They come in broken and addicted. Twelve months later, they leave as happy, productive members of society. Teen Challenge, a faith-based rehabilitation program in Germantown, is providing a place where lives are completely turned around. But there are no twelve steps to overcoming your addiction here. In fact, little focus is placed on the addiction at all. The source of the transformation is God and his Word. And the men and women making their way through the program give testament that it really does work.
“We don’t teach them about the disease. We don’t call it a disease. We call it a sin problem. A sin problem you can get rid of. A disease you can’t get rid of. You have that forever. You just take medication to alleviate the pain,” explains Pastor Geraldine Avery, program director at Teen Challenge.
“I don’t knock the secular programs because they work for some people,” says Avery. But Teen Challenge has a more Biblical view of addiction. “We call it a sin problem and deal with it from that aspect. We begin to teach them about themselves through the Word of God and that transforms their lives,” says Avery.
Although the focus isn’t placed directly on the addiction itself, that doesn’t mean the addiction is ignored. “We don’t talk about the drug. We talk about the problems that led them to the drugs—the rejection, the failures in life, the abuse,” says Avery.
Teen Challenge started in the 1950s and now has locations all over the world. The program came to Philadelphia in the 1960s. Today the Philadelphia location serves adults with two homes, one for men and another for women with around 20 students in each. A thrift store supports the program, bringing in a total of about $50,000 for both homes. All other finances come in solely through donations. As a faith-based program, Teen Challenge does not qualify for any government aid.
“We have a variety of students here, from as far away as Florida, Missouri, West Virginia,” says Deborah Jones, who is on staff at the women’s home. Not many students come from Philadelphia, but as the program continues to gain notoriety in the area, more local students are expected to come in.
Jones went through the program herself before joining the staff. “In 2004, the day before Thanksgiving, I entered Teen Challenge as a student. For about 30 years I was addicted to crack cocaine. I lived in this neighborhood but didn’t realize this place was here,” she says. She learned about the program through her church and, after a successful recovery, now helps other women through the same challenges she once faced.
In fact, many of the staff workers were once Teen Challenge students. “That’s why I think Teen Challenge works so well. We’ve all been there. Ladies coming in don’t have to worry about being judged. They can feel very comfortable knowing that we had the same problem they do, addiction,” says DeeDe Medrano, a Teen Challenge graduate who is now an intern at the women’s home working her way up to a staff position. The workers’ backgrounds not only help incoming students adjust to the program but also excel as they make their way through it.
When a new student just arrives at one of the homes, his or her adjustment to the program can be difficult. The structure, discipline and intense Christianity of the induction phase, or phase one, comes as a shock. These first six months are focused on getting healthy, going through detox and establishing a Biblical foundation on a personal level.
“When I came in here I really didn’t want to be here at all. Every day was a struggle. The first couple weeks are the hardest,” says Candace, who has been in the program for six months. “But now it’s flying by and it’s just amazing,” she says.
This month Candace is graduating into phase two of the program. A small ceremony at a local church will mark the occasion. Friends and family are invited to watch as those students ready to move into the second phase are presented with a personal Bible engraved with their name.
Phase two, the second six months, is more intense and emotional. Counselors work with individual students to deal with the problems that got them to this place in life. Candace is eager to take on this next challenge. “It’s stuff I need to deal with eventually. I plan to really figure that stuff out and work on my relationship with God,” she says.
Students in phase two also take life skills classes like parenting, family counseling, interviewing for a job and computer
training to prepare them for the world outside the program. The well-structured home life of the program also helps with this preparation. The clean, organized house, well-kept yard and posted chore schedules show that students are kept busy.
And this helps them to look forward to a better life. Candace still has another six months in the program, but she’s interested in computer networking and hopes to go back to school after she finishes with Teen Challenge. Her positive attitude about the future shows how much progress she’s already made.
Loretta, a senior student with the program who has been here nine months, also thinks about the future as she looks forward to her September graduation. “I’m not sure what I want to do yet. I know the Lord is restoring my relationships with family members. I do have two children and raising them again is definitely going to be my number one priority,” she says.
Also a part of her future will be the friendships she’s made through Teen Challenge. “Because you’re here with them for so long, you experience what each person is going through. You see the growth. Just to be a part of that, it’s awesome,” she says with tears in her eyes. The friends she’s made here in the past few months will help keep her accountable later.
The success rate of Teen Challenge graduates is 86.6 percent after 10 years. Past graduates have gone on to successful careers in law, missions, even leading their own churches. “I love seeing what God does in the lives of the men and women who come through the door,” says Avery.
Spending even a little bit of time with some of the students gives a glimpse of what Avery is talking about. The thing that’s most apparent about them is the joy on their faces.