James Allen Walker for WORLD

Finding freedom

2010 Hope Awards | Plagued by teen pregnancy and poverty, inner-city kids gain the confidence to break that cycle at Freedom for Youth

Issue: "GOP idea man," May 22, 2010

DES MOINES, Iowa-What used to be a warren of rundown auto body shops, garages, and warehouses is now a main street in miniature with a gleaming faux-western façade, aptly named "Opportunity Avenue." A mechanic's shop, filled with lawn mowers and scooters, has teens in an after-school program learn about small engines and basic auto maintenance. Next door is a metal shop, smelling sweetly of solvents, where students learn to weld and use a plasma cutter. Farther down the alley is the woodworking shop, with stacks of lumber ready for the drill presses and table saws. Turn left and there's an art studio, built by volunteer labor, with pots of paint, pottery wheels, and a kiln in the corner.

The fruits of students' labors sit in a storefront on the other side of the alley: Adirondack chairs, welded metal wall ornaments, clay planters and vases. This summer, teens will sell their items at a week-long farmers market, along with the vegetables they grow in the garden at the end of the alley. They'll earn money for themselves and raise money for a scholarship fund that will be available for them after they graduate from high school.

This is the headquarters of Freedom for Youth, a Des Moines ministry that teaches inner city kids how to break free from the hopelessness and poverty that surround them. Freedom for Youth runs a mentoring and tutoring program for elementary-school students, an after-school and summer program for teenagers, and a residential house for young adults. Through chapel services, Bible classes, and volunteer-run activities, teens learn that they are loved, that they have value, and that they can break the cycle of poverty that has brought them here.

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Inside the art studio, three girls stand nervously in front of roaring Bunsen burners. It's spring break, so the teen after-school program, Freedom Quest, has a special schedule: A photography class troops across the lawn, a cooking class prepares lunch, a cluster of girls gathers around a piano for music lessons. But here girls don pro­tective goggles and then dip metal rods in a special silicone solution. Under the instruction of D.J. Towe, each holds a metal rod in front of a burner, then takes a rod of colored glass and carefully melts it in the flame, wrapping it around the metal to form the bead.

One of the girls asks, "Can I make a really big one here?" Towe replies, "You can if you're patient."

The girls struggle at first. There's a knack to twisting the glass at the right pace at the right distance from the flame. After a few initial attempts go awry, frustration sets in. "This is ugly," another girl says. "You can work with it. You can make it better," Towe says: "Do you know how many times I sometimes have to make one over again?"

The girls may find a new hobby, or maybe they'll never try glass beading again. Either way they'll have learned patience, persistence, and attention to detail. By lunchtime, the girls have managed to produce one bead among them. It's a bit lumpy, but they're proud of it. "You get to see them develop self-esteem, and they feel loved," Towe said.

Other programs-woodworking, metal shop-build self-esteem and can also teach skills that teens can use to build a career. Local businesses have donated much of the equipment, and Freedom for Youth arranges tours of manufacturers to help teens see future employment possibilities. Teens learn that they can create something of value, especially when they get the opportunity to sell something they've made at the annual farmers market.

"It's a big self-esteem deal when someone buys something you made," Mark Nelson, founder of Freedom for Youth, said. Nelson, a former CPA, started the organization in 2003 as a drop-in center for homeless teens. After years of tinkering, trying to find the most effective ministry, Nelson created the current set-up in 2007 and is seeing results. The kids in the Freedom Quest after-school program attend inner-city schools with dropout rates of over 50 percent. Of the 45 high-school regular attendees, not one has dropped out. (Three-fourths of the regular attendees are in middle school.)

The no-dropout statistic is partly self-selecting, because Freedom for Youth has a strict code of conduct that leads some kids not to commit to the program: If they stay, they know they'll be held accountable for their actions. "Some organizations out there go to extremes to attract kids to meet quotas for government grants. They lack the structure and accountability that we enforce," Nelson said. "The kids who have no interest in changing their lives, they will run to the programs with no accountability."


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