You've seen them holding car wash signs and waving as you drive First Baptist Church at the corner of Connecticut Street and Estero Boulevard. Once you look over at the lot, these young ladies are usually working hard cleaning or drying vehicles that have stopped ahead of you.
Who are they, and why are they out in the summer heat most every weekend?
These smiling faces are members of Teen Challenge of Southwest Florida, a 12-month, faith-based, residential program for life-controlling behaviors and addictions. They are conducting fundraisers for their organizations.
Teen Challenge of Southwest Florida has three programs based in Fort Myers: a 25-bed women's program, a 60-bed men's program and a 20-bed reentry program, which is a transitional program for those who graduate, become employed and need time to get their "feet underneath" them while still under the protective cover of the organization.
"Teen Challenge offers Christ-centered programs for those who are struggling with the snares of addiction," said Executive Director Kevin Cummings.
But, don't let the name fool you. The local programs are for ages 18 and older.
"The name Teen Challenge is a bit of misnomer. It started that way in 1958, and we kept the name, but we provide services for adult males and females as well as juvenile boys and girls," said Cummings. "The programs in Fort Myers are for adult men and women."
The local program, which began in 1994, is part of Teen Challenge International, and its history began in Brooklyn New York. Today, there are more than 1,200 programs in 93 countries.
Teen Challenge's tagline read, "Where life transformation happens." The organization provides character education classes, counseling and job skills training. Cummings stated lives are rescued and turned around forever.
"People come to us broken by their own circumstances and choices that they have made whether they have gotten into addiction early as a result of being brought up in a dysfunctional home or as a last result after trying a lot of 30-day or 60-day short-term programs. They may have been incarcerated or hospitalized for drug overdoses or other extremes," he said. "When they come to Teen Challenge, there is a great need for their life to radically changed."
Cummings stated the success of Teen Challenge is directly related to faith, a relationship with God, Biblical principles and character formation through those principles. Two studies show a national 86-percent success rate to complete the one-year program and live drug-free proves it works.
"As they embrace these principles and the individual and group counseling that they are under, their lives truly transform," he said
A typical day of the recovery outreach program begins at 5:30 a.m. with individual devotion time, breakfast and character-building classes until noon. After lunch, the program involves work activity around their campus and chapel attendance in the afternoon. After dinner, the individuals enter the community through work crews under work contracts with several local churches. Upon returning at 9:30 p.m., they are given 30 minutes of quiet time, and lights go out at 10.
"We like to balance the education they receive and the work ethic instilled in their lives. We put their gifts or trades to work to show them their usefulness and value," said Cummings. "It is so unique to see the character qualities that begin to exemplify through their work ethic. By the time they leave Teen Challenge, they are highly employable people."
The Beach car washes not only instill work ethic and raise money to offset the organization's monthly and annual expenses, they are also promotional in purpose.
"It's a public awareness endeavor. We are trying to get the word out," said Cummings.
Teen Challenge is primarily donor funded, so connections with businesses and individuals are vital for the organization's survival. Student sponsorship programs are also helpful in generating revenue.
"We really appeal to the community to help these people. Most of the time, there is zero financial support from families, so the community has really rallied around our purpose the last two decades," said Cummings.
The Teen Challenge director praised Rev. Shawn Critser for the allowance of the First Baptist Church parking lot.
'"That pastor has been so kind to let us do those car washes. (Church officials) even allowed us to attend a (recent) Sunday service to promote an upcoming mission trip to the Dominican Republic Teen Challenge," said Cummings.
The transformational journeys for these women from old habits, attitudes and patterns to inner healing and self-worth extremes are well documented and heard if one listens intently.
"The program has really helped me grow spiritually and taught me how to have real relationships with people," said Danielle R. of Teen Challenge of Southwest Florida. "In the past, I put my values in relationships and people instead of relying on God to give me my value. I went to the program to get off drugs, but I quickly realized I went to this program for a whole lot more than that."
Danielle, age 24, has been in the program for three months as of Sept. 25. Originally from Wisconsin, she has traveled across the country and has been in and out of different rehabilitation centers for the past three years. She calls this stay a "miracle program."
"The program is here to transform my life. I get to start completely new now," she said. 'That's a really exciting thing about the program. All of our leaders are very loving. I am learning how to work and do anything without drugs in my system. I am now doing it with joy in my heart. I am learning with my heart and not my head."
The program director said lives change daily at Teen Challenge.
"We like to say that we are not just getting people off drugs, we are literally helping to facilitate life transformation," said Cummings. "We've sent our graduates to other countries to work in Teen Challenge programs. We've graduated students who have gone on to be productive business people and leaders in their community and who are now directors of other Teen Challenges in other states.
He should know.
Cummings entered a Teen Challenge program in Bonifay, Fla. when he was 21 years old in 1997. Afterwards, he finished schooling, gained a ministerial license, got married and became a homeowner. He now directs all three local programs.
Teen Challenge of Florida/Georgia operates as a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) non-profit organization with its own board of directors. Go to www.swflmen.teenchallenge.cc or call 277-0081 for more information on Teen Challenge of Southwest Florida.