Choosing to Run the Race Set Before Them
Teen Challenge International, U.S.A., the Assemblies of God U.S. Missions program for helping those with life-controlling problems, is known for its success rate as it relies upon a mixture of Scripture, training, counseling, mentoring and the power of God to see lives on the verge of self-destruction incredibly transformed.
But for Ozarks Teen Challenge Executive Director Michael Buttacy (Bu-Tay-See) and Program Director Steven Borchert, whose program works with boys ages 12 to 18, they recently have made a rehabilitation breakthrough. The center already offers boys highly active and interactive events through established "Wilderness Therapy" opportunities, but last year, they added a new "therapy" option: running.
"Steve [Borchert] is former military and due to an injury, he thought he would never be able to run again," explains Buttacy. "But once he got here, he tested it out and has since become an avid runner. A few of the students and staff decided they would join Steve in some of his runs."
As anyone who runs knows, it helps to have a goal in mind so the running/training has more of a purpose than just to "lose weight" or "get into shape." So Mike and Steve dropped a bombshell on the students -- those who would like to join in a running program, the group would train to run the Bass Pro Half-Marathon (13.1 miles) in Springfield, Missouri, in the fall of 2014. What's more, staff members would train and run the race with them!
"We never ask our students to do something we wouldn't do," Buttacy says. "And I see this as a biblically yoking process where the students are partnering with believers who are willing to go on this journey with them, loving them and believing in them."
Several of the students agreed and signed up to take on the "impossible" challenge of running a half marathon, with the understanding they were making a commitment they couldn't simply back out of.
"You have to understand where these kids are coming from," Buttacy says. "Most are not athletes, many have addictions, come from lives where they were couch potatoes, failing in school, and lacked any motivation except for when it served their addiction."
That first Bass Pro race saw eight students and two staff members cross the finish line.
Buttacy and Borchert noticed something else. The students in the running group had begun to do exponentially better than students not involved in the group. Was it a coincidence? They didn't think so, but offered the students another "train for a race" opportunity. This time it was the Little Rock (Arkansas) Half or Full Marathon in spring of 2015. Eight students and three staff trained and completed either the half or the full marathon. Again, the jump in program progress was noticeable.
"Their developmental growth was far greater compared to those students not running," Buttacy says. "Their grades, social skills, cognitive skills…all exponentially better. And the running is a tremendous self-esteem builder."
Buttacy and Borchert added a component to the training and races. Parents were notified about what their sons were training for and encouraged to also register for the race, do their own training programs at home, and then come and run the race with their sons.
A third race was targeted. And on Nov. 1, eight Teen Challenge students, two staff, and four parents took on the 2015 Bass Pro Half and Full Marathon events, with all finishing. Buttacy and Borchert say the progress in the boys' lives can be measured in multiple ways -- physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
"One of the students lost 60 pounds and another lost 80 pounds as they trained," Buttacy says. "In addition to the physical training, we also teach the boys about good nutrition and how to prepare nutritious meals."
Kyle, 15, tells how he ran the Bass Pro Half Marathon with his father. The shared experience broke through to Kyle. "It meant a lot because my dad, at age 51, ran 13.1 miles with me. And seeing him gather the self-discipline to train just so he could run with me, made me feel really important . . . [it] is something I will never forget."
As Buttacy and Borchert along with other staff members train with the students, they've come to find the long miles tend to lead to deep discussions and mentoring opportunities as the boys face the physical and mental challenges of distance running. "All the walls come down when we're running," Buttacy says. "Some of the greatest breakthroughs have come when running with them. I remember one boy coming to the end of a run and just crying; he opened up and told us how the death of his father years ago had so impacted his life."
Borchert says the students have seen God at work through their running as well. "They're learning how through hard work, determination, and trust in God they can accomplish more than they ever dreamed," he says.
Shelton, 17, also credits the staff. "[They] motivated me every time I was struggling while running to finish the task at hand . . . I have never really finished something in my life, but now I can say I have."
Borchert relays a story of divine guidance when he switched from running the half marathon to the full marathon at the last minute in support of a student.
"He was running the [Little Rock] full marathon, and about half way through, I caught up with him and yelled 'Jeremy, how ya doin'?' I'm here for you. I switched races to be able to encourage you," Borchert recalls. "Jeremy then looks at me, wonder on his face, and says, 'I just prayed that I needed some encouragement and as soon as I finished my prayer, you called my name!'"
Buttacy and Borchert are quick to point out that it's not the running that is changing the students' lives, but that the running allows the additional opportunities to mentor and speak God's Word into the students' lives. "They also have to work very hard and end up accomplishing something very difficult," Borchert says. "This reinforces to them that with God's help, they can persevere, be disciplined, and be successful, which is a building block for tackling other challenges in life."
Paul, 17, who was addicted to drugs, explains, "Having someone not just willing to talk about my problems, but to also train with me and work with me through it, really makes it more real."
Hunter, also 17, says his life was spiraling out of control due to his drug addiction. However, having now been at Teen Challenge nearly a year and having run the Bass Pro Marathon, he says the training and ultimately crossing the finish line, showed him that he was capable of doing things he had never even imagined. "On the spiritual side," he adds, "I really got to experience having to trust God when things get excruciatingly tough."
Buttacy and Borchert are convinced the running program, which is in addition to the personalized Teen Challenge teaching and training program, makes a significant difference in the boys' lives and in their progress.
But it's not just the staff noticing, the students are also picking up on the impact and are buying into the running program more than ever. Borchert says that 13 of the 15 boys who are eligible to participate to train for the next race have already signed up -- along with seven staff members and parents!
"These guys are dealing with stuff -- drug use, addictions -- meant to side track whatever they were trying to deal with in the first place," Buttacy says. "But running provides a tremendous opportunity to feel more emotions and to share those emotions with the people who are willing to walk -- and run -- this journey to recovery with them."