Faith and family are factors in keeping teens strong

By Megan R. Harrell
STAR STAFF

   There is no shortage of federally funded programs designed to keep juveniles out of the court system. However, the number of teens involved in crimes continues to rise despite efforts to the contrary. With few other alternatives, the government is beginning to hear religious organizations on the rehabilitation of juveniles.
   The 1994 Crime Bill allocated 7 billion to non-religious prevention programs, but a Justice Department study found that a strong family and belief system are the best preventions for crime. The Department of Justice has made a direct correlation between the quality of parent-child relationships and juvenile delinquency. According to the Department of Justice, 70 percent of all juvenile delinquents grew up in single parent households.
   The Family Research Council states that the level of crimes juveniles commit rises when parents and communities do not hold them to standards of right and wrong. Twelve studies conducted by the same organization have found that religious commitment among juveniles deters them from delinquency.
   A study conducted at the University of Colorado found that the environmental surroundings of most of the youths in the court systems are similar. The study showed that high risk children come from low-income homes where the parent-child relationship had deteriorated.
   Area churches believe personal relationships with God are the only way to promote healthy family environments, and the only way to restore the relationships between teens and parents. "What we do as a church is mainly focus on building the whole family. A lot of people say that it takes a village to raise a child, but I think that it takes a mom and dad to raise a child and we do a lot better service to children by not focusing solely on them," said Stephen Witt, Pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church.
   Witt has recently started an out reach program for teens. The I-40 program has its own band, made up of local high school and college students. Teens are able to go on weekend retreats and week-long camps. They participate in community service projects and play a variety of games including basketball, Ping-Pong, foosball and air hockey. The I-40 ministry began Jan. 9 and over 100 teens came out to the first meeting at the Elizabethton Boys and Girls Club.
   As a former youth pastor, Witt sees the difference in the morality of teens who have personal relationships with God. "I have never run into a family that was really struggling and having a daily quiet time with God," Witt said. "I have not seen one family, and I have counseled with at least four or five hundred families."
   Witt spoke of treating the root cause of juveniles' problems instead of treating the symptoms. He believes that our society as a whole is symptomatic and needs to start looking on the inside to fix what is wrong with our teens. "We never go for the cause of the problems, we treat the symptoms, but if you ever want to turn the tide we have to treat the cause of the problems," Witt said. "Anyone that looks at moral trends sees that the farther we get from God the more chaotic our society becomes, and in an essence that is the only way to cure it."
   Many of the local churches have adopted a program that reaches out to young people. Approved Workers Are Not Ashamed (AWANA) teaches youths character traits such as responsibility, commitment and dedication. The program is designed to award children after they have completed a series of verse memorizations. "From our standpoint we notice that juvenile delinquency is a lot less common among teens who have a personal relationship with God," Witt said.
   The county school system also recognizes that it cannot fix the problem of juvenile delinquency on its own. "As much as we try to do in school, we cannot control what happens when students go home," said Gary Smith, Secondary Instructional Supervisor. "Parents have to help us work with their children. We are always looking for more parental involvement."
   A local teen who recently kicked a drug habit relied heavily on members of her family and faith in God to get back on the right track. "I love my grandpa and he has always been there for me. I had been treating my whole family horrible and I felt bad for it," she said. "I decided that I needed to change something because I did not want my grandpa to be gone and think that I am not going to make it in this world, so I quit everything, smoking cigarettes, doing drugs, and I learned more about God, and started going to church."
   Faith, for this teen, helps her make it through each day. She noted that the influences that surround her are hard to stand up against. "Sometimes I tend to be weaker but I try to pray as much as I can to strengthen myself physically and mentally to deal with things. It is really hard," she said. "It is extremely hard, especially being a kid, because you want to fit in and you want people to like you. I had tons of acquaintances but now, since I quit everything, I do not have as many friends as I used to."
   This 15-year-old is now discovering the vast amount of opportunities that lie ahead of her. She recently made the honor roll at her high school. "I would get high every day before I went to school and I just would not care, but now I completely care because I want to go to college." She stated that she would like to one day be a singer, photographer, or she may join the Army.