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Breaking the cycle

Old Bethel UMC Outreach Program reaches out to at-risk youth and families

By Jessica Connor

CHARLESTON—Modern families are often rife with pain.

Single mothers working two jobs to make ends meet, their children left to fend for themselves the only place they can get attention: the street. Teens coping with anger, sadness, drugs, pregnancy, promiscuity. A cycle of failure: kids with poor grades getting suspended or expelled, with little option or motivation beyond dropping out and turning to a life of crime.

United Methodist pastor Dr. Timothy J. Bowman knows their struggles all too well. For years, Bowman has ministered to families just like this. And with a doctorate in family therapy/counseling with a focus on helping offenders through the church, he s now made overcoming that cycle of failure his specialty.

For four years Bowman s brainchild, the Old Bethel UMC Outreach Program, has provided preventative, educational, rehabilitative, counseling and evangelistic services to at-risk youth and families in the Lowcountry. A handful of paid part-time staffers and more than a dozen volunteers work with attorneys, probation officers, schools and the court system to be a life preserver for those they serve—and maybe prevent recidivism in the process.

The program is having fantastic success,  Bowman said.

They are struggling at home; there’s no guidance,  he said. Here they see love. They come for that setting—here we focus on the positive sides of them, not the negative. 

For many, a life down the wrong path often starts small. And that s where Old Bethel comes in. They help youth with poor grades or in trouble with police, teaching them how to turn their lives around before it’s too late. They also help adults.

Old Bethel offers a variety of services: counseling, a pre-trial intervention program, community service opportunities, tutoring, mediation sessions, critical thinking classes, self-defense classes and prayer. They help parents get jobs, learn budgeting and develop parenting and other skills. And at the end of the year, they hold a graduation to celebrate those who have completed the program and are on their way to success.

It s a second chance,  said the Rev. Julius McDowell, longtime friend of Bowman with a master s in child development who is now starting a satellite branch of Old Bethel s program at his church, Wesley UMC, Ladson.

Take Maurice for example. A tall young man with much promise, his personal battle with anger management was quickly becoming an obstacle to a bright future. After years of petty fights, he faced a criminal charge of assault and battery.

Old Bethel worked with Maurice and his family, teaching him healthy ways to deal with his anger. Now he is on the road to success.

He told me the other day, “I want to be a doctor so I can give back to the community,”  McDowell marveled.

For Maurice, like countless other youth and families being served by Old Bethel, it s the first step to a new life that s more about giving than taking.

Kids are not exploring their purpose,  McDowell said. This is giving them an opportunity to understand who they are, what they can contribute to church, community, families; it s about serving people, being everything they can be. It s not just being a recipient of giving. It s teaching them to give something back. 

Two evenings a week, participants head to Old Bethel for sessions. Dinner is always served, and the whole family is encouraged to come—tiny babies to grandparents. After a big group session, participants split into groups by gender for a Bible study.

They supplement the sessions with other helpful offerings: They do individual counseling by appointment. The United Methodist Women of the church mentor the girls, and the United Methodist Men mentor the boys, taking them to ball games and other activities. They also offer cultural arts on Saturdays—dance, music, art and crafts.

It gets some of their frustrations out,  Bowman said.

Gloria Chisholm calls the Old Bethel program a Godsend.  Her two sons, Trevon and Adrian, have attended the sessions with her every week for the last few months. While her 19-year-old was not acting out, her 14-year-old had been getting into a lot of trouble and had recently been arrested; he had to do community service, house arrest and probation.

The probation officer recommended Old Bethel to her.

Her voice thick with tears, Chisholm tried to explain her gratitude for the way the program has helped her family. Not only have they provided skill-building lessons and counseling, but the church has also helped her buy groceries, fill her gas tank, help her with a job and find her a place to live.

There are no words for me to describe the impact that the outreach ministry, as well as fellowshipping in the church, has had on us,  she said. It has made a tremendous, tremendous impact on my sons—my youngest as well as my oldest. I am just so grateful. 

Particularly unsettling to her youngest was recently hearing a man speak to the Old Bethel group about 12 years he spent in jail for killing somebody. The man told the youth that if they keep going down the wrong path, they will end up like him “ or worse.

Hearing this, her youngest came to her and apologized for his past behavior.

I just want to cry. My son said to me, ˜I don t want to kill somebody before I come to my senses; I don t want to go to jail. I m sorry,  Chisholm said. Those are the things I try to instill in them “ be good, be honest, put the Lord first. 

She feels her son is now on the right path.

The program serves the tri-county area of Charleston: Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties. And Old Bethel is in the heart of it all, nestled on a busy street in downtown Charleston, in the third-oldest building in the city. The neighborhood surrounding the church is a mix of the very wealthy and the very poor; a stream of housing projects surrounds the church.

Bowman feels the program is a good way the church can serve the community.

Terri McCrea, the program s licensed counselor and therapist, said 99.9 percent of the youth they serve are children in single-parent homes being raised by their mothers, and they are missing the basic life skills that a two-parent household can provide.

We are basically supplementing what is missing and helping them to ˜get it,  McCrea said. If they don t get it now, they may not get it ever, or get it once they get into jail or into trouble. 

She said many of the kids don t know their rights or know what they can or can t do under the law.

Many of them are thinking, ˜Oh, I ll just fight on the schoolyard and go home, but no “ they can get arrested,  she said.

For her, success is saving just one kid.

And they take all who ask for help; so far, they have been able to accommodate everyone.

When the probation officer calls, I say, ˜OK,  Bowman said, chuckling.

But space is tight, and they need to grow. Bowman and his team are eying an office building next door to the church so they can serve more people through the program. That building has 2,000 square feet and could house more classrooms, temporary shelters for families in ne
ed, etc.

The more space we have, the more we can serve,  Bowman said.

While anyone who needs help is welcome “ the elderly, imprisoned, homeless, indigent “McDowell is particularly motivated to help the youth, who are the future of the church and the world. The children and teens Old Bethel services are the ones who will be leading the city, the neighborhood and the church one day, and it s up to today s leaders to make sure they have the skills and the values needed to be strong and effective citizens.

I m a Baby Boomer. We re over; it s done,  McDowell said. I want the ones coming up now to take the church to a different pinnacle. 

Bowman agrees.

We re not looking at the kids with a 3.0 or 4.0 (Grade Point Average),  he said. We re looking at the kids with the 1.0. 

Those are the ones most at risk, he said. They can make or break the future.

Fred Patterson, Old Bethel lay leader who serves as the program s assistant coordinator, has witnessed a change in the youth since the beginning.

I think we re making a difference,  Patterson said. Without the program, unfortunately for a lot of them, they would probably be in varying stages of incarceration. Here they have a second chance to be able to resume a normal lifestyle. 

The program was dealt a blow recently. One of their key volunteers, Douglas Gist, the main liaison for the Ladson satellite branch, was killed one night, hit by a car after leaving a session with the youth.

He literally gave his life for that ministry,  McDowell said. Now I have a passion to continue his ministry. 

Today, they push forward. The satellite branch is 19 miles from Old Bethel, so McDowell and other volunteers drive the families to Old Bethel every Tuesday and Thursday nights, plus other times, for joint sessions. It s all coming together.

Meanwhile, Bowman and other Old Bethel staff and volunteers do their part to continue effective programming and services while reaching out to the system and to the people, spreading the word about the Christian alternative to a life of crime.

To support the Old Bethel Outreach Program with donations, or for more information, call 843-722-3470 or write to Old Bethel Outreach Program, 222 Calhoun St., Charleston, SC 29401.

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