This is a description of the work being done by the Shults-Lewis Children's Home in Valparaiso, IN. It was published in the national newspaper The Christian Chronicle in January 2005.
“I didn’t want anything to do with the church,” said Brian*.
“When I first came here I thought ‘No way, no how,’” April declared emphatically.
“I saw Christianity as a major hypocrisy that adults would put on a show on Sunday and then wouldn’t live up to it during the week,” Chloe added.
Three of the “troubled” teenagers from Shults-Lewis Child and Family Services in Valparaiso, Indiana described to me how their attitudes -- and lives -- had evolved since their arrival. None of them had wanted to leave their home and friends to come here. None of them liked all the rules and restrictions that were imposed on them at Shults-Lewis. But none of them would ever view life -- or God -- the same way after they finally left.
Children come to Shults-Lewis for a variety of reasons. Some have been neglected or abused (40-75% of the girls have been sexually abused). Some have been involved with drugs, alcohol, and crime. Some are incorrigible. Some have been placed here by the state and some have been privately placed. All are treated like the children of God that they are and taught how to live a better life -- not just by words, but by example.
The teens at Shults-Lewis live in housing units with houseparents and five other teenagers. They attend classes at the on-site school with teachers who are both certified in their field and in special education, behavior disorders, emotional handicaps, and learning disorders. (Some of them are also houseparents.) The counselors are also on-site and conduct therapy sessions with the kids individually, with their units (which includes their housemothers), and with their parents. All of these staff members are also members of the Church of Christ.
Although not one of the three teens that talked with me had wanted a transformation -- and certainly had not been seeking God -- something unexpected happened to them during their stay at Shults-Lewis. Something extraordinary, by their standards. Something that opened the door for the message of God.
They learned to trust adults.
It sounds so simple, yet for these kids it wasn’t.
“Before I really wouldn’t trust anybody because all the adults I’ve known have just let me down,” said Brian. Being raised in an environment where caregivers cannot be trusted causes children to be skeptical of all adults. They assume all grown-ups behave one way in public and another at home and feel they cannot depend on adults to keep their promises.
So how does the Shults-Lewis staff earn this guarded trust? In the most simple yet difficult way. One moment at a time. As days turn into weeks and weeks turned into months, the staff members are consistent in word and deed.
“There’s adults here you can trust. If they say they’re going to do something almost always they’ll do it,” April told me. Simply put, they let their “yes” mean “yes” and their “no” mean “no”, which makes an impact on people of any age.
“At first I was waiting for them to slip up,” Chloe confided. “I thought ‘They’re gonna do something terrible. They’re gonna snap on you or hurt you or something.’ And when it didn’t happen for months and months and months, I was like, it’s real. Some people really are genuinely loving God. And I guess that let me have my own faith.”
Therein lies the secret transforming power of the Shults-Lewis method: the teens are immersed in a Christian lifestyle where every adult they come into daily contact with is a faithful, loving member of the body of Christ. Their houseparents, teachers, and counselors are all living by Biblical principles day in and day out. Jesus is in the center of their lives every day, not just Sunday mornings. This kind of daily devotion cannot help but have a changing effect on the children’s lives.
Once trust has been established and the teens understand that the staff has their best interests at heart, they are more willing to listen to the message of Jesus. But then the staff at Shults-Lewis takes it a step farther and demonstrates that the Christian life is the abundant life.
“I started seeing how happy everybody was here, like Ray [Ray Crowder is the director of Shults-Lewis], you’ll never get him on a bad day. Seriously, he’s always having a good day. Everybody here is really kind and I haven’t seen that in so long, so there must be something going on here. They contribute everything to God, so I’m starting to look back into Christianity,” Brian said.
Seeing people live in an environment where everyone is joyously living and working together for the Lord is powerful. Which is not to say there aren’t any stressful times. Can you imagine living in a home with six teenagers? How about six “troubled” teenagers? There are difficult times when the teens test the boundaries, they purposefully provoke their caregivers, and they sometimes even hit rock bottom. But through it all, the staff at Shults-Lewis disciplines them with love, listens compassionately to what they need to say, holds them responsible for their actions while constantly rooting for them to improve, and always emphasizes how much God loves them.
April and Chloe are now baptized believers. They have a plan for how they are going to keep their lives on track after they leave Shults-Lewis, and God is in the center of that plan. Brian is fervently studying the Scriptures and is on the brink of baptism.
Out in the middle of a cornfield in Indiana God is transforming lives in an amazing way. Teenagers that had no interest in God, or sometimes even had a feeling of animosity toward God, are drawing near to Him because of the unwavering example of the Christians at Shults-Lewis. Wherever God has put you today, reach out and do your part to help Him transform a life.
*Names have been changed.