The news cycle is loud, but we need to hear those who can’t shout
PRESCOTT, Wash.—When Travis Crockett stared out of the car at miles of hills, apple trees, and dry grass, and then spotted a deer for the first time in his life, he realized: This is far, far from home.
“Home” was a gang-dominated set of blocks in northwest Chicago. The car with Crockett turned from the orchard jungle into an open field with gray-roofed, white-bricked buildings. The air smelled like a farm—fresh-mowed grass, horse manure, and something savory wafting from the cafeteria. “This must be Jubilee,” Crockett muttered. The driver turned around and said, “Yeah, this is your new home.”
It was April 16, 2013, Crockett’s first day at Jubilee Leadership Academy in Prescott, Wash., a Christian residential facility for troubled boys aged 13 to 18. He was a 15-year-old city kid who agreed to go to “Washington” because he had assumed it was the capital, not the state. But now Crockett says he’s glad Jubilee isn’t in D.C., because he could have easily run away when things got tough—and lost his last shot at a decent future.
Crockett had been expelled from the eighth grade for fighting rival gang members in school. Every night he cried himself to sleep, woozy and sick from his weed smoking and drug dealing, and asked, “Why am I doing this? I want to stop, but I can’t stop.” When his troublemaker cousin Keewaun came back from Jubilee transformed, Crockett thought, “I can change.”
Crockett, now 16, is a model student at Jubilee’s leadership program, a mentor to younger students, and an All-Star basketball player. He plans for college and hopes for the NBA. Jubilee is a chance—perhaps the last—for students like Crockett to escape a cycle of abuse, crime, addiction, gangs, and despair. Executive director Rick Griffin describes Jubilee as a place where “God wants to level the playing field,” as in the biblical Jubilee year.
Jubilee’s 400-acre campus, cocooned within 5,000 acres of Broetje Orchards property, was once duck-hunting grounds: Then Broetje Orchards founders Ralph and Cheryl Broetje bought the land and decided to donate it. Every week a small group of individuals, including the Broetjes and Griffin, gathered at a dust-coated house near Crockett’s current dorm and prayed for “spiritual fruit-bearing” on that land.
In 1995, Jubilee opened doors with six students. Now it is an all-male, fully accredited boarding school with about 50 students and a staff of 45, along with cows, pigs, chickens, and 25 horses. Jubilee offers therapy sessions, an online academic curriculum, vocational programs such as woodshop and welding, and athletic programs with a local high school. The campus also has a football field, basketball court, skateboard rink, outdoor laser tag park, and zipline, golf, and rope courses.
But Jubilee is no resort. Some boys come under coercion—either court-ordered or “escorted” by a transport service the parents called from desperation. Once they arrive, they’re stuck. The nearest town is about an hour’s drive away. Cell phones, laptops, and cash are not allowed. By the time they arrive, the boys have accrued scars, anger, and bitterness—and it’s up to Jubilee to slowly dredge them up.
At first, Jubilee used the traditional punitive method. A misbehaving boy ran laps, dug ditches, or had only a bologna sandwich for dinner. Better behavior yielded more privileges such as phone calls and video games. But over the years, Griffin realized the penal system was not working. Instead of motivating the kids to change, the disciplinary measures merely solidified mistrust and repressed anger. A kid sullenly following orders to avoid consequences isn’t changing, and Jubilee was discharging boys who couldn’t seem to change at all.
Griffin left Jubilee from 2004 to 2009 and worked with people with cognitive disabilities who clearly cannot perform certain normal functions. He started wondering if Jubilee boys too aren’t subjects of “will not” but “cannot.” What if the severe traumas these boys experienced had significantly altered their brain development—and thus their behaviors? After much soul-searching and research, Griffin returned to Jubilee and advocated a total paradigm change.
Today, Jubilee follows a three-tiered model of safety, relationships, and skills. Its philosophy: God first wants us to feel safe in Him, then learn from our relationships, and ultimately bless others with gained skills.
For the first 30 days a staff member accompanies a newcomer everywhere, from breakfast to chapel. Once the student demonstrates a sense of security, the staff teaches him skills to help regulate his emotions and issues through counseling and classes. The vocational programs provide a safe environment for using skills. Horses teach the rider to be more assertive or gentle without being judgmental. Wood-shopping or welding teach patience and dexterity.
