard, coordinator of YM3. "They're up for Best Actor, Best Movie, and the coolest part is they're learning about the Lord and sharing His truth in a fun way." In one YM3 video, kids sing the words, "Maybe you and me can be a family," while dancing in front of a purple wall. Neon letters flash across the screen with Bible verse references as students begin to rap words they wrote: "We have a truthful God. We have a youthful God. We're havin' a party, raisin' the roof for God."
YM3 is a part of Junior TRUTH Seekers (Teens Receiving Understanding Through Him), an after-school Bible study for 8- to 12-year-olds at the Memphis Neighborhood Christian Center, an anti-poverty ministry. TRUTH Seekers also includes a senior group made up of teenagers. For one hour a week, nine months a year, participants meet at one of TRUTH Seekers' 14 sites to sing songs, play games, and complete activities in workbooks. To remain in the program, participants must attend 80 percent of the meetings each semester.
In Senior TRUTH Seekers, teens accumulate points for good attendance and participation in service projects. Students who stay with the program from ninth grade to 12th grade are eligible to receive annually renewable college scholarships ranging from $500 to $1,000. TRUTH Seekers stipulates that scholarship recipients attend one of 13 specific institutions in Tennessee so that the program's leaders can follow their progress; last year five Senior TRUTH Seekers received scholarships.
Many participants "live in unstable environments where they may not know if Mom is coming home tonight or how they're going to find their next meal," says Hattie Porter, a TRUTH Seekers site director. The program maintains sites in four poor Memphis neighborhoods with the goal of providing some continuity in youthful lives and fighting violent behavior and substance abuse. Since many students wouldn't otherwise have transportation to the program sites, TRUTH Seekers has chosen locations close to students' homes and schools.
Porter manages the site at the 208-unit Greenbriar apartment complex. "We're meeting them where they're at," she said while handing an apple, a cellophane-wrapped sandwich, and a carton of chocolate milk to a little girl in pigtails: "We want to feed them spiritually and educationally, but we also take care of their physical needs." About 30 children gathered around a wall-mounted television showing Dora the Explorer in the front room of this apartment converted into a TRUTH Seekers office.
Porter provides lunches five days a week during the summer to the children living at Greenbriar: One day last month, she and her husband Otis handed out 85 lunches to apartment residents. She also keeps a room stocked with clothes for the residents and a mini food bank with a few shelves of canned goods: "We try to meet the needs of the whole family."
Melinda Hurst had a reputation as one of Memphis' big-ticket strippers. For 10 years, she brought in up to $1,000 a night strutting her stuff and shedding her clothes on-stage until the club managers told her she was "too old" to strip. Only 27 years old, Hurst worked in a massage parlor, earned a living as a high-priced escort, then finally became a prostitute with a fierce crack-cocaine addiction. Shortly after beginning her life of prostitution, she lost custody of her four children.
Two and a half years ago, after she served prison sentences for drug and prostitution charges, a counselor referred her to Citizens for Community Values (see "Giving girls their names back," Feb. 11, 2006). Since entering the program, Hurst, now 37, has graduated from community college, regained custody of her three children under 18, and become a homeowner. This fall she is entering Crichton College, a Christian liberal arts university in Memphis, on a full scholarship to pursue a degree in psychology.
Citizens for Community Values began in 1992 as an anti-pornography organization and three years later started tackling Memphis' rampant sex-work industry. The city boasts 11 topless clubs and three massage parlors; 157 escort services take out newspaper ads.
Carol Wiley, who leads CCV's victim-assistance program, A Way Out, focuses on finding former strippers and prostitutes honest jobs, clothes, homes, and transportation. "It takes a lot of courage for women to leave that life," she says: "You're facing things on your own that you've never faced before. It takes up to three years for the women to get strong enough in the Lord and strong enough in their own abilities and life skills to say, 'Hey, I'm ready to fly.'"
A Way Out offers the women mentors, places them in Bible studies, and provides for their material needs. The women then enter a "transition phase" during which Wiley weans them off the program's physical support and encourages them to be on their own. As part of Melinda Hurst's transition out of the program, more than 40 volunteers from A Way Out and another local organization, Service Over Self, renovated a century-old home for her and her kids.
Hurst still depends on A Way Out for some income and for transportation: Her program mentor, Joyce Caldwell, gives the Hurst kids rides to school and takes her to a part-time secretarial job that pays her $10 an hour. A Way Out has a ride committee so that program participants and graduates without cars can still get to doctor's appointments, counseling, and job interviews.
Hurst says, "Before I came to CCV, I was living day-to-day. I . . . woke up every morning thinking about drugs and I went to sleep every night thinking about drugs. My life is completely changed now, and CCV largely contributed to that."