Help - And Hope -- Chaplaincy Program Ministers To Some Seattle's Most Troubled Youngsters



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To volunteer time or contribute money to this project, contact: the Youth Chaplaincy Program, King County Department of Youth Services, 1211 E. Alder St., Seattle, WA 98122 (206) 343-2621.

In a rundown part of the city, behind a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire, children locked up at the King County Youth Service Center file into the gym for Sunday worship.

They are as young as 10 and rarely older than 18; accused of stealing, pushing drugs, selling their bodies, raping, beating, even killing. For more than half, this is not the first time they've been detained.

Not all of the kids come to church, but the 40 or so who do come by choice: to get out of their ``dorm,'' to see the boys or to see the girls, or because they truly enjoy the service.

Terrie Ward moves to the makeshift pulpit under the basketball hoop.

She's been director of the Youth Chaplaincy Program at the Service Center nearly three years. The inter-faith project, which started in 1975, is sponsored by the Church Council of Greater Seattle. ``Chaplain Terrie'' heads a team of 20 volunteers, representing diverse religious beliefs, who minister to some of the city's most troubled children.

This night, the chaplain wears a brilliant purple angora sweater and flowing print skirt; her hair is full and curly - a vision of softness and color against the bare concrete walls.

The young people in their drab institutional garb listen. Her message is as gentle and full of hope as her appearance.

``We believe you are made in the image and likeness of God. You've had bad things happen to you and you have done bad things or you wouldn't be here.

``But we believe that you are good and that your life is worthwhile. God has a positive contribution he wants you to make in this life.''

Ward repeats almost the same words every Sunday. Then a visiting congregation leads the kids in song and prayer. At the end, Ward passes around a sheet people can sign if they want to talk one-on-one with a chaplain. Typically, the sheet is filled.

Talk helps in a setting so stressful.

For the first 72 hours they're locked up, kids can feel terribly isolated. Phone calls are limited, and they often are kept alone in a single room for long periods so they can be observed. There's nothing to do but read, and a lot of them can't read.

Many of the young people also are withdrawing from addiction. When the alcohol or drugs wear off, the pain of suppressed feelings comes out.

Depression, anger, confusion are common.

But the detention staff is so busy keeping the place running, they seldom have time to give a hurting kid enough personal attention.

``We use the chaplaincy program quite a bit. They are the one program in the building with supervised volunteers that interacts one-on-one with the kids,'' says psychologist Jana Ewing, who coordinates the Center's Mental Health Services.

Adds James Washington, a lead detention officer: ``For me it's a benefit. I don't have the time all the time.'' So when he notices a kid needs help, ``I'll write a note to Terrie saying, `I got so-and-so kid. I need for you to see.' '' He only wishes more volunteers could spend more time with the kids.

Volunteers receive 10 hours of training on the needs of the children and how much they can realistically expect to accomplish.

Studies of the detention population show many of the children are emotionally and mentally impaired. Last year, 4,440 juveniles were admitted to detention, about half of them repeat admissions. Eighty-four percent were males.

``In large part, most of these kids have multiple serious problems,'' says Ewing. ``If it weren't for the fact that most of them are socioeconomically poor, they would probably be treated on an in-patient psych ward.''

These kids don't reveal their hearts and souls casually, unless they're desperate.

``They give you as much as you can handle . . .,'' says volunteer Greg Bolden, who calls it ``testing the water.''

The first conversation might go like this:

``How you doing?''

``I ain't doing too good.''

``What's up?''


But over a few days, intimacy grows to talk of family problems such as abusive or drug-addicted parents, the difficulty of getting out of gangs, hopes for the future, worries about staying out of trouble - remorse for a crime.

The chaplain's role is to listen, and help children express their feelings and find self-esteem, not to judge or impose religion.

The kids trust the chaplains because they're not from ``the system'' and are not bound to report what's said unless a child is suicidal, reports having been abused, or threatens to hurt someone else.

They don't have to talk about God.

Indeed, many must face themselves and the reality of their huge personal problems before they can discover spirituality.

``When I first came in here I was really upset,'' remembers a young man, who wears the tattooed initials of a local gang on his upper arm. He's been in juvenile detention several times for drug possession, driving without a license and running from a warrant. He also says, ``I did some of that stuff - shooting at people.''

At first the teen-ager asked to talk with a chaplain just to get some attention and get out of his room. But he found ``it calms me down.'

``They tell you - you are somebody. You don't really hear that from nobody. They take more time for young people,'' he says.

The young man, who ``grew up in church,'' is determined to get his life together, despite his friendships with gang members and the fact that both his parents are involved with drugs.

