What does a dog named Lulu, cooking classes, and a 45-pound weight have in common?
Each contributes to the healing process for local teenagers enrolled in Boone County’s “The Refuge Girls Academy.”
If you visit the Witham Family YMCA during the week, you might see a couple of dozen young ladies working up a sweat in the wellness center. These 24 high school students are residents at a local home and training center for girls.
Started in 1968 by Pennsylvanian pastor David Wilkinson, the program was formerly known as “Teen Challenge.” The center that is now in Boone County was the first one for adolescents in the U.S. Today, “The Refuge” on North Lebanon Street is one of 250 centers in America, with 1400 centers worldwide.
High schoolers can enroll in this 12-to15-month Christian discipleship journey when struggling with life-controlling issues. Such barriers to their well-being might be anxiety, depression, dysfunctional family situations, truancy, or addiction. Sometimes, when students exhibit poor behavior, the courts give them a choice between juvenile detention or “The Refuge.”
According to Program Directors Angie Dodson, “The Refuge” is a life-giving alternative to a correctional facility. In addition to the availability of a psychiatrist to manage any meds, “The Refuge” also provides biblical counseling. And staff seek to establish healthy lifestyles with participants. One way of doing that is to teach the girls life skills, such as cooking, which they practice at the facility. As a foundation for achieving these goals, staff use the Word of God to speak into the students’ lives.
“The Bible is a transforming agent for the heart and the mind,” Angie says. “God really does love you. He sent his only Son to die for you. And for a Father to do that, you have to be pretty special.”
Pouring into these girls is a community-wide endeavor. And one local resident, in particular, devotes all her time to supporting the girls: Lulu is an American Staffordshire Terrier who lives on-site.
Beyond this Boone County Humane Society contribution, various churches sponsor activities and scholarships for the girls. Each student is also connected to an individual from the community who sponsors her and sends letters and birthday gifts. Other organizations also support the students: at a family weekend this fall, Lebanon Police Officer Tim Edmonds cooked hamburgers and hotdogs at the park for the girls and their loved ones.
The Witham Family YMCA wanted to join Boone County in championing these Lebanon High School students. YMCA Executive Director Kim Newnam says, “Whole health is a vital component to leading a happy and successful life, and these girls deserve the opportunity to be physically active in a safe and welcoming environment.” And that’s why the YMCA worked with The Refuge to provide a group membership at a subsidized rate.
Missy Bowman, Executive Director of “The Refuge,” who graduated from the program herself, says that the YMCA fills a vital gap. Her staff work through spiritual, emotional, and mental health with the young women, but they must also address the physical.
If a student gains weight and doesn’t feel good about herself as a result, then her healing and growth are hampered. Through regular activity at the Y, participants become physically well. Missy has seen a greater sense of well-being and positivity among those who regularly go to the fitness center. At the Y, the girls simply get to be teenagers. They get to feel normal. If they’re having a hard day, they look forward to going to the YMCA to let off some steam.
Mary, one of the students, agrees. She says: “I like going to the Y because when I’m upset or sad I know that I can do something. Like lift something or just have a competition with myself.”
Another student, Isabella, says that her competition is anyone who happens to be running next to her. She reports that the heaviest she’s lifted with her legs is three 45-pound weights on each side.
Two other program participants, Chloe and Hannah, mention the spiritual aspect of the Y. Chloe likes the inspirational quotes and the box where members can deposit prayer requests.
Hannah says: “I also really like the Scripture Box that you guys have.” On her way out each time, she grabs a slip of paper with a verse on it.
At the Y, we love partnering with “The Refuge” to encourage these girls in spirit, mind, and body. And we are grateful that we can be more than just a fitness center to these girls. Perhaps one of these days, Hannah will come across 1 Timothy 4:8 in our Scripture Box: “For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.”