Since implementing the new model, Jubilee has raised more student mentors and discharged fewer students than ever before—but its Christ-centered mission has been constant, because “without Christ, everything else is pretty meaningless,” Griffin said. Though spiritual maturity is not a requirement for the boys to graduate, Jubilee is fully intentional about preaching the gospel by word and action.
The students have chapel service every morning and can participate in an evening community group. I joined one such community group led by program coordinator Joshua Romaine, a 37-year-old Christian rapper who has worked at Jubilee for almost seven years. Seven slouching boys with spread-out legs sat in a circle. Romaine told his own story of breaking free from drug addiction and encouraged the boys to rely on God, concluding, “Only through Jesus Christ, guys, only through Jesus.” As he preached, the boys affected postures of cool blasé, yet their subtle nods or murmurs showed they were listening.
“It’s tough,” Romaine told me later. “It ain’t no picnic. It’s a spiritual warfare through and through.” Working at Jubilee requires sacrifices that go beyond the modest pay. Romaine commutes two hours each workday and others give up basic comforts to live on the isolated campus with their wives and children. But they also tell me the sacrifice is worth it. Romaine loves the freedom to “talk about God all day long,” loves that moment when students accept Christ—“it’s like finally the light bulb clicks.”
Religious freedom also means Jubilee relies heavily on private donations to maintain its yearly operating budget of $2.2 million. None of its students can afford to pay the full monthly tuition cost of $3,500, but Jubilee doesn’t turn any student away because of financial status. Had it done so, Travis Crockett and others like him would have continued falling through the cracks in society. One student-turned-intern, Brandon Kohfield, told me if it weren’t for Jubilee, he would have been “six feet under today—or someplace worse.”
Crockett too remembers that he expected a future of minimum wage jobs and drugs. But now, whenever he feels discouraged, he recites Jeremiah 29:11 and reaffirms that God has plans to give him hope and a future. He’s fallen off the path, but God has put him “back on the straight path through Jubilee, in the middle of nowhere.” He confidently says, “I’m a new man now.”
• 2012-2013 revenue: $2,273,064
• 2012-2013 expenses: $2,069,474
• Net assets at the end of year 2013: $755, 342
• Executive director Rick Griffin’s salary and benefits: $76,855
• Staff: 38 full-time, 7 part-time
• 2014 budget: $2.2 million
• Website: jlacademy.org
Truth and beauty
Jody Puckett walked into Orange County Rescue Mission’s Village of Hope (VOH) in Tustin, Calif., turned to her husband Devin and her 5-year-old daughter Holly and exclaimed, “Pinch me. Is this for real?”
They had been homeless for six years, spending nights in moth-bitten motels, and on couches and streets. Every morning at 5:30, the Pucketts would pick a street and show a double-sided sign: One side asked for help, and the other, to which they quickly flipped when police passed by, asked for a job. “We were like gypsies,” Jody Puckett recalled: “I felt like dirt under your shoe. I felt hopeless.”
But now they were on VOH’s tastefully modern campus, where tall palm trees shade contemporary furniture on a manicured lawn, and water—symbolizing God’s living water of generosity and grace—springs from a massive urn. The idea behind VOH’s aesthetics is that every homeowner wants his home to be beautiful—so what makes the homeless different? Many who enter VOH were raised in broken homes, some hopping from shelter to shelter, others spending days and weeks on the streets—and kids growing up in such an environment have few models of order and beauty to emulate.
So when Orange County Rescue Mission (OCRM) President Jim Palmer was planning the Village’s construction, he knew beauty had to play a key theme. He had seen beauty’s positive influence on its residents at the House of Hope, a 1940s Craftsman-style mansion for single mothers that’s furnished with real antiques, chandeliers, and oil paintings—all donated by neighbors and friends. So Palmer, with resourceful help from philanthropist Roberta Ahmanson, drew a similar vision for the Village of Hope.
That vision became real in March 2008—with no government funding, no loans, no debts. Instead, OCRM financed the $12 million construction costs through private donations and services. An architecture firm drew up plans pro bono, professional interior designers and volunteers decorated the residential dorm-style rooms, and a Danish artist crafted both the urn and 13 stained glass windows representing Jesus and his 12 apostles. The Cheesecake Factory designed and developed the warm-toned, spacious dining room, which frequently offers fresh tomatoes, lettuce, and peppers plucked from the Village’s community garden.
