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Finding freedom

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

Finding freedom

(James Allen Walker for WORLD)

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.

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."

But it's that accountability that makes the program effective. Nelson has no plans to dilute the ministry's Christian message to attract government funding: "We need to be an authority, because we're often the only authority in these kids' lives." Whether the activity has career potential or is just for fun, teens get to hang out with their volunteers, Christians who are positive role models: "It's the relationships they build with these mentor figures that are important," Maxwell Clark, a Freedom Quest program coordinator, said. "It exposes them to another world."

With accountability comes responsibility and then empowerment. Teens entirely run the annual farmers market, where they sell the items they've made. Nelson appoints a store manager, cashiers, and salespeople from the kids in the program because "there's nothing more empowering than giving these kids ownership," he says.

The teens must earn their positions by taking a class called "Road to Freedom," which teaches that poverty, addiction, and a welfare mentality are bondages from which Christ can free us. Many of the bondages the class illustrates are things that students see in their own homes every day. For instance, the class warns teenage girls about the dangers of co-dependent relationships, often at the root of teen pregnancy. The guys want sex, and the girls want security. Then a baby is born, the father leaves, and the mother feels hopeless, perpetuating the cycle. "I tell the kids that you can be one that breaks the cycle," Nelson said.

With a Whiz Kidz program, which offers mentoring and tutoring to elementary-school children, Freedom for Youth is trying to reach kids and break the cycle even earlier: "Their minds are processing so much junk in their lives," Whiz Kidz coordinator Melanie Wise said. "The younger you get them, the better chance you have of feeding them the truth."

Whiz Kidz matches each child to an adult mentor. They meet every week to study the Bible and help with homework. Mentors commit to at least a full school year, to be a constant positive presence in the life of the child. "Consistency is huge, because nobody else is consistent in their lives," Wise explains.

Back on campus, the Freedom Quest girls break for lunch, eating hot dogs and macaroni and cheese with cherry cobbler for dessert, all prepared by girls in the cooking class. As they eat, Katie McDermott, a program coordinator, passes around a jar to collect pocket change and pop can tabs for earthquake victims in Haiti. The girls in photography class compare their pictures. Girls in the beading class show off their bead. They're not helpless victims: They can give to those less fortunate than them and can turn a rod of glass into a bead. "We want teens in the program to discover their God-given talents so they can break out of a hopeless thought pattern," Nelson says. "They're beginning to see that God has created them with a purpose and given them unique gifts."

Click here to listen to WORLD editor in chief Marvin Olasky discuss with Alisa Harris the Midwest regional finalists.

To view a video profile of Freedom for Youth 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.

Freedom For Youth Factbox

Location: Des Moines, Iowa

Founded: 2003

Size: 9 paid staff; 60 volunteers; 180 program participants each year, 60 of them regular attendees

Annual 
Budget: $450,000

Website: freedomforyouth.org

Daniel Olasky

Daniel Olasky