Teen Challenge, a national Christian faith-based drug and alcohol treatment program for adults of all ages, has come to Baltimore.
Teen Challenge of Baltimore has opened temporary administrative offices in the 1200 block of N. Calvert St. and will begin accepting clients in two months. The organization purchased a building in the 2100 block of St. Paul St., which it will renovate to accommodate as many as 22 men and three staff members. The program, for which radio station WCAO-AM raised more than $20,000 last month, will join a handful of religious-based rehabilitation programs in the city.
"Everywhere I go, people say this is an answer to their prayers," said Stephen E. Hiss, director of Teen Challenge of Baltimore.
Teen Challenge was established 41 years ago in Brooklyn, N.Y., and has had a Maryland office in Capitol Heights for more than 30 years.
"We have noticed that at least half of our guys come from the city of Baltimore," said Manuel Baerga, executive director of Teen Challenge of Maryland. "We saw a need to serve not only Capitol Heights, but also Baltimore."
Hiss said, "We've got 8 percent of the population hooked on drugs in Baltimore. People ask, in 41 years and 163 centers across the country, why isn't Teen Challenge in Baltimore? I say it's God's time."
The program was founded by Pentecostal minister David Wilkerson to reach out to teen-age street gangs in New York. Wilkerson's efforts were recounted in the 1973 movie "The Cross and the Switchblade," starring Pat Boone as Wilkerson and Erik Estrada as Nicky Cruz, a gang member who became an evangelist.
As the need to address drug use became apparent, Wilkerson made treatment and recovery the mission of Teen Challenge and began rehabilitation for all ages. It has 163 induction centers in the United States and 150 centers in 42 foreign countries.
Teen Challenge is a 12- to 18-month residential treatment program based on Christian principles, although it is not affiliated with a denomination. Its core belief is that drug and alcohol addiction can be conquered through a relationship with Jesus Christ. Most of its leaders have been through the program.
"If you're serving the Lord and have a relationship with the Lord, drugs fall by the wayside," said Hiss, a Baltimore native and recovering drug addict who graduated from Teen Challenge seven years ago.
Baerga is also a Teen Challenge graduate with a Baltimore connection. He was a leader in the Miami drug cartel when, in December 1980, his New York-bound van loaded with 100,000 Quaaludes and $1 million worth of marijuana broke down at a Hess gas station on Hanover Street in South Baltimore and he was arrested.
While waiting for a bail review hearing, "I had an experience of God that changed my life," said Baerga.
Baerga was convicted on drug charges and served 32 months at the Maryland Correctional Institution in Jessup. He went to Teen Challenge in Capitol Heights after his release for treatment and ended up working there. "God spoke to my heart and told me I needed to help drug addicts," he said.
His journey is recounted in his biography, "Inside the Miami Drug Cartel."
"I can honestly say, years ago I entered into Baltimore with a van full of drugs," he said. "Now I'm going back to Baltimore, just a few blocks from the city jail, to establish a program to help drug addicts."
The Baltimore office is one of the induction centers, where participants -- men age 18 and older -- will spend the initial four months of their treatment.
"It's a time of stabilization," said Hiss, a former downtown restaurant owner. "These guys have been getting high every day. We try to introduce them to some discipline." Teen Challenge has programs for women and for those under the age of 18, but they will not participate in the Baltimore residential program.
After initial treatment, participants go to the Teen Challenge Training Center in Rehrersburg, Pa., for a stay of at least eight months. There, they can take classes to complete a high school equivalency program or learn basic job skills, such as auto mechanics, commercial printing, public relations and horticulture. They also take courses in Christian living, including marriage and family and spiritual renewal.
No fee is charged for the program. Information: 410-234-9022.
Pub Date: 3/01/99