October 22, 2020
Incarcerated and at-risk youth benefit from one-on-one mentoring by volunteers with Youth for Christ, an organization that works with teens recently released from jail and children of the incarcerated. (Photo courtesy of Hamilton Strategies)
Coronavirus-related lockdowns have limited personal contact for organizations that minister to students, but Dallas-Fort Worth Youth For Christ is finding creative ways to serve at-risk Texas teens.
Michael’s mom contacted YFC just after the pandemic hit, seeking help for her son whom she felt was starting down a “wrong path.”
“We immediately provided a mentor for him,” said LaToyia Dean-Dennis, Dallas-Fort Worth YFC executive director. “They connected by phone, got him a mask and went to play basketball. Since then, Michael’s demeanor has completely changed.
“We know that if we can connect kids with Christ, we can change the trajectory of their lives.”
YFC Juvenile Justice Ministries serves teens living in and recently released from detention centers, correctional facilities, residential treatment centers and emergency shelters by offering life-skills training that incorporates the word of God and the gospel message.
In fact, Dean-Dennis said COVID-19 has opened doors to partner with local churches that now offer free space for the group’s City Life program.
“We know that the 10,000 kids arrested in the Dallas area each year come from 10 zip codes, so we have identified two major (areas), and partnered with community churches and centers.”
JJM after-care programs offer discipleship, mentoring and supportive relationships to recently released youth, but Dallas County limits access to inmate information and Dean-Dennis said volunteers often find they have no way to follow up with teens after their release.
When the pandemic locked down facilities, the group partnered with Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree program to launch an after-care ministry specifically targeting kids whose parents are incarcerated.
“They are at a higher risk of repeating the same behavior [as their parents] and of going into juvenile detention themselves,” Dean-Davis explained. “We are beginning to disperse our volunteers to the Angel Tree kids in the same two zip codes as our City Life programs.”
A new Parent Life program has paved the way to serve teen parents in the same area through online workshops designed to introduce them to Christ while teaching them to be successful parents.
Tabitha Vasilas, executive director for East Alabama YFC, said COVID-19 has changed the way her group serves at-risk youth, but her team has remained active, praying weekly for youth and staff at various facilities.
Prior to COVID-19, the East Alabama group had seen 21 students enter into a personal relationship with Christ through the support of local partner churches like First Baptist Church, Opelika.
“Since COVID-19 … we have provided social-distancing, safe activities … and an encouraging message from the word of God,” she said. “We will continue providing these types of Christ-sharing activities in the days to come. God is making all things work together for good.”
In addition to prayer support, East Alabama YFC has provided care packages and meals for staff, and sent meals, handwritten letters and hygiene products to the students.
“We also started a ‘Devos and Donuts’ ministry where we prepare a week’s worth of devotions for the youth at the detention center and drop them off on Monday mornings, along with donuts,” Vasilas said.
Both groups plan to resume activities at some point and are prepared to offer even more services to reach youth for Christ.
“Our desire is to share the love of Christ by extending compassion in practical ways that help meet the needs of each individual exactly where they are,” Vasilas said. “We love each one of them and do our best to demonstrate that through our acts of service, assistance and authentic relationships.”
Dean-Davis agreed, noting, “Youth For Christ is the largest provider of juvenile justice ministries in the world. Young people respond very well to authenticity. The greatest gift you can offer them is your true self. Don’t hide your scars. It’s important for us to share our mistakes so that they can see that God is greater than the sum of our mistakes.”