By Michaela Satterfield
It takes a village to run Adult & Teen Challenge of Sandhills, so the saying goes – or something like that. Since the organization’s executive director transition one year ago, the members of this proverbial village have been hard at work to make changes that grow the organization in a way that honors the past.
“The foundation was laid here for us and it’s a great foundation,” says Stephen Coleman, Adult & Teen Challenge of Sandhills’ program director, “so we’re able to build upon that because of what somebody else did.”
Some of the changes the year brought required staff to literally build. For example, the multipurpose building, which serves as the rec hall, dining hall and chapel, was remodeled. It also took on a new identity as a visual representation of former Executive Director Sal DiBianca’s legacy when it received a new name: DiBianca Hall. Executive Director Russ Cambria says this building is used more than any other building on campus.
The renovations didn’t stop there. The Kannapolis center also got updates, including a modernized front and revamped bedrooms and bathrooms. In addition to these changes, Adult & Teen Challenge of Sandhills added some new buildings to its domain: the new Coastal Plains induction center and the first community crisis center in Concord.
Even with costly changes like these, Adult & Teen Challenge of Sandhills was able to pay off its debt this year with the help of generous donors. Pastor Randall Rogers, vice chairman of the board, says several political leaders have been “instrumental” in making this happen. Because of this, Cambria says donations now go directly to the ministry instead of the bank.
Change In the Air
While all of these changes rest on the surface, deeper changes happened below, too. For one, the leaders of Adult & Teen Challenge of Sandhills restructured the program itself. Kannapolis Center Director Andrew Fitzgibbon says the program moved from taking place in a classroom setting to a small group setting.
“That was Russ’ vision,” Fitzgibbon says. “He didn’t want us just talking at [the students] all the time. He wanted them actively participating.”
The formerly 12-month program now lasts nine months and consists of three phases, Executive Assistant Alec White says. The intensive first phase lasts one month, during which students complete 16 group therapy sessions and multiple curriculum books. In the second phase, students continue the program with more therapy sessions and curriculum studies at the Kannapolis or Coastal Plains induction centers. After three months in this phase, they transition to the Teen Challenge Training Center in Carthage. The goal of this five-month final phase is to prepare students to transition back to life outside of the program.
The first graduation ceremony on campus took place last November, Coleman says. Before, graduation ceremonies happened at churches. Moving the ceremonies to campus, however, gives students more time to revel in the celebration of their accomplishment.
To encourage potential students to enter the program in the first place, Adult & Teen Challenge of Sandhills began a weekly support group in Concord this year at the Cabarrus Dream Center. Sometimes, the weekly group alone can help those struggling with life-controlling issues. If they do need extra help, though, the connections they form in the group can make the transition to the full program easier. Cambria says starting more groups like this one in Raleigh and Fayetteville is in the plans for this summer.
When people who need help can’t come to Adult & Teen Challenge of Sandhills, the organization goes to them. Through the jail ministry, for example, staff members visit local jails and teach curriculum to incarcerated individuals. Rather than just listening, they can participate and have a graduation ceremony during which they receive a certificate after completion of the program. The coronavirus pandemic put a pause on this, but Coleman says it should be back in action soon.
“Evangelism is why Teen Challenge is here,” Coleman says, “so we always want to keep that in the forefront.”
To help the entire process run more smoothly, Adult & Teen Challenge of Sandhills implemented new technology this last year. Sober Peer, for instance, is a mobile platform with the goal of supporting those in addiction recovery. Coleman says this program aids staff in helping students more effectively. One of its primary functions is organizing data and then using artificial intelligence to make predictions.
Virtuous is another form of technology put to use during the past year. Development Director Nelson Hodge says the use of the fundraising platform has aided in connecting with donors and organizing donation data.
The implementation of an online application form was key, White says. Removing a lengthy paper application as well as the requirement to complete labs before entering the program cut down on major roadblocks for those in need of recovery. Same-day admission is now possible because of these changes.
Among the other hurdles preventing students from entering the program was a limiting medication policy. Changes in this policy meant those taking medication for mental health issues such as anxiety, depression and bipolar disorder can now enter the program.
“I wonder what would have happened to those individuals if that admissions barrier had remained in place,” White says. “Where would they be? Would they even be alive?”
These changes all have a common goal: freeing more people with life-controlling issues through the power of Jesus Christ. The numbers are evidence that the changes are working.
So far this year, White says 53 new students have entered Adult & Teen Challenge of Sandhills. In 2021, the monthly admission rate averaged four and a half students. As of June 2022, this number has already increased to seven students. The annual retention rate in 2021 was 45 percent. This year, it has grown to 54 percent thus far.
Due to the changes in the structure of the program, Cambria says 87 percent of students in the first phrase of the program transition to the second phase now. This is a big jump, as only 45 to 50 percent of students did so before the changes.
The People Making It Happen
While it’s not about the people behind it all, none of this growth would be possible without them. Each person contributes to the overall success of Adult & Teen Challenge of Sandhills, as Cambria affirms.
“The team has been amazing,” Cambria says. “All of these new things have happened within the last year and we could not have done a single one without the team being 100 percent on board.”
Coastal Plains Center Director Jeff Gautier says Cambria allows the team members to use their gifts to lead within their own realms. They have freedom to make decisions, Fitzgibbon says.
The leadership styles of DiBianca and Cambria differ, Coleman says, but the transition was still smooth despite this adjustment. Board Member Robert A. Gruver says DiBianca’s chosen successor is the right man for the job.
“If you can’t delegate, you can’t lead,” Gruver says. “[Cambria] can delegate, and he is doing that in a prayerful manner that is getting good people in select positions.”
Even with all the growth the past year brought, Adult & Teen Challenge of Sandhills is charging ever onward with new goals in sight. A long-anticipated goal expected to come to fruition relatively soon is the opening of a women’s center in the area. Dr. Robbie Smith, who serves as the newest board member – and currently only female board member – says right now there are only six Adult & Teen Challenge beds available in North Carolina for women. Opening this center is a “high priority” according to Cambria, who says the organization needs the Lord to provide land in the perfect location first.
Another demographic Adult & Teen Challenge of Sandhills hopes to reach soon is members of the military. As a veteran himself, Gruver says many people in the military need help with drug and alcohol issues. The organization is currently working with the Adult & Teen Challenge National Office to form a plan to make this happen.
While these goals are still in the early planning stages, there are upcoming events already on the calendar: a golf tournament and annual banquet dinners for each campus. Hodge says he expects a record attendance number at the golf tournament taking place in August this year.
Beyond these details, the overall goal of Adult & Teen Challenge of Sandhills, as Coleman says, is to enlarge its territory. Gautier says even the name of the Coastal Plains center communicates that the aim is broad: to reach as many people as possible, even beyond the cities the centers are located in.
Amidst the talk of new pursuits, the leaders of Adult & Teen Challenge of Sandhills admit there is still much work to do in letting people know the organization exists and is ready to help. Simply put, Smith says many people still don’t know about Adult & Teen Challenge of Sandhills. The solution, she says, is to share the stories of changed lives.
Stories of the past also provide stability for the future. In the excited buzz about what is to come, the foundation of Adult & Teen Challenge of Sandhills is a rudder continually steering the organization toward its original vision – the source of its identity.
“It’s great to have these pieces added,” Cambria says, “but we need to keep ourselves moving toward the vision that we had even before any of these new things came about.”