A Living Faith Moves South Mountain
“They shall come from the east, they shall come from the west,
And sit down in the Kingdom of God;
To be met by their Father and welcomed and blessed,
And sit down in the Kingdom of God.
The black, the white, the dark, the fair,
Your color will not matter there;
They shall come from the east, they shall come from the west,
And sit down in the kingdom of God.”
~ John Gowans
It begins early on a Monday morning. Jenni arrives first, opens the doors and starts preparing breakfast for the 50 or so children who will arrive shortly after 6:30 am to begin another week at the pre-school. Heberto arrives next, to make sure everything is sparkling for those children. Soon Terry will arrive to prepare herself for the morning lessons that she will teach the children. As the parents bring their sons and daughters through the pre-school doors, they are met with smiling, happy faces, clean, safe surroundings and most of all–open arms. Some might say that for these children, walking through the doors of the South Mountain pre-school is like walking into heaven on Earth. Shirley Durham, the pre-school director, sums up South Mountain’s mission in three words: “Every Child Matters.”
For many, that is an appropriate statement. In the neighborhood surrounding The Salvation Army’s South Mountain Youth & Family Center, there are elements of society most people only see on the movie screen–crack and prostitution houses, rampant gang activity, open spaces littered with abandoned cars, broken bottles, shards of twisted metal, even lost and forgotten toys. On any given day, gunshots echo through the streets, as well. In fact, as recently as this past January, six people were shot within a one-mile radius of the center, including one police officer who was killed.
What fuels this violence and filth? Possibly racial tensions, maybe poverty, most assuredly sin. Planted 30 years ago by (then) Captains Joe and Doris Noland (now Eastern Territorial leaders), this corps community center was dedicated to bringing hope into the lives of children who live in an otherwise hopeless society.
“We were appointed to plant a corps in the Phoenix South Mountain area in June 1967,” stated Commissioner Joe Noland. “I believe records will show that the corps was opened one year later in 1968. I named it the Broadway Youth and Family Center–the name was changed some years later to its present title. We began operating in a donated trailer on the property in ’67 and the building was completed in ’68.
“This corps was born out of the Civil Rights movement of the ’60s. Doris and I were tapped on the shoulder to begin this historic venture for The Salvation Army. As officers, we felt strongly that every human being should be treated with dignity, equality and respect. We wanted to speak out against oppression of any kind. We were passionately opposed to any denial of human rights and didn’t want any human being to be marginalized. The opportunity for opening this work afforded us the perfect platform to demonstrate our passions peacefully, compassionately and practically. It was probably the most difficult, yet most rewarding appointment of our career. It was also the most defining. We thank God for the opportunity.”
The “center” (as it is called by neighborhood children) stands in the middle of all this, providing a safe haven from all that is wrong with their surroundings. Beginning with the pre-school, and into the after-school program, the safety continues. Teamed with students from Arizona State and Grand Canyon Universities, children are tutored five days a week, for two hours a day. Not only are the three “Rs” covered, but each child also has the opportunity to participate in the science club, with projects like gardening and astronomy. The gem of the tutoring program is the Armstrong Family Foundation Learning Center. A generous grant from this private foundation provided the renovation of two existing rooms, the creation of a library and a study room, and the construction of a computer lab–complete with 23 state-of-the-art computers, all with internet connections. Lieut. Amanda Reardon, corps officer, notes the beginnings of the library. “Our library started with a shopping cart filled with books donated from a nearby prison–they were books the inmates didn’t want.” The effectiveness of the learning center program speaks for itself: since its inception five years ago, the average standardized test score for the children involved rose from the 35th to the 75th percentile. Educators agree this is an astonishing increase.
