The famed strawberries lured area residents to the program's farm off County Road 621 near Cape Girardeau. Though the strawberries ran out quickly, they heard about Teen Challenge's work with drug and alcohol addicts firsthand from many of the program's current and past students.
"We knew they sold strawberries, but this is the first time we came out here," said Linnie Harris of Jackson, accompanied by her husband Max.
Others were already familiar with the program. "It's an awesome program, to see these guys' lives turn around," said Carolyn Pickens of Jackson, who watched a friend graduate at the recent completion ceremony. She and her 5-year-old granddaughter Lilly of Imperial, Mo., have come to the festival for several years now.
Tents set up outside the brick chapel and dorms shaded visitors as they sampled free chilled strawberry shortcake or enjoyed a barbecue lunch. Students dressed as clowns made balloon swords and animals for the children, and the choir sang hymns and performed skits. A hay wagon took guests to strawberry fields, where they could pick a quart of the bright red berries. The return trip offered a mule-jumping demonstration.
Small crop this year
Clover and weeds have choked the four acres of strawberries grown by the rehabilitation program's students. Executive director Jack Smart expects a harvest of 19,000 to 20,000 quarts of strawberries this year. A good yield is 30,000 quarts.
"It does hurt us," he said. "We just have to hope that money will be made up by donations." But it's the nature of agriculture, he added, that they never know how much to expect from year to year.
The strawberry harvest only accounts for around 3 percent of the program's funding. The purpose of the strawberry harvest and other work experience programs such as the woodworking shop or the lawn service is educational rather than financial, Smart said.
"We want to teach our guys ... a positive Christian work ethic," Smart said.
This is the 40th anniversary of the program's mission in Cape Girardeau. The program teaches addicts to replace their dependence on drugs and alcohol with faith in God. The program currently has 137 men enrolled.
Though Teen Challenge has programs throughout the United States and the world, strawberry fields are a particular feature of the Cape Girardeau farm. For three-and-a-half weeks in the spring students pick berries from 6:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. with a break for lunch, said Greg Priest. Priest graduated in 1988 and has worked as vocational director of the Cape Girardeau program for eight years.
"It teaches these men how to press through hard times once they get out of this program."
The strawberry fields are one part of the 14-month program's work experience. Students have class in the morning and work in the evening, giving them a chance to put what they learn into practice, Priest said.
The work experience also teaches the students that they can be trusted. Those deemed responsible enough are given leadership positions on the lawn crews or help operate the strawberry stands, Priest said.
Bobby Keys spoke of that aspect of the program when giving a testimony during the hay ride to the strawberry fields. At age 16 he took his first drug; after that he spent six to seven years addicted to meth. He lied and manipulated, he said, and couldn't be trusted. He found himself in prison twice.
Keys said he heard about the program from a fellow inmate during his second time in prison. Angela, his wife of six-and-a-half years, found out more about the program online, and a judge familiar with its work encouraged him to give it a try.
Keys is now a leader of one of the lawn service work crews. "I enjoy being trusted," he said. He's been clean for fifteen months, he said, and plans to go into the ministry once he completes the program.
"I've learned to just sit back and enjoy life a little bit," Keys said.