Deena C. Bouknight – Contributing Writer

For the four men who walked across the stage last Saturday as the first graduates of Men’s Teen Challenge of the Smokies’ 12-month program, the previous year’s experiences were remembered as life altering. No longer were their lives laser-focused on drugs and/or alcohol. Instead, Executive Director Mike Barres announced that the evening would, first and foremost, be a celebration. Not only was the packed house of friends, family, staff, and volunteers delighting in the accomplishments of the young men, but also that Men’s Teen Challenge of the Smokies had a home. 

For 10 years, a former church camp sat empty on 10 acres along the Cullasaja River. Men’s Teen Challenge of the Smokies leased the campus in 2015 (with an option to buy), embarking on the challenge of restoring and revitalizing dorms, education rooms, a picnic area with a basketball court, a dining hall, an industrial kitchen, offices, a gym, an auditorium, and more. At least 250 volunteers were involved in bringing to fruition a permanent home for Men’s Teen Challenge of the Smokies. 

“This is a graduation, but it’s also an open house,” said Barres. “It’s just amazing the heart, the dedication, the hard work. There was a vision for this place and it’s so amazing to see what God has done – especially this last year.” 

The four “transformed” lives were those of Rick, Brendon, Bentley, and Josh [last names omitted], members of a group of 14 men. Before the graduates were recognized, all of the men took to the stage to sing boldly such relevant verses as “released from my chains, I’m a prisoner no more.” Barres commented afterwards, “If that don’t light your fire, your wood’s wet!”

Individually, graduates addressed boldly the packed auditiorium – sharing details of their addiction and lauding specifics of the program. Said Rick, “I used to think a man being tearful was a sign of weakness, but this is a time of joy! I came to TC a mess … in rebellion. I had two options: prison or die. Now I don’t even crave cigarettes. I have a new way of living and the Bible is my instruction manual.”

Brendan cited 1 Peter 5:10: “And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast.” He explained, “God allows us to suffer sometimes to give us an opportunity to recognize a need for Him. I allowed my addiction to draw me away from God even though I grew up in a Christian home. When addiction crept into my life, it was all about me, myself, and I. My relationship was with substances.” He shared that he is proof that “God can take something that is sick and bring it back to life.” 

Bentley revealed to those in attendance, “My identity was completely on what I had done and was doing. But I’m not the same man. I want to say that no one out there has gone too far. Because of what I’ve learned here, I have a hope that I’ve never had before.”

Josh’s story was familiar. Feeling “out of place, angry, and bitter,” he began smoking cigarettes at age 11, marijuana at age 16, and then tried harder drugs. “One time I overdosed in my mother’s arms,” he shared, choking with emotion. “I’ve been shown love like I could never imagine. His word gave me peace and this community has offered everything from hugs and smiles and hellos to meals and counseling.” He shouted before he left the podium. “I want to encourage ya’ll today: Keep fighting the good fight of faith!” 

All the graduates praised Barres, the staff, and volunteers for their efforts and devotion. They thanked family members who did not abandon them. All talked about wanting to give back to the Franklin community. Some want to devote their lives to helping others struggling with addiction. 

“I just want to give back to this community that has helped me so much,” said Rick. “If this country was more like Franklin, N.C., it would be better by far.” 

Just before the formal announcements of the graduates, Bentley and Brendon played guitars and performed an original song.  

The mission statement of Men’s Teen Challenge is: “to provide men with an effective and comprehensive Christian, faith-based solution to life-controlling drug and alcohol problems in order to become productive members of society. By applying Biblical principles, Teen Challenge endeavors to help people become mentally sound, emotionally balanced, socially adjusted, physically well, and spiritually alive.”

Mike Barres and his wife, Betty, who serves as secretary, moved to the area in 2015 after learning of the need for such a program. Barres was in pastoral ministry for 36 years prior to becoming executive director of Men’s Teen Challenge of the Smokies. 

Men’s Teen Challenge operates with a staff of six, including two interns. 

“All of the staff has been through a Teen Challenge themselves,” says Barres. 

Counselors, pastors, a board of directors, and hundreds of ongoing volunteers provide everything from meals to construction to teaching. Local churches, ministries, and other groups support the organization monetarily and hands-on. 

“We schedule area pastors to come and speak for our chapel services on Monday and Friday. We probably have around 30 different pastors from all different denominations come to do that and they do a great job,” said Barres. A current project is the renovation of five small cabins where graduates of the program can live so they can work locally or become interns at Men’s Teen Challenge. 

All men in the 12-month program are involved in group studies, personal studies, Bible study, counseling, chapel, and work. Barres conveys that life skills and coping skills are taught to give men “new tools” in their tool box to handle the stress and problems of life.

The original Teen Challenge was launched in 1958 in Staten Island, N.Y., by Pastor David Wilkerson who conducted street rallies during which gang leaders and members’ lives were transformed when they learned about the gospel of Christ. Today, Teen Challenge International has grown to include more than 200 programs, numerous evangelism outreach centers in the United States, and 1,400 centers in 122 other countries. All Teen Challenge centers, including Men’s Teen Challenge of the Smokies, operate autonomously.

Another Men’s Teen Challenge of the Smokies’ graduation will take place Sept. 15, at 6 p.m. Barres invites the public to attend to encourage the men. The organization is supported by donations and a thrift store on 441. For information on how to get involved, visit mtcots.com.

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