A Church Opens Doors For Kids on the Street
Every Monday night, Kit Danley brings together at-risk youths for an evening of talk, music, and prayer
PHOENIX — Traveling down a street of small, worn houses, Kit Danley leans forward as the van slows to a crawl. "Turn here," she says to the driver, guiding him into a deserted, trash-strewn alley. "We lost three kids to shootings last year," she says to a passenger, her voice lowering a little.
"One kid, Jesse, threw an egg at a car, and it just happened to be a rival gang member's car," says Mrs. Danley. "It wasn't a terrible thing to do, not really, but they shot him right here."
Looking over the lonely littered alley, Danley, who has been working with troubled teens for a decade, says losingyoung people to violence is all too common now. In fact, she has been tempted at times to quit her work as head of the Neighborhood Ministries for the nondenominational Open Door Fellowship Church. What's kept her going after more than 10 years of trying to turn young lives around in the "barrio," she says, is God-inspired conviction and love for the kids that cuts through the despair.
"I think this is what I was born to do," she says. "When I get discouraged, I remember I'm doing this for God. Yes, the turnaround is going to take a long time, but imagine if we weren't here."
Danley's program started as a foodbank outreach program in 1981 and expanded 10 years ago when the needs of children and teens crowded around the church. The church and dozens of volunteers now offer programs throughout the year, reaching out to some 300 children.
Danley's church has also forged a partnership with the bigger Scottsdale, Ariz., Bible Church. "Their members have been exposed to the reality of this community," says Danley, "and they want to come here and support the programs."
While most of Phoenix enjoys sun-splashed prosperity, Danley knows the central city as riddled with flourishing gangs, drugs, and neglected or abused children from broken families. The lives of these children are often chaotic and seldom away from danger.
Mike McCullough, a spokesman for the Phoenix police department says that of the 244 homicides in the city last year, 80 were known to be gang related. "It was probably higher," he says, "because drive-by shootings are often unsolved."
Follow the children
Danley is undeterred by the violence and chaos. "Our ethos is that we will follow the children," she says. Indeed, she is well-known for her tenacity in tracking her young charges, whose families may move several times a year or who are passed around to family members.
"We go out and get them in buses and vans every Monday night," Danley says, "and then bring them to the church. We won't let them get away from us if we can help it." Tutoring, games, singing, access to computers, meals, and inspirational talks are all part of the evening's program. Even gang members come because they know they are safe. "It's the only place that has stayed the same in my life," says one gang member.
Never give up
On a big, white bus making stops along the neighborhood streets to pick up dozens of children one recent night, driver Glenn Johnson says of Danley, "She loves kids. She don't give up."
Danley explains that the Monday-night program has a leader-to-child ratio of one to five. "The kids call their leader once a week as part of an incentive program," she says. "We can keep track of them this way, and most of the kids want to come."
Numbers of participants, dollars spent, or programs offered are not the measurements of success here. Rather, success comes with a hug from a boy who earlier refused contact, or communication from a child who was previously silent, or the occasional gang member, battered by gang life, who becomes a Christian.
Some of the children have seen brothers or relatives killed, or they live in a house where adults buy and sell drugs. For many, even going to school is unrealistic without daily counseling.
Danley emphasizes that her program is not designed just to help with the nuts-and-bolts of daily life. "We are not here with just a human message," says Danley. "If you say things about God to a person at a specific time, it goes in them, and doesn't ever leave them even if it takes 10 or 15 years to be evident."
Danley is known among many Phoenix professionals who work with at-risk youth. "She takes these thrown-away kids and tries to help them get away from the gangs," says Manuel Ramirez, principal of the Alternative Center for Education for the Phoenix School District.
Another church volunteer, Lyetta Mathews, pays Danley high praise. "You don't find many like Kit," she says. "She is a very good grownup, and it's an honor to work with her."
Over the years, Danley and her family have taken in dozens of young people and even families.
Victor Lopez, a 15-year-old on probation, was recently released to Danley's custody. Danley has known Victor and his family since he was a small boy.
Mr. Lopez has been in and out of juvenile detention as a gang member. His brother was killed in a gang incident. His father died of alcoholism at a young age, and his mother and sisters are living on an Indian reservation. Victor is also the father of a baby.
"I'm trying to stay out of the gang," Victor says, seated in a room at the church, looking much older than 15, and talking so softly and rapidly it's hard to catch every word. "They officially want to beat me up, hurt me. They ain't going to let me go, but I can't let it bother me," he says.
Danley says gang members lead isolated lives, but often form social - or antisocial - units because they are not part of fully functioning families. "They get together looking for refuge in each other because they have no other resources," she says.
"I used to drink all night and then come home at eight in the morning and sleep all day," says Victor, who is back in school but struggling with his work. "I wanted to be the hardest gang person there was. I regret what I did to all the people I hurt. There is no one to blame but myself. Kit wants to help me, and I don't want to go back to my other self because that life was terrible for me."
Asked what he likes about living at Danley's house with her husband, an ex-football coach with a house-painting business, and two teenagers, Victor says, "No fear. I don't have to panic and look around like I would on the street, and carry a knife. I try to go by Kit's rules and listen to her."
For Danny Salazar, a high school senior who was shot in the right arm eight months ago, coming to the church programs has changed his life. "Here they accept you for who you are," he says, "and don't care what you look like. Kit is a really good lady, and has helped me a lot by talking to her. Because of what I've learned here, I'm thinking hard about going to college."
A tough road ahead
Even while she works to help Victor and other youths, Danley is blunt about the prospects of turning around a generation. "We are trying to unravel generational issues that require a rebuilding in every aspect of a life. We have known Victor since kindergarten, and now we are starting to get involved with his child."
Tony Mata, who works with Danley at the Neighborhood Ministries, describes the dilemma facing many young people here. "They see Mom or Dad taking drugs, and they think it's okay to do it. They think they are supposed to be in a gang or pregnant at 14 because everybody's doing it. And we tell them, no, no. You have a choice. There is hope. Then they go home and confront all of it again."
One evening at the church, Mr. Mata faces a group of about 40 teens and pre-teens in a church room. Many are gang members wearing carefully pressed dark pants and black shirts or sweatshirts. The get-together has been filled with laughter and rock music. Now it's time for the message, and most of the teens have quieted down, sitting on the floor or leaning back in chairs.
"Every one of you guys has to deal with something in your life," Mata begins, "you don't have two parents, or you wish you had money, or you wish you hadn't got pregnant. Maybe if you hadn't been abused your life would be better."
The room becomes quieter. Young faces are turning serious. Mata continues.
"Check this out," he says, pausing a long time. "Jesus loves you so much. You know that bad feeling you have inside of you?"
The room is quiet now.
"Jesus will take it away for you. If you are serious. All you have to do is ask him, open your heart to God. We give thanks for life because a lot of us here have lost a lot of people. Please, God, be with us the rest of the week."