By: Katie Sobiech
“You know, you Christians like coming in here and doing your Bible thing but what are you doing on the outside?” a guard at a local detention center asked Becky Retzer, Founder of True North Ministry (TNM), one day.
“He was talking to Christians as a whole but happened to say it to Becky. She left saying ‘I don’t know what are we doing? Why are we seeing young people come in every weekend and once they’re released they’re back in quickly?’” Melissa Yovichin, Development Director of TNM, shared.
Questions arose in Retzer’s heart, such as ‘How do we change this? What do we do on the outside? What does it look like?
“Becky felt the Lord answer those questions within a very short period of time and within weeks she started the one-on-one mentoring (with the youth in detention centers),” Melissa said.
Mentoring, which is the heart of TNM, allows volunteers to team up with troubled youth and spend one-on-one time together, whether it’s taking them to McDonalds or for a walk in the park.
Along with the mentoring and going into detention centers and jails, TNM formed the Circle of Influence, a group of young men from the Indian River facility who get to come to their property. TNM has been blessed with a large farm, outstretched with beautiful land, a pond and even donkeys.
“We want this property to be a real safe haven for young people. We’re getting feedback that when they come here their heads clear and they don’t have to think about ‘how do I protect myself?’ They can actually just sit and meditate and say ‘Wow, there is a whole other world in Jesus Christ’,” Yovichin shared.
“We’ve seen young people come alive in the Lord out here in ways we didn’t expect. I mean, these are miracles. It’s impacting their lives and we’re hearing the kids say ‘I don’t want to go home. I don’t want to go back (to my old lifestyle)’,” she continued.
Going home for many unfortunately means returning to gangs, dysfunctional homes, bad habits and/or unhealthy peer influences.
Building Relationship with the County
TNM has been given access at the county level which allows their volunteers to enter the Dan Street Correctional Facility and some other highly secured facilities.
“Becky and the board have proven themselves over and over again that the kinds of volunteers we’re bringing in are high level, committed, long-term, focused, Biblically-based and Christ centered people. So at the county level, we have a lot of great access. Almost 100% access even into some of the agency levels, like Children’s Services,” Yovichin said.
At the state level, Retzer has been knocking on doors asking for more time with the youth. She’s asked to do bigger projects and have more access to the youth.
This is to fulfill the vision of groups such as the Circle of Influence coming to the property. Cuyahoga Hills is another facility soon to have their youth come out to the property. On TNM’s farm, the youth take care of the animals, build bird houses and do other crafts, have Bible Study, find peace and a get-away from their normal, hectic lives.
TNM also visits young women at the Scioto Juvenile Correctional Facility in Delaware, Ohio, bringing crafts and Bible studies to them.
The issues teens face at TNM are often different from that of the average teen in your church youth group.
“What’s huge to us may not be so huge to your normal person in the pew. Staying in school for some of these kids is a huge success, where that’s what we expect for our kids – there’s no other option. In many of these young people’s worlds there are a lot more options than staying in school,” Yovichin shared.
“Running away from home for our kids is not an option to us, but for these kids sometimes it’s their only option and it will land them in the detention center because they’re breaking curfew. There’s usually some other mischief that goes along with that, so they’re hauled in or a parent hauls them down there. The parent may not want them for various reasons,” Yovichin said.
Once placed in a detention center, the future looks grimmer by the moment.
“From there it’s just Satan’s way of grooming them towards a world system that few get out of. There are some safety nets that most Christian church goers have in their homes that are completely wiped out in these young people’s worlds. This launches them into a vacuum of evil where they just get sucked up into a world of ready-made gangs, ready-made supposed family, mischief, and career paths (in gangs),” Yovichin continued.
Yes, there are “career paths” in gangs.
“If you look at some of the super-gangs at the national level, they have CEO’s. They have organized business units that help with distribution and transportation – foot soldiers who are at an operational level to make sure everything’s in line,” Yovichin shared.
“Gangs at the national level are recruiting at an all-time high. They’re recruiting because the drug trade is so profitable and there’s lots of money and lots of power,” she said.
“If a young person excels in the criminal world, he has a path. There’s a pathway and he’ll get noticed and recruited or be put in leadership or have more authority,” Yovichin continued.
Gangs have goals just like the rest of us.
“Some of the gangs want to rule the 77 corridor from Cleveland down through Florida. They want to rule that transportation route,” she said.
This way they can transport as many drugs as they want and broaden their “market”.
Gangs in Summit County
When working with incarcerated youth, running into gang members is inevitable.
“Gangs are influencing young people these days. It’s out there and it’s more popular and prevalent than ever,” Yovichin explained.
“If you drive around town you will see quite a few markings along the way. They call them tags. Just a small amount of research would show you that we’re seeing more and more conversations between gangs at the street level,” she continued.
Some examples are graffiti on bridges, mailboxes, on the back of stop signs and even on school buildings.
“There’s a lot of communication going on,” Yovichin explained.
“I’ve seen quite a few tags go out in my own neighborhood. When they tag certain areas they are saying to another gang, ‘We own this corner’. It’s a territorial language. It might be spray painted or whatever, but it doesn’t scare me. It causes me to say to the Lord ‘How do we fight back spiritually?’” Yovichin said.
“I don’t think we need to lock them all up. I don’t think we need tons of after school programs. We just need Jesus to show us what it is…where the pathway to divert them is,” she continued.
She is hopeful that the Lord will combat this.
“This is not vacation Bible school, but it is God’s battle to be won,” Yovichin said.
Stay tuned for Part 2 next week!
If you would like more information on True North Ministry and how you can become a volunteer please visit http://www.truenorthministry.org.