When Pastor Daniel Tyler was working at a ministry out-of-state, he was told by someone that it was good he was working with "those kids."
"Those kids" were the ones that didn’t have a good family name in town; the ones that weren’t model students or beloved athletes or well-mannered. They were the ones that, like he was as a young teen, were broken young people with lives on a trajectory that probably would land them in prison if nobody stepped in to guide them.
"Those kids have names," Tyler answered.
For a little over a year, Tyler has been a de-facto chaplain in Faulker County’s juvenile detention center. He leads four or five small chapel services for groups of the 25 or so juvenile prisoners that are in county jail at any given time and spends two days a week mentoring one-on-one. When they’re released, his Deliver Hope ministry keeps track of them and provides mentoring.
Tyler understands better than most how to relate to "broken" teens. His home life as a young teen mirrors that of a lot of teens he meets in county jail. As a teen, he was also arrested and convicted of small-time theft in Conway, and for a time he was homeless.
Faith helped. He had gone to a church in town, mostly in pursuit of a girl who went there, and when he found himself without a place to sleep a family involved in the church invited him to stay in a spare bedroom.
The man who got Tyler off the streets also taught him the house painting trade. Tyler relied on that skill to start supporting himself, and he still takes a job painting a house every once in a while, he said.
"David Hogue was the attorney who represented me as a broken young person through Christian Legal Services," he said. "I was a young person who just struggled to find my purpose in life, and that caused me to make choices that weren’t right. Some of those were legal and some of those were character choices."
Hogue said that, in his experience, juvenile criminals can fall into two categories: the ones that know basic life skills and morality and rebel against them and those that don’t know these things — things that those of us who grew up in decent households take for granted. Tyler, he said, was one of the latter, and with the help of others and faith, he learned.
"What turned it around for Daniel was a decision that he made," Hogue said. "Where a judge told him, ‘You are going to become the thing you most hate to become,’ Daniel made a decision to prove that judge wrong. That’s not a spur-of-the-moment decision; that’s an every-morning-when-I-get-up decision."
Tyler remembers being that "broken" teen when a counselor gave him a simple number puzzle that’s tricky and tedious to solve on its own. Then she gave it back to him with some instructions that made it easy. Something clicked.
"A lot of these kids have [in the juvenile criminal justice system] have walked around for most of their young adult life, or their child years, feeling like a failure," he said. "Now I ask them, ‘How many times have you said, Ok, for real I’m going to change?’ Usually they say, ‘Every time.’ They want to change, but they don’t have a clue how. There’s no structure to teach them the way to do that. Then they’re on probation, and they’re told, ‘You can’t do this and you can’t do that,’ but maybe their dad’s doing it.
"A lot of kids, their family’s not only not part of the solution, but they’re part of the problem, so when these kids turn 18 it’s either homelessness or going back to the same environment that got them there in the first place. They haven’t been taught any life skills — budgeting, getting a job. No one’s ever showed them, and they don’t know how to do that. The issue is, we tell those kids to find the numbers, to solve the puzzle, but they’ve got no shot.
"Before you judge somebody’s choices, you should see what their options are," he continued. "You should roll up into these kids’ houses and see what they look like, and roll through their neighborhoods. There’s this feeling in Conway that everything’s good; we mask over the brokenness and say, ‘We’re away from Little Rock and we don’t have those problems."
But in his experience, we do. There are kids who have been put in jail in Conway for stealing who didn’t have any food in their home and no money to buy a meal, he said. They stole, literally, because they were hungry and their parents couldn’t feed them.
Tyler said he hasn’t been working in the local juvenile justice system long enough to know if what he’s doing is having an effect on recidivism (repeat offender) rates, but he’s confident he’s making a difference both in the jail and doing things like preparing teens for their first job interviews (including wardrobe consulting). There hasn’t been a dedicated "chaplain" for the juvenile detention center for so long that nobody Tyler’s talked to so far knows who the last one was, he said.
The next step for the Deliver Hope ministry is setting up a community outreach center. The older, blue rent house on the corner of Donaghey and College, where a young college student died of a drug overdose this year, is being looked at by Tyler and Deliver Hope’s board of directors as a possible location for the ministry’s offices and emergency housing for at-risk teens. If the ministry can rent it, they’re hoping to find local tradesmen to volunteer their efforts to renovate the home.
For more information or to make a donation, go to www.deliver-hope.org.
(Staff writer Joe Lamb, can be reached by email at email@example.com or by phone at 505-1277. To comment on this and other stories in the Log Cabin, log on to www.thecabin.net. Send us your news at www.thecabin.net/submit)