Features
James Allen Walker for WORLD

Loving discipline

2010 Hope Awards | Troubled teens find mentors and more at Youth Horizons

Issue: "Profiles in effective compassion," April 24, 2010

WICHITA, Kan.-Gospel singer Earnest Alexander wears many hats at Youth Horizons, the Wichita ministry he helped found 24 years ago. As president of the ministry, he leads a full-time staff of 12, and his gospel concerts at churches across the country are a major source of its funding. But right now, he might as well be wearing a drill sergeant's campaign hat. Face framed by a salt-and-pepper afro, with a multi-colored cardigan draped around his bulk, Alexander is usually more teddy bear than grizzly, but he's not passing up this chance to mentor a youth.

"How much you owe me?" He asks the teen in the living room of the spacious, custom-built home that boys in the Youth Horizons residential program share with their house parents.

The teenager looks incredulous, spreading his arms in an unspoken question . . . is this a joke? But Alexander isn't smiling. He asks again.

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"How much do you owe me? Look in the mirror and tell me how much you owe me." After a tense second, the teenager smiles and removes the offending baseball cap, shrugging sheepishly. Alexander, beaming, folds him into a bear hug.

It would have been an easy thing to ignore the take-off-your-hat-in-the-house rule: After all, Alexander has just dropped by for a visit. But at the Kinloch Boys Ranch, as the facility is called, the little things matter. As house parent William Regier explains, "These kids may not have had any boundaries in the past and that causes intense frustration. They don't even understand why. What kid is going to say, 'I don't have any rules, and that's why I'm mad?'"

That frustration and anger brings many to the residential program in the first place. For some, placed in the program by parents who fear they can no longer control them, it's their last stop before foster care. For others, remanded into a residency program by the state, it's a way to avoid prison. At the ranch, they get loving discipline. The residents have a strict schedule, with a full set of rotating chores and responsibilities: Regier and his wife Stephanie, backed up by Alexander and by Paul Comegys, the Youth Horizons residential director, enforce the rules, emphasizing the positive and negative consequences of actions.

The program, based on the famous Boys Town model, makes sure of its priorities. "We don't worry about winning battles," Regier says. "We want them to know they are loved."

Alexander recently relocated his program to the Kinloch Boys Ranch site, located in Valley Center, a Wichita suburb, both because of space limitations at its previous location (a house in inner-city Wichita) and a desire to get residents out of their familiar environs. The house, built by donations on a stretch of farmland, has an industrial-size kitchen, eight dormitory-style rooms upstairs, and impressive cleanliness: The boys who live there clean up after themselves and cook their own meals.

The boys attend school at the Youth Horizons office in Wichita, doing their lessons on computers, supervised by Regier or the public-school teacher who comes in several times a week. They do basic farm work and maintenance, mowing the grass and trimming the hedges at the ranch, and as they progress through the program have opportunities for jobs and internships. Most important, though, are the Bible studies that residents must attend, for Christ is at the center of the ministry. Youth Horizons doesn't accept any government funding, so its staffers are free to preach the gospel: Even teens remanded by the state must consent to the Christian approach.

Youth Horizons faces an uphill battle with the teens who arrive at the residency program. According to Comegys, they're either angry at their parents for putting them in the program, or if sent by the state are almost crushed by hopelessness. The work doesn't stop at the property lines. Parents with children in the program attend parenting classes, and Youth Horizons staffers try to monitor the progress of its alumni after reintegration. Alexander describes the work as planting seeds: "Most of them only get it after they leave the program. Then, two, three years down the line, we see the results. You have to lose some battles and win some."

The teens in the residential program are on their last chance, so a large part of Youth Horizons' overall goal is to reach other kids before the situation becomes desperate. The ministry's central Wichita office, a multistory, mural-clad building wedged between a used car lot and a motorcycle dealership, is the nerve center for a network of 140 mentors who can salve spiritual and emotional wounds while providing a stable and constant loving influence in troubled lives.

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