Addicts and Duluth treatment center both in recovery

Editor's note: Duluth News Tribune readers first met Ken Chester in March, two months after his sister dropped the 50-year-old drug addict off at Minnesota Teen Challenge in Duluth. Though Chester is long out of his teens, the program serves a br...

Editor's note: Duluth News Tribune readers first met Ken Chester in March, two months after his sister dropped the 50-year-old drug addict off at Minnesota Teen Challenge in Duluth. Though Chester is long out of his teens, the program serves a broad range of ages. He spoke then about his struggles with dyslexia, workaholism and methamphetamines. Today, we check in with him.

Ken Chester probably wouldn't have been carving the simple wooden crosses a year ago.

He was in no shape to carve anything, though wood always had felt good in Chester's hands. A year ago, Chester, 50, of Hastings, Minn., was locked in a pattern of methamphetamine use, grief over the death of his girlfriend, and despair at what his life had become.

Nearly seven months into a year-long, faith-based addiction recovery program in Duluth, Chester is clean and carving again, though he's had some doubts along the way.

Some graduates and residents of Minnesota Teen Challenge -- which also is open to adults -- credit the program with saving their lives. The program's core teaching is that deepening or developing a relationship with Jesus Christ will lift people out of their addiction.


"Many people have gotten free of drugs and alcohol without God in their life, and I think that's great," said Duluth campus executive director Jonathan Miller. "But I think all of us are pretty broken, and I think God heals brokenness."

Program has its own challenges

At the same time that Chester has fought his individual battle, the treatment center's parent organization, based in Minneapolis, also has come under fire -- first, for its ties to alleged Ponzi-scheme perpetrator Tom Petters and, more recently, for accepting a large federal earmark for one of its educational programs. There are about 350 Teen Challenge programs across the world.

Duluth's Teen Challenge program is in a critical year. Partly because of its financial pressures, the program's parent office is cutting its financial ties to the Duluth campus, leaving the 3-year-old program to succeed or fail on its own. The center needs to raise about $440,000 to stay open.

Miller thinks they will make it. Enrollment today is at an all-time high, and the program has taken in more in donations than ever, he said. The program raised about $130,000 through May, which is about a

25 percent increase over last year. The center also had to cut several staff members to help meet its budget.

Residents come to the program through a variety of channels. Some, like Chester, walk in. Others, facing months or years in prison, ask the courts to send them to Teen Challenge. Residents who commit to the program give up many of their freedoms: Drugs, alcohol, smoking, personal music and books, cards and dice all are prohibited and off-campus trips are limited.

The center's doors are locked only from the outside: A resident is free to walk out at any time, but once they do they aren't likely to be allowed back.


The program's curriculum leans heavily on Bible study, group discussions about Biblical themes, choir practices and Sunday visits to area churches where the men sing and give their testimonies.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty praises Teen Challenge, calling it "the best [recovery program] I've ever seen."

Helping through faith

Chester was among a group of choir members from Duluth who traveled in May to the Evangelical Free Church in Embarrass for an hour-long performance and free-will offering. The program began with a video presentation about Teen Challenge, complete with graphic pictures of drug use. Chester looked sleepy as the choir launched into the first of several songs. He hadn't slept well the night before, and his face was swollen from a new medication.

"I was so tired, I just didn't want to get up," Chester said. "But once you get here, it's fun. The songs start bringing light into your life."

Many Teen Challenge residents clutched coffee mugs after the performance -- they are limited to two cups a day at the center -- as they chatted with church members. The building was familiar to Teen Challenge resident Zachary King of Virginia; it was the site of a memorial service for a good friend who was murdered over a drugs.

King, 26, graduated from the Teen Challenge program in May 2008. But seven months later, he started using meth again -- partly, he said, to deal with the pain of losing several friends to drugs, and partly to deal with the boredom of being unemployed because of an injury. The parole violation meant he should be serving jail time.

"By all means, I should be in prison right now," King said recently. "But [6th District Judge] Pagliacetti, he gave me this second chance to come here."


Before his parole violation hearing, King wrote a letter to Pagliacetti detailing how much he had learned about love and patience in the Teen Challenge program. King said he and two other Teen Challenge representatives were praying in the courtroom just before his sentencing, "praying that the judge would have mercy for me, that he would show me mercy and grace."

King is now part of the Teen Challenge "restoration" program for graduates who slide back into using and want more help. Restoration can last for several months.

"I never opened a Bible until I came here," said King, who has a long history of drug use and related crimes. "I believed [in God], but I wasn't a follower of the word. ... This is what taught me how to be a nice, loving guy, how to have patience, how to persevere."

Chester recently visited with a sister he hadn't seen in several years. The Teen Challenge staff allowed him a special overnight visit, and the family drove up the North Shore, stayed at a hotel, swam and played cards. It felt fantastic to enjoy life that way again, Chester said, and he said his faith is deepening.

And he's been carving a lot of those simple wooden crosses. It helps to keep his hands busy, and Chester has given many of the crosses away to fellow Teen Challenge residents. He polishes the crosses with fine sandpaper, working the scrap wood until it is feels soothing to the touch.

"The seed has been planted," Chester said, "but I don't have a deep understanding of how to walk with the Lord. If you stay with Him and acknowledge Him every day, you have a more abundant life than with the pleasures of drugs or lust, the quick gratification."

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