Eighteen months ago, Minnesota Teen Challenge opened its Brainerd campus at the former Assembly of God church building in south Brainerd, providing faith-based drug and alcohol residential treatment for men battling addiction.
On Wednesday afternoon, it was standing room only in the program's chapel as four of its participants graduated from the program, the first graduation held at the Brainerd campus.
It was an emotional ceremony as the men spoke of life before Teen Challenge and how their lives have been transformed as a result of the program and of their faith and relationship with God they built while here. Several of their family members also spoke, many in tears, as they explained how much the program has done for their family member, even the entire family.
Shane Addison hugged his brother, Tyler, as their father, Dale Addison, wiped tears from his eyes at Shane's graduation from Teen Challenge Wednesday. Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls» Purchase reprints of this photo.
Graduating Wednesday were Shane Addison, Vaushawn Johnson, Keegan Johnson and Brian Josephson. All four men plan to enter some aspect of ministerial life.
Three of them plan to attend the Teen Challenge Ministry Institute for at least a year, possibly becoming staff members. Josephson hopes to work with the homeless following his schooling with TCMI. Keegan Johnson plans to attend Bethany College of Missions in Bloomington to pursue an associate's degree in Biblical studies.
About 250 people attended Wednesday's ceremony, including the 53 current Teen Challenge participants and 18 staff members.
Addison grew up in a home filled with drug abuse. He said he ended up in the Crow Wing County Jail, where he accepted Jesus Christ into his life. He said he spent a lot of his time living with a victim mentality which led him down the path of addiction, spending much time in county jails and living off his family.
"It just brought me to a really dark place," said Addison. "When I came to Teen Challenge, I felt hope."
Addison broke down in tears as he apologized to his family for the pain he caused them. His brother, Tyler, and father, Dale, came up from the audience and tearfully spoke about their son and brother.
About 250 people attended Wednesday's graduation for four graduates from Minnesota Teen Challenge's Brainerd campus. The ceremon included songs of worship and a performance from the Teen Challenge choir, consisting of the program's 53 participants. Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls» Purchase reprints of this photo.
"He's changed 100 percent and it's all because of the Lord," Dale Addison said.
Vaushawn Johnson said he was an angry and bitter man when he arrived at Teen Challenge. He said he got married at a young age, cheated on his wife and she left him. He became involved with a partying lifestyle, abusing drugs and alcohol. At 21, he become a drug dealer, which he did for seven years before becoming incarcerated. He destroyed his relationship with his two children and got his younger brothers into drug dealing.
"I was heading not just for prison, I was heading for hell," said Johnson. "God showed me how much He loved me by giving me this program, by giving me my children back.
"I'm from the cities, and the Lord sent me to Brainerd, of all places," Johnson joked. "I've never seen such a loving community. I come from the cities, it's not so loving there."
Keegan Johnson, who is from Utah, said he felt fortunate to stand up in front of everyone and "be alive and be able to form complete sentences." He used drugs, mainly OxyContin, for 10 years before entering Teen Challenge. He survived several overdoses and many drug-related accidents, including on snowmobile and motorcycle.
"I finally have peace, a reason to live, a passion," said Johnson. "I want to travel and be a missionary, to tell people what God has done for me."
Johnson said there were a few times he wanted to walk out of the program but feeling the prayers of those from the community praying for him on those long nights, he felt compelled to stay. He thanked everyone for their prayers.
Brian Josephson hugged his mother, Karen Lehto, after he spoke Wednesday during his graduation ceremony from Minnesota Teen Challenge. Lehto spoke of how she has seen Teen Challenge transform her son's life, who now wants to become a missionary and help the homeless. Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls» Purchase reprints of this photo.
"I can't wait until we get to heaven and you can see what a difference you have made in my life," said Johnson. "I don't have the words to describe it."
Josephson said 13 months ago he found three guns in his brother's house and was going to "blow my head off" but couldn't find any bullets. He was an angry drunk who often blacked out. He woke up in the county jail after one of those blackouts, one of the worst days of his life, he said.
"A broken heart and anger kept me in the bottle every single day," said Josephson. "I have no desire to ever go back. I love who I am. I am not broken-hearted anymore. I'm not mad. Teen Challenge was hard. The more I hated it, the more I learned."
His mother, Karen Lehto, said she was often her son's drinking partner before she became sober 3-1/2 years ago. She'd have him drive her to the bar and buy him drinks so she wouldn't be the one who got caught drinking and driving.
"I'm really sorry I did that, Brian," Lehto tearfully told her son.
Josephson also earned his GED while attending Teen Challenge and accepted his GED certificate during a standing ovation Wednesday.
"Never forget where you've been and where you are right now," Sam Anderson, Brainerd campus director, told the four men during graduation. "The enemy has a plan for you when you walk out that door and so does God."
Anderson said 11 other men have graduated from the Brainerd program but those graduations were held at Teen Challenge centers in the Twin Cities. This was the first in Brainerd. He said about 80 percent of the center's participants live within a 100-mile radius of Brainerd and two of its recent graduates are living and working in the Brainerd lakes area.
Teen Challenge, founded in 1958, has more than 1,000 centers worldwide and about 300 centers in the United States. While the Brainerd campus is only for men, there are other programs for teens and women. Minnesota Teen Challenge currently houses more than 400 students in eight facilities, including Minneapolis, Duluth and Brainerd.
Anderson said about half of the participants are court-ordered to be there.
At the end of the ceremony, the Teen Challenge choir, consisting of all of its 53 participants, performed. Anderson said the choir is available to perform at area churches during their Sunday services and give presentations about the program.
JODIE TWEED may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5858.
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