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Macon disciples

Campus Clubs teaches poor children about the value of work, and their own value in Christ: 'Just because you're in the 'hood doesn't mean the 'hood is in you'

Macon disciples

(James Allen Walker for WORLD)

MACON, Ga.-For some three dozen middle-school students packed into a tiny chapel attached to First Presbyterian Church (FPC) in downtown Macon, Ga., summer mornings at day camp don't begin with chipper songs or lighthearted games. Instead, as warm sunlight streams through the light-blue panes of stained-glass windows, Tony Lowden begins the chapel service for inner-city kids on a much darker note: childhood pregnancy.

Lowden is executive director of Campus Clubs, a Christian ministry for low-income and at-risk students in Macon. On this Monday morning, Lowden's deep voice fills the chapel as he tells the attentive students about a 12-year-old girl who delivered a baby at a local hospital earlier that week. "She's a baby having a what?" asks Lowden. "A baby," the group of 11- to 15-year-olds replies. "And she's not what?" he continues. "Married," the kids quickly answer.

Then comes Lowden's warning for kids toying with premarital sex: "You're messing around with fire."
Getting burned is common in Macon's inner-city neighborhoods: Drugs, gangs, violence, poverty, out-of-wedlock pregnancy, and even AIDS abound. These kids know it. When Lowden asks the group what the world labels them, they don't hesitate: "At-risk," comes the unison reply.

Lowden can relate. "Almost everybody in my family is dead or in jail because of gangs or drugs," he tells them. But Lowden-who escaped the ghettos of northern Philadelphia to become a lobbyist and a consultant for the Republican caucus in California-towers as a symbol for what these kids could become. "We serve a God who can make you a somebody when everybody else says that you're a nobody," he tells the group. "Just because you're in the 'hood doesn't mean the 'hood is in you."

This isn't just motivational talk, and Campus Clubs isn't just a place to "meet and eat and go back to the hood," says Lowden. Instead, the ministry aims to pair spiritual discipleship with educational and job opportunities that these students might not otherwise enjoy. The goal: train inner-city students to apply Christianity to their whole lives, with the hopes of transforming whole communities.

In a mid-morning job-skills class, staff member Shirlynn Kelly talks about how to apply biblical principles to the workplace. When she asks the group of 40-plus students why God says we should work, answers come quickly: "To provide for ourselves, our families, and others in need." Kelly stays practical when encouraging excellence at work: Be diligent, keep a good attitude, be pro-active in seeking more responsibility.

The class is part of the ministry's popular Jobs Club program that has more than 40 students on a waiting list. Those in the program attend the jobs class and then practice what they learn while working for nonprofit organizations during the week. The ministry pays a small stipend of $11 a day for each morning of work, but students only keep half: Staffers put the other half in individual savings accounts. Students can collect the money-with interest-if they finish high school.

The next morning eight students file into the Middle Georgia Community Food Bank. In a back room they form an assembly line and fill paper grocery sacks with items like crackers, grapefruit juice, popcorn, powdered milk, and cans of green beans.

This is Shakera Weaver's second summer in the program, and the 14-year-old talks about what she's learned: "It teaches us not to just get paid, but to enjoy our work."

Across the table, Diante Desazier moves slower than everyone else, but works just as hard: The 13-year-old with cerebral palsy awkwardly lifts cans into the brown bags and occasionally asks for help through slurred speech. Lowden calls Desazier an example for other students: "Every time we tell him he can't do something, he proves us wrong."

It's the kind of dynamic Lowden hopes to replicate across Macon, a city of 95,000 situated some 85 miles south of Atlanta. Many middle-and upper-class families fled for the suburbs of north Macon some 20 years ago as neighborhoods declined into poverty and crime.

In 1994 an FPC youth pastor and a handful of volunteers began Campus Clubs as an afterschool program for inner-city kids. Eventually, the church formed a separate nonprofit entity for the ministry. Today, FPC members still serve on the board but aren't the majority. (The church still allows Campus Clubs to use church and office space for free.)

Two years ago, the ministry hired Lowden, one of four full-time staff members serving hundreds of kids each week. Tom Anderson, chairman of the Campus Clubs board and an assistant pastor at FPC, said the ministry wanted to increase its effectiveness in surrounding neighborhoods: "We were seeing kids come to Christ, but they were going right back to the same situations."

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."

When a Presbyterian church in a nearby neighborhood voted to fold in May, the congregation offered use of the facilities to FPC and Campus Clubs. Lowden and assistant pastor Anderson began holding services at the newly named Strong Tower Fellowship in May. They hope to open a K-5 Christian school in the large educational building and serve as a rare, integrated church for the community.

Ultimately, they hope the at-risk kids at Campus Clubs will adopt the philosophy on the back of one student's T-shirt during chapel service: "Either I'm going to make it-or I'm going to make it."

For more information on this year's Hope Award for Effective Compassion and to read profiles of other nominated organizations from this year and previous years, click here.

Campus Clubs

• Operates eight satellite sites around city

• Works closely with city council and school board members

• Leans heavily on local pastors from small churches to help run programs

• Facilitated Upward basketball, a Christian youth sports program, for the entire city in 2008, with more than 900 participants

2008 revenue: $264,941.98

2008 expenses: $319,408.50

(The deficit reflects a large purchase of educational equipment and materials at the end of 2008 that Campus Clubs paid for with income received early in 2009.)

Jamie Dean

Jamie Dean

Jamie is WORLD’s national editor based in Charlotte, N.C. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.