Festival with a purpose

Sunday, May 27, 2007
Mid-America Teen Challenge student Devard Williams, of the Bahamas, prepared strawberry shortcakes, which were given out free during the annual Strawberry Festival on Saturday. Williams said he has learned a lot about strawberries. "We plant it, we pick it, we cook it, we sell it," Williams said.
Ron Smith retrieved strawberry boxes for a sales table Saturday during the Mid-America Teen Challenge Strawberry Festival. Teen Challenge lost 70 percent of the strawberry crop this year due to freezes in April. (Kit Doyle)

Teen Challenge's 17th annual Strawberry Festival went on Saturday despite the loss of about 70 percent of this year's crop.

Frost severely damaged the strawberry plants after warm weather caused early blooms, so sales were limited to a maximum of eight quarts or one flat per person.

Still, the festival that gives the community a closer look at the residential program for recovering drug users continued to serve that purpose.

Matt Hulme, 23, gave his testimony when the wagon ride to the strawberry fields off County Road 621 near Cape Girardeau came to a stop. People listened as the young man from St. Charles, Mo., told his life story of a "church child" who was in reality "a poser Christian."

"It crept into all parts of my life," he said. "I started lying, and when my parents kicked me out and I was sleeping in the back of pickup I started praying to God about what had happened to my dreams and goals."

Sisters Brigid Ansberry, 6, left, Marie Ansberry, 12, and Frances Ansberry, 3, searched for strawberries Saturday during a break from a hayride at Mid-America Teen Challenge's annual Strawberry Festival near Cape Girardeau. Hayride participants saw the strawberry fields and heard a testimonial from a Teen Challenge student. (Kit Doyle)

Hulme's behavior led to conflicts with authority and rules, then court and jail.

His mother knew about Teen Challenge and with the help of the judge and prosecuting attorney, Hulme was accepted into the 14- to 16-month Christian program that ministers to men 16 and older, part of a worldwide network of ministries that includes about 170 centers in the United States and 150 worldwide.

Hulme talked of the ministry of reconciliation and what it meant to him. "My mom fought really hard, and a lot of people reached out to me and looked beyond my mess. Now my burden is to look at others despite their mess and think of what God can do for them."

Sarah Housewright, Sally Burke and Frances Gentry, all of Charleston, Mo., came to the festival for the first time. They'd heard about the festival when they attended the spring banquet at the Show Me Center, one of the mission's biggest fund-raisers during the year. Housewright said she was impressed by Teen Challenge executive director Jack Smart when he filled the pulpit at her church, First Christian Church of Charleston.

Burke said she knew an individual from Charleston who went to Teen Challenge, later leading a successful life as a result. "Matt reminded me of him," she said, referring to Hulme.

Hulme's testimony was filled out by program director Wayne Soemo, who told the group that men at Teen Challenge spend half their day learning Bible principles and the other half working. "Teen Challenge sets them apart to find a purpose in God," he said.

Hulme added, "Now I'm filling my time up with things that are productive. Teen Challenge is preparing us to be vessels of honor."

Soemo said the men are not charged to be there and that about 25 percent of the budget is met by the men's work -- working the fields, mowing in the community, selling firewood -- and 75 percent by donations.

New construction at Teen Challenge will make 72 more spots available in the dormitory, provide a 7,200-square-foot gymnasium and replace the education building that has been damaged by termites. The new education building will be 7,800 square feet. Smart said all three should be completed around November.

Performances by the New Creations Choir, Hand Picked and Puppet Power were part of the entertainment Saturday.


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