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Oak Park Baptist reaches youth with safe, fun environmentcomment (0)

July 31, 2003

By Martine G. Bates

The lively chatter almost drowns out the loud music playing in the background. Dozens of young teenagers play assorted games, sit at tables having snacks and cluster in small groups. The Safe and Friendly Environment (SAFE), located at Oak Park Baptist Church in Decatur, is open and thriving every Saturday night.
The program started a year ago as an outreach program between Oak Park Baptist Church and Decatur Police Department’s Crime Prevention Unit. The SAFE now hosts 35–40 kids every Saturday night.
On a typical night, kids at the SAFE engage in free play for about an hour, using the many donated games. They always get a free meal and listen to music and a devotion by a local church.
Linda Brown, who works for the Crime Prevention Unit and volunteers at the SAFE every week, said, “They enjoy the music, and they have learned to sit down, be quiet and pay attention.”
Participating churches do more than just entertain. Several youth have given their lives to Christ through the SAFE.
“When we do the devotional, we always have an invitation. Some of the children we’ve been able to get plugged in to local churches, not necessarily Oak Park,” Brown said. “We have black churches, white churches and several different denominations working with us.”
Other individuals and organizations have come on board to help with the program. “Everything in this building, down to the paint on the walls, was donated — chairs, tables, everything. We have no source of funding except individual, church and civic group donations,” Brown said.
Oak Park’s location, near a large concentration of housing projects, is key to the success of the program.
“The children walk or ride bikes,” Brown said. “The beauty of this building is that it is so near [their homes]. They can get here on their own.”
Oak Park Pastor John Bain noted his congregation’s willingness to support the SAFE. The congregation was dwindling because of changes in the neighborhood, and much of the church’s space had been unused for years, he said. Before the SAFE started, he took his congregation on a tour of the unused space.
“I said, ‘Look here. See the dust and the dirt? Let’s do something,’” Bain said.
The congregation agreed to ask God to bring people who needed meeting space.
Before long, Bain heard about the Crime Prevention Unit and contacted Sgt. Noel Mayfield, who works with the unit. Together they came up with the idea of a teen center.
When the expense and the work became too much for the small congregation, other churches were invited to become partners in the project.
A different church is in charge each week. Each sends in a team, usually a youth choir, praise band or drama team. They also bring food and volunteers to chaperone for the night.
The kids seem to like the music, according to Brown. “As long as they keep it upbeat, the kids respond well.”
The adults involved with the SAFE say they believe the program is working. “What we’re trying to do is show them a different way of life, to show them that somebody cares about them and to provide them with positive role models,” Brown said.
Most importantly, she said, “We want to show them the love of Christ.”

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