In the South Phoenix community, families with extra spending money are virtually non-existent. Combine a lack of money with a budding athlete’s desire to compete, and you are left with a dilemma of depressing dimensions. Again, that’s where the “center” steps in to fill a void. Offering programs such as a boxing program aimed at gang prevention, girls’ volleyball linked to sexual abstinence classes, club basketball for all ages, and a startup soccer program, the Youth & Family Center is succeeding in keeping kids off the streets.
Lanelda Hutchinson, a parent of one young boxer, said her neighborhood is filled with gangs. The boxing club is a godsend for her child. Robert Ruiz, who was recently honored by the United Way, showed up at the center as an overweight 11-year-old with high blood pressure. Seven years later, healthy and trim, Robert attributes his health and safety to his involvement with the boxing program: “I probably would be on the streets goofing off and wasting time with my buddies if it wasn’t for the boxing club.”This club has just finished competing in major tournaments that saw 12 of the 17 boxers win state championships.
Seven years ago, the Pregnancy Prevention Volleyball Program was initiated to help curb the rising rate of teenage pregnancies. These girls range in age from 7–18. Beginning abstinence training early makes pregnancy even less likely. The first of its kind in the United States, this program has seen tremendous results. “Seeing more than 700 girls come through the Pregnancy Prevention Volleyball Program and knowing of only three girls getting pregnant makes me feel like we’re doing something worthwhile,” says Bob Wycoff, program director for the Youth Center.
For the more than 500 people who come through the doors during the week, life has been improved and hope has been restored. Those directly involved with the ministry know of its value and effectiveness. But recently there has been interest from the corporate community which has validated what is done on a daily basis. Just over a year ago, Ashland Chemicals decided that its employees would provide community service while in town for a national meeting. The result was a new playground for the pre-school. American Express and the Red Lobster restaurant have sponsored work projects such as painting in the pre-school and youth center. A project currently gaining momentum is one that will paint the boxing room, locker rooms and showers. In addition, new rubber flooring will be placed in the boxing room to assist in preventing injuries. As a bonus to all this manual labor, Reebok has agreed to provide boxing shoes for all the boxers associated with our program.
A safe house, a godsend, heaven on earth; these are phrases that could describe the landmark on Broadway Road in South Phoenix. “In a world where violence and racial tensions are the norm, being able to provide a safe haven where kids can laugh, learn, and make friends without barriers is what we’re all about,” says Lieutenant Rob Reardon, corps officer. “These children need to know what God’s Kingdom is like–where skin color and class never enter the picture.” Woven into the fabric of this very busy place are the Army programs that define the meaning for all the rest. Adventure Corps, Sunbeams, Singing Company, Corps Cadets and Y.P.L., all share the schedule with the other activities during the week “Being able to teach these children what the Bible says about their lives is fundamental,” says Lieutenant Amy Reardon. Offering Bible-based programs during the week has had a direct result in Sunday attendance. Tuesday nights feature Army scout troops, Singing Company and Bible club. These programs are linking “center” kids with “corps” kids. As a result, some of the “center” children have decided to make the corps their church home.
Recognizing the current trends in music, Lt. Amy Reardon and Craig Summerfield, Youth Ministries coordinator, recently invited Jesus Posse to the center to present the Gospel in their own unique style during the peak of gym activity. Offering free pizza and entertainment, children were drawn from the gymnasiums by the heavy hip-hop sounds emanating from the game room. Before long, an enthusiastic crowd gathered to listen to both the music of Jesus Posse and the gospel presented by Captain Ivan Wild, DYCS. Plans are to make this into a monthly event.
Bringing things into perspective, the doors are opened once again on Sunday morning, inviting people to come and share the goodness of the Lord. Focusing on who God is, and why it is that the South Mountain Youth & Family Center exist, is the recurring theme during the Sunday morning Holiness meeting & worship celebration. Ed Stuart, long-time soldier and employee of the center, has seen many people, young and old, walk through the doors in the last 30 years. He draws upon the past to testify to its ministry: “It’s all about changing lives. Seeing kids grow up and get out of the mess means God is at work!”