OCRM, still rejecting government money, gets about 80 percent of its support from individuals and the rest via corporations, foundations, and grants. In 2013, 81 cents of every dollar went to direct programs, with the remaining 19 cents going to administration and fundraising costs.
Although warm and pleasant, the Village isn’t meant to be as comfortable as a personal home. “This place looks beautiful, but literally, it’s like we’re operating outside the gates of hell,” Palmer said. People arrive with stories of poverty, addiction, abuse, trauma, eating disorders, mental issues, and more. All have reached what Palmer calls “our sweet spot”: the bottom of the barrel in life where they’ve tried everything and realize there’s nowhere to look except up to a Being greater than they.
The Pucketts are good examples. Just days before they joined the Village, “home” was a patch of dirt underneath heaps of blankets. Over the years drug addiction had cost them everything. One night under the stars, Jody Puckett and her husband held each other and fell asleep sobbing, promising they wouldn’t “ever, ever get this low again.”
The Pucketts spent their last $89 to get married at the Santa Ana courthouse so they could be accepted into the Village (only married couples can enter together). Their daughter Holly was the witness. During their first months at the Village, they spent each day in devotions, Bible studies, vocational classes, and therapy groups. On weekdays, a bus transported Holly and other children to local public schools.
Adult residents of VOH are called “students.” They rise from freshman to senior before “graduating” into the outside world, usually within 18 to 24 months. At each level, students receive greater freedom, and before graduating they make arrangements for off-site housing and employment. About 85 percent of graduates remain self-sufficient beyond two years from graduation.
One reason for the good statistics: Prospective students go through a screening process to assess their willingness to comply with program rules. For example, freshmen cannot leave the campus for the first 90 days without an escort (but can resign from the program at any time). While on campus, all students are required to participate in program activities and be responsible for certain duties and chores.
Besides shelter and food, the Village also provides therapy, treatment plans, medical care, career counseling, GED online prep classes, financial tutoring, day care for preschoolers, after-school tutoring programs, a playground, basketball courts—even a hair salon. It just lacked one essential component: a local church. VOH squats on 5.1 acres of a 2,500-acre former military base—redeveloped by the city of Tustin to include 5,000 new homes but no churches. Students eligible to leave campus would have had to spend money they didn’t have to get to distant churches.
Two years ago Church at the Mission, or “CAM-Tustin,” began holding Sunday services. The church also creates Bible study groups, discipleship training, retreats, and a community network that bridges into the outside world. In return, the Village provides, rent-free, a gorgeous 288-seat, stained glass–spangled chapel that doubles as an auditorium and theater.
I attended two Sunday services and saw children running around and adults hugging (and trying not to spill coffee). Musicians played a mix of classic hymns and contemporary worship songs, and the congregation rocked and shouted along with the worship team on stage. The air vibrated with pounding feet and waving arms. VOH students make up about a third of the CAM-Tustin congregation. When the pastor mentioned drug and alcohol addiction or broken marriages, many congregation members raised their hands. When people shared news of sobriety or repentance, the church burst into cheers and applause.
Jody Puckett, raised in a Christian home, said she felt “an awakening of my spiritual walk with God” through the Village and the church. She and her husband have invited family members to attend with them. Her husband’s ex-wife, ex-girlfriend, and daughter now attend on Sundays, Puckett told me proudly, especially after they saw her husband make “a complete 180 degree” transformation.
The day I met her, Puckett had just upgraded to “junior” level. As a sophomore, she had been head of janitorial, but now she’s switched to resident adviser in the mailroom. She believes God has a calling for everyone, and that the Village and the church are part of His plan to guide her there. “I always knew Jesus died for me on the cross for my sins,” she said. “No matter how bad my sickness, I knew I could turn to Him. But I feel very bad, sad, and convicted today that I took this long to know it’s not about anything but God.”
After she graduates, Puckett plans to be a Christian counselor to alcohol and substance addicts: “I want to turn my scars into stars.”
Read profiles of the other finalists and runners-up in the 2014 Hope Award for Effective Compassion competition.