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Macon disciples

"Macon disciples" Continued...

Issue: "Africa, Inc.," Oct. 10, 2009

On an afternoon tour of Macon's inner-city neighborhoods, Lowden points out those situations: houses with crumbling porches and boarded-up windows serving as homes and crack houses. He points down a side street near a liquor store with barred windows: "Robberies and drugs all night long." Cars suddenly slow down in front of an abandoned storefront where a couple of women linger outside: "Prostitution row," Lowden explains.

It doesn't shock Lowden: Growing up in poverty, Lowden's mother used drugs and abused him. His father wasn't around. But a Christian aunt always invited him to church and lunch: "She offered me banana pudding, and I found Jesus."

After Lowden's conversion, he pursued college and graduate school, California politics, and a lucrative career at a high-profile pharmaceutical company. Then, Lowden gave it all up: He turned down a $170,000 job offer in Atlanta to take a $40,000 position working for Campus Clubs, he says: "When I saw kids who were like me, I couldn't walk away."

That meant not walking away from Deion Howard, a 15-year-old who lives with his single mother and an older brother. A second brother is awaiting trial for murder. Last fall, Howard suffered an excruciating trial of his own: While fingering a gun that he found on a table in his house, he accidentally shot and killed his younger brother.
His school kicked him out. No other school would immediately enroll him. So staffers at Campus Clubs arranged for Howard to continue his lessons at their offices. He re-entered another public high school in January and has the highest grade point average in his math class. He would be the first in his family to graduate from high school.

"The ministry is my family," says Howard. Now, he faces a new trial: His mother is battling a recurrence of breast cancer. If she doesn't make it, Lowden says she's asked him to raise Howard. Lowden says he wouldn't hesitate: "I'd take him in today."

But Lowden admits not everyone makes it: He's seen kids go back to gangs, drugs, and violence. He's visited hospitals and gone to funerals.

Still, a Campus Clubs mentoring program aims to match some 175 students with volunteer mentors who will keep them accountable. A slew of report cards covering Lowden's office door shows many are succeeding: The cards belonging to Campus Club students display good grades and encouraging notes from teachers.

For these kids, education is crucial, says Lowden: "We can invite kids to Christ, but if they can't read and write, the Bible means nothing to them." The ministry has long offered afterschool programs that included help with homework but now aim higher: Campus Clubs now partners with PITSCO, a national educational company specializing in math, science, and technology.

Campus Clubs has now set up PITSCO labs in eight satellite sites in Macon and the surrounding region. Students can do hands-on projects in engineering, cell reproduction, crime analysis, and other subjects. Groups of four work together to build solar panel cars, miniature hot air balloons, and robots.

Local school officials, working in a high-poverty school district where budget cuts limit afterschool programs, are impressed. Lisa Herring, director of student support services for the local school district, often refers students to Campus Clubs. She says other nonprofits in town do good work, but she knows of nothing else that matches Campus Clubs' educational programs and character emphasis: "They've made an indelible imprint on Macon."

They've also made an indelible imprint on Shaqudaway Hiley. The 22-year-old began attending Campus Clubs when she was 11. With a mother addicted to cocaine and a father who died of AIDS, Hiley says the ministry saved her: "I just didn't have anyone else positive around me."

Hiley has nearly completed an associate's degree in criminal justice, and she now serves as a volunteer helping with young girls at Campus Clubs. Shirlynn Kelly has worked particularly closely with Hiley, who now says, "I just want to give back what Miss Shirlynn gave to me."

Even with difficult family situations, Lowden still insists that students' families stay involved: A ministry van picks up kids from school, but a parent or guardian must pick up each student at the end of the day. The ministry also asks parents to volunteer.

Lowden says the local church is crucial too. He criticizes pastors of large churches in needy communities that preach the "prosperity gospel" instead of Christ-centered redemption that produces productive Christians. "You preach prosperity, and look at what it gets you: a community with nothing."

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