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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.
"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.
For the last six years, Sarah Timmons, a married, white mother of two, has been mentoring Clarise McFarlin, now a poised, black, high-school senior. They met six years ago, when Clarise was 12 years old: She had just moved to Wichita with her mother and was having trouble with the transition to middle school in a brand new state. She didn't find the school counselors much help ("they kept asking me how I was feeling about things on a scale of 1 to 10," she says now, with a laugh), so her mother enrolled her in the Youth Horizons mentoring program. She was paired with Timmons, then a newlywed who had herself recently moved to Wichita.
"I expected us to click fast and for [Clarise] to open up," Timmons says. "That didn't happen right away. I didn't know how to talk to a 12-year-old." But Timmons stuck with it, despite the initial difficulties. "I was always the pursuer and I didn't know how to handle that. I had to learn to just be a consistent faithful person in her life. Somebody who loves her for her."
Through weekly visits that involved trips to the mall, the movies, the botanical gardens, or just to her house, Timmons was able to tear down the barriers, be a friend to Clarise, and even eventually help her become a Christian. Now a graduating senior with plans to study nursing at Kansas State, Clarise expects their relationship, which ends officially at graduation, to continue.
The benefits of having a personal relationship with an individual over the span of years is one of the reasons Youth Horizons emphasizes long-term commitments when engaging new mentors. It asks for a minimum one-year commitment and gets over 70 percent renewal rates after that year, with over 60 percent renewing for two years and beyond.
Donovan Karber, who began with Youth Horizons as a mentor, became Director of Mentoring, and now works for a nationwide umbrella group helping to form new mentoring programs, sees the effects of mentoring beyond the individual relationships: "Most of the families we deal with are not churchgoing families. Over time, as the mentors develop relationships with the kids, they become interested in spiritual things, and then the families do too. So it needs to be long term. We know we can't replace their parents but we can bring in a Christian positive role model who can walk with them through their life."
As youth and mentor become intertwined, benefits increase. Clarise has learned from observing firsthand the early years of Sarah's marriage and the birth of her first two children. "When I hear my friends talk . . . [she shakes her head]. Marriage is forever. I see that it's hard to be married and have kids. I know that when I get married that it's not going to be a fairy tale."
Nor is Youth Horizons a fairy tale story: The recession has forced it to cut business hours and lay off staff, but the program is still building a second residential home on its Kinloch Boys Ranch property, and it hopes eventually to have four, along with a working farm for the residents to manage. The plan is for an increase in mentoring pairs from 140 to 170 and an increased presence in schools so that every school in Wichita, at every grade level, has a partner church that provides mentors for needy students.
Click here to listen to WORLD editor in chief Marvin Olasky discuss with Alisa Harris the West regional finalists.
To view a video profile of Youth Horizons and of each of the other 2010 regional finalists and to read profiles of finalists and winners from 2006 through 2009, visit WORLDmag.com/compassion.
Youth Horizons Factbox
Location: Wichita, Kan.
Mission: Provide Christian mentoring to at-risk teens
Size: 9 full-time staff, 140 mentoring relationships, residential house with capacity for eight
Annual Budget: $700,000