Giving teens a solid start

Guidance: A former police officer takes on a new role and aims to provide young people with a value-centered framework.

December 05, 2003|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN STAFF

The head of a Howard County religious youth group is taking his concern for teen-agers back to the Pigtown streets he walked during his 10 years with the Baltimore police force.

In 2000, Rob Benson began working full time for the local chapter of Youth for Christ, a nearly 60-year-old group dedicated to evangelizing young people.

Through his Campus Life club, a program of Metro Maryland Youth for Christ, Benson said he establishes and maintains rapport with more than 25 Howard County teen-age members - before serious problems arise.

He is working with religious and community leaders on his former Southwest Baltimore beat so he and his Howard club members can help children there, as well.

As a police officer, "you generally see people when they need your help, and that's in bad situations," he said. "Policing generally doesn't solve that problem. It helps manage it a bit."

"Rob has developed a tremendous passion for what he's doing," said Bob Arnold, executive director of Metro Maryland Youth for Christ. "He really has a very, very good sense of what reality is like in Baltimore City and what reality's like with teen-agers."

In taking the full-time position, Benson, 37, switched roles with his wife, Allison. In 1997, she left her job as a fund-raiser to run the Howard County chapter of Youth for Christ's Campus Life program.

At first, the group met in the Bensons' Elkridge home. Benson volunteered while he continued with the Police Department and worked toward a master's degree in divinity at Capital Bible Seminary in Lanham.

The group's more than 25 members meet Monday nights at Epiphany Lutheran Church in Ellicott City.

The Benson family's priorities changed with the birth of their two children. Allison Benson cares for their children, and her husband took the full-time role with the Campus Life ministry.

"We couldn't continue to do it at the level we were doing it unless we were doing it full time," Benson said.

Each group meeting usually starts with a game. Next is a discussion about "some issue the kids are dealing with," Benson said, such as relationships with friends or the opposite sex.

They break into smaller groups to discuss how the issues affect their lives personally, Benson said. Then it is back to the larger group to go through the Bible to find out "what does the Bible say about this specific issue," he said.

The Bensons also take group members on weekend ski getaways, mission trips and to the larger meetings for Youth for Christ, which they say allow them more time to interact with the teen-agers individually.

Members are from various backgrounds, some from single-parent households and some who have suffered abuse and neglect.

Corey Mitchell, 19, has been attending Campus Life meetings since 1999, when he was a sophomore at Howard High School. Now he attends Howard Community College and is a student leader for the club.

The Jessup resident turned to Benson when he was trying to decide to go into the Army Reserve. His parents are divorced, and his father lives in Florida. As a result, Benson is "basically like my spiritual father," Mitchell said.

"I just want to see kids have an opportunity to be successful in life," Benson said. He defines success as being people of character and having good values.

But life in Baltimore is far different than in Howard County, Benson said.

"I've always had a heart for the kids in the city," Benson said. "People live so close together that you see the hopelessness. Here it's covered up. Everyone pretends."

About two years ago, Benson began working with the Rev. Walter F. Burgess, rector of the Church of St. Paul the Apostle, an Episcopal parish in the 800 block of Washington Blvd. in Southwest Baltimore.

The church's guild house - once the anchor of the community with two bowling lanes, a weight room, basketball court and kitchen - had fallen into disrepair as the congregation matured and the neighborhood changed.

Benson and club members assisted in cleaning up the building, including establishing a computer lab and re-establishing a memorial garden. During the summer, they helped expand camp programs with mission teams from Wisconsin, South Africa and Harford County.

Benson is working with Burgess and others to connect the groups that use the building into an organization called The Net, pooling resources. Benson is applying for funding and hoping to expand tutoring programs at the center.

It is the sort of help Benson said he wishes he had while he was growing up.

"The younger you can get a hold of the kids, the more you can help them navigate life," he said.

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