Teen Challenge is Hill's longtime favorite

The Pensacola News Journal/November 18, 1997
By John W. Allman

Pensacola -- Teen Challenge depends on alumni like evangelist Steve Hill to raise money for more buildings, materials and staff.

The Christian nonprofit rehabilitation program, which has 130 centers in the United States and 155 centers in about 50 other countries, has helped people like Hill graduate since being founded in 1958.

Few graduates have Hill's power to spread the message.

He has used his platform at Pensacola's Brownsville Revival to promote the program. He assures revival audiences that a portion of their contributions every Friday night will go to build more Teen Challenge centers worldwide.

Hill's ministry, Together in the Harvest Ministries, gave $93,202 to Teen Challenge between August 1996 and August 1997, according to a financial statement provided through Hill's attorney, Walter Chandler. Those donations included $5,000 to the new Pensacola Teen Challenge Center, $3,260 to Teen Challenge Florida and $10,000 to West Florida Teen Challenge.

His ministry's IRS return specifies none of those.

Brownsville Assembly of God also is giving money to Teen Challenge, according to the church's financial statement for 1996. It lists $3,100 to Teen Challenge and $11,059 to Teen Challenge International.

Don Wilkerson, executive director of Teen Challenge International, headquartered in Locust Grove, Va., said he prefers to downplay Hill's generosity to the organization because if people think Hill is giving, they might think Teen Challenge doesn't need any more contributions.

Hill did not attend the Teen Challenge fund-raiser banquet Oct. 17 at New World Landing.

For the fund-raising dinner, Pensacola Teen Challenge director Greg Priest asked churches, civic clubs and businesses to sponsor tables at $130 per table of eight people. The event had 24 tables sponsored, for a total of $3,120.

Eleven area churches acted as sponsors, including six Assemblies of God churches. Neither Brownsville Assembly of God nor Hill's ministry sponsored a table.

The only apparent Brownsville connection came through Robert Lowell, who moved to Pensacola after he and his wife attended the revival. Lowell's business Florida Credit and Collections Bureau Inc. sponsored one table.

"Because of the high visibility of Brownsville, it's better they're not visible," said Wilkerson, who started Teen Challenge with his brother, David, in 1958 in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Back in Pensacola

The new center off Nine Mile Road represents Teen Challenge's second try in Pensacola.

In 1977, Pastor Bennie Stokes left Philadelphia to become executive director of a Pensacola Teen Challenge center that served young men at a home at the corner of Cervantes and Spring streets and young women in a home on Cervantes, a block from Brownsville Assembly of God Church.

The two centers moved in 1982 to Walnut Hill, in northern Escambia County.

Wilkerson said the program died out in Pensacola in the 1970s because people back then did not did comprehend its value.

"The drug problem is much more pervasive these days," he said. "Back then, people may not have been as supportive. The problem may not have been as bad."

Today, however, Teen Challenge is more important than ever, he said.

It helps people in such countries as Belarus part of the former Soviet Republic where both Christianity and drug rehabilitation have been in short supply.

The Teen Challenge program lasts one year and has four phases: crisis intervention, induction, training and re-entry.

Those who enter follow a rigorous schedule that begins with four months of preparation and ends with the six-month re-entry phase. In between, students are expected to study the Bible and memorize Scripture.

There is a $500 fee to enter the program, but "if they don't have the money, we don't turn them away," Priest said.

Florida now has eight Teen Challenge centers, with a ninth being built in Tarpon Springs.

'Not a cult'

At the October banquet, three people gave testimony on how Teen Challenge changed their lives.

Kim Gilbreath, a member of Pine Forest Assembly of God, said she was an alcoholic who sometimes "attended church drunk."

Keith Tobias, who completed his re-entry phase in Pensacola, said he was an ex-convict and a drug addict before he sought shelter in the program.

"You get a covering," Tobias said, "where the world can't come at you in a red dress or as a beer or drugs."

Not everyone supports Teen Challenge's message of salvation from addiction through Jesus Christ, Wilkerson said.

"We are not a cult," he told the banquet crowd of about 220 people. "We are not trying to get young people hooked on Teen Challenge."

The program, despite its name, is not exclusively for teens. It accepts men and women 17 to over 40. The median age is 22, Wilkerson said.

Teen Challenge is not like Alcoholics Anonymous, which encourages people to discover a higher power but allows each individual to define that higher power, Wilkerson said.

"We define who that higher power is," he said. "Jesus Christ wants you to be clean in an unclean world."

Most substance abuse treatment programs have a spiritual aspect, said George Crisco, director of the Lakeview Center's Drug and Alcohol Adolescent Residential Treatment program.

But most take a holistic approach to treating addiction, instead of focusing on one thing such as God as the sole solution, Crisco said.

Teen Challenge officials say their program has an 86 percent "cured rate" among graduates, which means most graduates are free of alcohol and drugs seven years after they leave.

Crisco said his program stays away from the term "cured." Lakeview's program in Pensacola instead says it has a 79 percent "graduation" rate.

"You don't cure addiction," Crisco said. "Basically what you're saying is that 10 years from now a person is not going to have a problem with addiction, and I don't know that that's the case.

"Unless these people follow these clients until death, I don't know that they can boast that."

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