``I know what I have to do to survive . . .,'' he says after having been in detention more than two months and attending classes to kick an addiction. He hopes to earn his high-school diploma and go to college or trade school.

``I know it'll all work out 'cuz I got my willpower building up.''

Ward gives him a self-help worksheet to complete that will help him plot a strategy for his life after release.

``This was something I was really looking for,'' he says with pleasure.

The chaplain also walks him through alternatives to his actions and tries to help him make good decisions.

But it's his choice to do what's right, he says. ``That's what's so good about God. He gives you a choice.''

When God does come up, the message from chaplains is always love.

``God is not sitting up in the sky with a big stick waiting to pound you,'' Bolden tells his kids.

Another volunteer recalls responding with ``God really loves you'' to a young man who bluntly insisted, ``I don't have a conscience.'' The boy unexpectedly burst into tears.

These kids have tough facades, says Ward, ``but underneath is a hurting child that needs to be loved. I chose to see them as human beings.''

It's critical for adults to ``be in here'' with the kids, when they're not high and not around their peers, says the chaplain. It's a chance to witness a certain hopefulness they may not observe in their daily lives and to articulate values they may not have heard.

Ward - a former Holy Names sister with a master's degree in theology and another in public administration - has been an elementary teacher, a campus minister and a division director at Catholic Community Services.

As the Youth Service Center Chaplain she not only counsels kids and recruits and trains volunteers, but also, with the help of her board of directors, raises money. The $81,300 yearly budget comes from individual and church donations, except for a grant from King County for crisis intervention.

The chaplaincy will have a fund-raising concert May 18 at the Moore Theater.

``It's hard,'' Ward says. ``I spend a lot of my personal time trying to recover from being here.'' So the chaplain gets massages, meditates, takes walks.

What keeps her going is a deep belief that ``the goodness of love is stronger than evil.''

But does the chaplaincy make a permanent difference in young people's lives?

``We all have the hope that something will redeem them forever and ever, but I don't think that's the practical hope of the program,'' says Ewing. Rather, the chaplains ``are real concerned about supporting the kids while they're here.''

The chaplaincy program does make a difference in juveniles' level of adjustment to the whole system: how they react in court, how they handle bad news from their probation officer, how they react to harassment or teasing from other kids.

Hiram Figueroa, 20, credits Ward and the program with changing his life. When he was 14, Figueroa came from the Bronx to Seattle with his older brother.

He remembers the brother ``never had no time for me. So I felt neglected.'' The young boy went from shoplifting to worse. At 17, he was locked up in the Youth Service Center for second-degree assault.

He asked to see a chaplain and began a dialogue with Ward. When he was sent to the King County Jail and eventually Twin Rivers, she stayed in touch. Every other Wednesday they'd talk by phone.

``The real meaning of it was there somebody there for me. There was somebody who cared about me,'' says Figueroa.

``She would listen to me and I would talk and I would listen to myself and I would just keep getting ideas on how to change.''

Figueroa now talks to community groups about the program because he wants to give something back to the chaplaincy. He is preparing to take a high-school equivalency test, hopes to attend college and has been out of jail about a year and a half, the longest time since he was a kid.

Every week, Ward begins such relationships all over again. Recently, she met a teen-ager accused of credit-card theft and possession of stolen property.

The young woman didn't get along with her mother or the people her mother lives with. She kept leaving home. Life seemed overwhelming.

``I wish she could show me she was on my side,'' said the girl. ``She helps me the best way she knows how, but it's not the best way.''

The chaplain responded: ``You have a right to your feelings. I'm trying to help you deal with your feelings. . . . What kinds of things does she do that you don't like?''

The girl sort of smiled: ``It's just me wanting to do what I want to do.''

The chaplain asked: ``Do you care about yourself?''

``Not a whole lot,'' said the girl.

``Would you say you're depressed?''


``What do you do with that depression?''

``Ignore it.''

``Have you ever thought of ending your life?''

``Hmmmmm . . . I was in the hospital right before I came here for that.''

``I am willing to be a friend even after you get out of here,'' said Ward. ``I don't want this necessarily to be a one-time conversation. . . I. I want to help you heal from whatever hurt you have inside.''

The girl listened intently, looking down at her pink fingernails occasionally.

``. . . Does it ever help to cry?'' asked the chaplain.

``Sometimes,'' said the girl.

``I believe that God gives us our tears to help get the poison out,'' said the chaplain almost in a whisper. ``. . . I don't want to see you waste your life.''

The girl yawned and quietly said: ``It's hard to find a person that's really easy to talk to.''

She once knew a person like that when she was little - a counselor - but she can't find that person anymore.

Ward promised to come back.

``Would you like a hug?'' she asked.

The girl nodded and the chaplain opened her arms.