Teen Challenge runs Dodson café, rebuilds broken lives

By Tom Kelly
Editor and Publisher

Gary Bentley, trim and focused at age 47, running the faith-based Mt. Grace organization in North Louisiana, wasn't always the forward looking executive personality he projects today as on-site director of Teen Challenge, which operates a group of facilities for men and women age 17 and up in Louisiana and across the nation.

His recent activities range from driving a truck to Saline, in Bienville Parish to collect a load of watermelons for re-sale, to worrying about the harvest from a six-acre outlay of purple hull peas at the Mt. Grace Center for Men, 564 Braxton Road, off Louisiana Highway 1235 (Transport Road) in a rural area north of Dodson, to scheduling work for a crew of student workers who staff the newly opened Dodson Roadside Cafe & Creamery. The individual whom colleagues call Brother Gary, today is a minister in the Teen Challenge organization, remembers well the day when at age 33 he was homeless in New Orleans, having blown away a marriage, a family, and a successful career in automotive sales with the life of drugs and alcohol--a life story that resonates with the people he is responsible for in Teen Challenge.

He recalls standing at a pay phone on Lapalco Boulevard on the West Bank of the Mississippi River in New Orleans, talking to his mother in Alabama about his situation, and the prospect of getting his life back. She gave him a telephone number of the Teen Challenge organization in the area. He made the call, and then walked 15 miles to the center located in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, to in effect, turn himself in.

Following the same program his charges now follow, he completed the training, then went for more training at the Challenge headquarters in Pennsylvania, and worked with the organization in New Orleans until 2002, when he was assigned to the Mt. Grace facility in Dodson, along with his wife, Sandra, whom he met during Teen Challenge training in New Orleans. He managed Mt. Grace until recently, when he named an assistant to allow him more time for overall supervision of the operation in North Louisiana, which includes opening of a Teen Challenge Re-entry House in Ruston, and a Teen Challenge Center in Shreveport.

"Our flagship operation in Louisiana right now is Mr. Grace in Dodson," said Brother Gary. Mt. Grace Center for Men is located on a 40-acre spread off Transport Road north of Dodson, 20 acres of which was donated by Kenny Blake, owner of Texican Turbines in Winnfield. It houses 34 students, with 12 residential staff.

Mt. Grace for Women in Winnfield, directed by Lisa Cook, has 16 girls, with a staff of six.

Students in Teen Challenge take school courses for a half day, and work on various outside projects a half day. Students from Dodson and Winnfield staff the Roadside Cafe & Creamery, housed in the former Dodson Fish Market on Highway 167 in Dodson. Other facilities include the Mt. Grace Thrift Store in Winnfield, Mt. Grace Firewood, Mt. Grace Commercial Greenhouse, Mt. Grace Candle Delights, and donation boxes for clothing and other items.

Students in the Teen Challenge program are referred by churches, parents or family members, court probation officers, and others. The program was founded in 1958 by David Wilkerson, an Assemblies of God pastor, who left a rural Pennsylvania church to work among teenage gang members and socially marginalized people in New York City. It has grown through establishment of centers affiliated with either Teen Challenge International USA or Global Teen Challenge. Headquarters are in Springfield MO, with operations worldwide.

The ministry serves an addicted population, and accepts persons with various life-controlling problems from age 17-up, including homeless, older adults, persons in abusive situations. Financially, it operates with support from church groups, individuals, charitable organizations, and from funds generated by various business operations such as those connected to Mt. Grace.

Information is available at www.louisianateenchallenge.com , and at Mt. Grace Teen Challenge, P,.O. Box 117, Dodson LA 71422.