By Heather Cochran
Having been a teenager in Lodi myself, I have this vivid memory of the night I first heard the idea of a teen center opening in our city. It was close to fifteen years ago, and my youth pastor at the time, Glen Barnes, was driving me to his home to babysit.
“You know what I’d love to do, Heather?” he asked as we drove down Lodi Avenue past the sad-looking Sunset Theater, which had been boarded up for some time. “I’d love to buy that theater and turn it into a teen center. It would be awesome to completely refurbish it and turn it into a safe place teens could hang out afterschool and have fun.” The idea definitely caught my attention, but I never imagined the amazing and unexpected ways God was going to grow that seed of a dream into a fruitful variety of ministries, changing the lives of teenagers and their families all over Lodi in the years to come.
Making the Idea a Reality
Pastor Glen still remembers the beginnings of this dream. “We started on the idea not long after the old bowling alley closed and people said, ‘Now there is officially nothing to do in Lodi.’ We had some conversations and made an offer to buy [the old Sunset Theater] … but I think God spared us from all the work (and limitations) that would have come with it and brought us just the right spot at the right time.”
That right spot turned out to be on the corner of Lockeford and School Streets, a central location in the direct path of youth who would benefit from the center most. “We really did not know what we were doing,” says Pastor Glen. He and Steve Steele prayerfully began knocking on doors; “God opened doors, and little by little we had the courage to walk through them.” God provided just the right investor, who was in a position to purchase the current building and lease it back to One-Eighty for $1 a year. Around the same time, God provided the funding needed to establish the new youth center with a one-time grant for $140,000 through United Way, brought to light by Pat Patrick. “The money was huge; we could not have gotten started without it. Once we had the building and start-up money, we were able to get other donations to renovate the building and get the doors open.”
Those familiar with the teen center will agree that perhaps God’s greatest providence was for the people to run it. “Jake and Alison and their amazing staff (along with many others through the years) came along at just the right time.” All along, God has had room to do miracles thanks to the openness of those involved. “When we see a need,” relates Glen, “[it means having] a willingness to say we can try and address that need.”
Alison McGregor, director of Adolescent and Family Services at the One-Eighty, remembers her first years there with her husband, executive director Jake McGregor. “When we arrived, the One-Eighty had somewhat of an identity crisis. Opened with the original intent of being a safe place for all teens, it quickly became the place for at-risk teens, with a staff unprepared for the drastic shift. We loved the idea of a place for at-risk, but we too had to recognize how unprepared we were for what the One-Eighty encountered. Jesus has been our guide every step of the way, and much of it in the dark, over rocky terrain.”
Thanks to His servants’ willingness to step out in faith, God has been doing some amazing work. Here are just a few of the ministries that have blossomed from that first seed of faith:
Youth Programs at the Center
Every weekday afterschool from 2:30-5:30pm, teens can go to the One-Eighty for tutoring as well as all kinds of fun activities, including practicing stunts at Splinter Skate Park; taking group classes (everything from art to cooking); playing games; and enjoying delicious snacks at the café. There is Friday Fun Night from 7-11pm, during which teens can listen to a live concert, go head-to-head with friends in competitive games, or watch a big-screen movie.
Not only do these programs give teens a safe place to have fun with friends; they provide a chance to form meaningful relationships with adults like Sarah Chase, Matt and Laurie Krieg, Robert Partida, Melissa Hamm, and multiple others who care about them and want to actively show them Jesus’ love on a daily basis.
Adolescent and Family Services
Operating out of the Dan Brown House next door, AFS provides services to help meet the social and emotional needs of adolescents and their families in a safe, loving environment through individual and group counseling. Three professional therapists meet with individuals, families, and groups to counsel them through their struggles. Alison McGregor shares some of her experience: “Last year, during a staff meeting, I realized the One-Eighty staff were praying for some of my confidential clients. Later in session, these clients began to share about their mentors and what they had been learning. Mid-year I heard that these students were going to winter camp or youth group, some even have chosen Jesus as their Lord and Savior. Those are precious stories to me!”
Recently, the One-Eighty Teen Center was hired by the City of Lodi to run gang intervention groups on school campuses. This program teaches life skills to groups of students at select middle and high schools in Lodi and Stockton, discussing everything from anger management, substance abuse, and gang prevention to low academic achievement, cutting class, depression, eating disorders, and anxiety. Laura Smothermon, who facilitates four Why Try groups at Lodi and Stockton middle schools, relates how she’s seen God at work through the program: “Many times the students I work with in Why Try come into the group with hardened hearts full of fear and hurt. They have worked very hard to build this wall, and they are resistant to anyone who attempts to gain their trust. Many adults have let them down, and they view me as someone else who will possibly do the same. The most amazing thing I have seen God do (and I see this continuously) is that little by little the hearts of these kids begin to soften, they begin to feel empowered to change behaviors that have been holding them back in life. God called me to work with young people from challenging backgrounds, and it is such a privilege to witness the changes in these beautiful young people.”
The One-Eighty Mobile Unit
At the same time God was leading the One-Eighty onto school campuses through Why Try, He opened the door for outreach to students at Kofu Skate Park. Just this summer, Sean Campbell became the One-Eighty Mobile Unit Coordinator; he drives the renovated mobile home, complete with scooter shop, café, computers, and video-editing lounge to the local skate park every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. While Sean gets to interact with many youth who spend time at the skate park, he pours special time and heart into those accepted onto his new Scoot Team. To be a member, applicants must agree to such requirements as achieving and maintaining a 2.5 GPA, refraining from drug and alcohol abuse, volunteering at a non-profit organization two hours per week, meeting one-on-one with a sponsor regularly, and attending and bringing new people to One-Eighty events. Team members can earn a new complete scooter by the end of the year as well as grips, wheels, and new grip tape.
In 2013, those at the One-Eighty desired to reach out to elementary-age students on the east side of Lodi. Studies done by the Lodi Police Department have shown that gangs have plagued the high-risk areas of Lodi and that children are now being recruited for gang-related crimes. Missionary Liz Stevahn seeks to build relationships and serve those affected by not only working on Lodi’s east side but by living in an apartment complex adjacent to Hale Park. While she started out as the “odd white girl who didn’t belong,” her neighbors now see her simply as “Liz who lives in #14. I am someone they can trust.” That trust allows Liz to form connections with a dozen or so kids whom she spends time with twice a week after school. She also visits Lawrence Elementary School three days a week, where she runs a lunchtime sports league. Liz says, “God is working and keeps opening doors for new relationships to be built, and I pray that we seize the opportunities to make these relationships count.”
As an adult who teaches teenagers in the Lodi area, I am in awe of my God, who took that idea for a teen center Pastor Glen first shared with me when I was a teen and cultivated it into a diverse and incredibly fruitful network of ministries impacting our community. If you would like to be part of God’s story in continuing to develop the One-Eighty Youth Programs, whether through prayer, financial giving, or volunteering, you can learn more at www.180lodi.org.