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Inland Journal, Aug. 8, 2019: Adult and Teen Challenge

Doug Nadvornick/SPR

Today on the Inland Journal podcast, we focus on an organization that’s working to help homeless men in Spokane: Adult and Teen Challenge.

Tyson West is its executive director in Spokane. He welcomes us to this 32-acre campus north of U.S. Highway 2 in Airway Heights. It’s a few miles northeast of Fairchild Air Force Base.

“This was an old Army missile base, an old Nike missile base, and so it was established to protect the air force base out here from any potential nuclear threat back in the 1950s. Since then it was a children’s ranch out here. They ended up going under. The property was given to us back in 1983 and we established Adult and Teen Challenge out here," West said.

He says the property still includes three missile silos from the Cold War era. The campus has a main office, a facility with a kitchen and dining room, a small chapel, an entertainment area where men can watch TV and play pool and a two-story dormitory where they sleep.
This is a Christian facility, part of the larger organization Pacific Northwest Adult and Teen Challenge, based in the Portland area. It operates 11 facilities in five Western states. Some serve women. This campus is dedicated to changing the lives of the men who come here.

"It seems like this sea that they can’t possibly walk through or get across. And then just by faith, they just move forward by faith, God parts the sea for them and they’re able to walk through and take these steps of faith. And then as they get to the other side, God crashes down the sea into their paths and they’re able to experience freedom," West said.

Credit Doug Nadvornick/SPR
Tyson West and Jana Roberts of Adult and Teen Challenge post next to the campus water tower, whose mural was painted by artist Daniel Lopez.

That Biblical imagery dominates a mural on one of the campus’s most easily seen areas. The mural was painted by an artist named Daniel Lopez.

“He asked us if we’d be willing to let him come and paint our water tower. And I said absolutely," West said. 

"He did this side right over here too. That’s an image of Moses parting the sea. So he did all that with rattle cans, spray cans.”

The story of how this mural was painted is consistent with the mission of this place. West says Lopez came to Spokane from the Los Angeles area.

“Really skinny and infections in his teeth and all he had was some basketball shorts and a tank top. Kind of out of his mind, you know," he said. 

"Within the first week he told us, 'hey, I really want to paint your water tower out there.' A lot of times we get guys straight off the streets. They have all these ideas, grandiose. Usually we’re like, yeah, let’s wait to see on that. Now he’s very successful. He has years of recovery. He’s a renowned artist here in Spokane and then, when he reached out to us and asked us if he could do the water tower, we said, absolutely, what do you need? Let’s make it happen," West said.

Credit Doug Nadvornick/SPR
Tyson West overcame drug addiction and a criminal record to become executive director of Adult and Teen Challenge in Airway Heights.

Like Daniel Lopez, Tyson West came to Adult and Teen Challenge at a time of trouble in his life. In his office, West shares the story of the road that brought him here.

“I grew up in the town of Palouse, played sports, was on the honor roll. Worked at my father’s grocery store all throughout high school. I was a pretty good kid," he said.

But even good kids sometimes find paths that are wrong for them.

“The problem was that I had access to the beer cooler. On the weekend, after sports games, there’s not much to do in the town of Palouse so we’d go out on country roads and have bon fires and I started drinking and I fell in love with it.”

West graduated from high school and moved to Spokane to go to community college and study photography. He had a girl friend, a job as a butcher and a drinking problem.

"I started experimenting with marijuana and with psychedelics. It just ended up progressing," he said. "Fast forward 20 years. It was a 20-year career of chasing this thing, chasing this feeling.  It progressed from those substances to cocaine, to meth, to heroin. I ended up having a son out of wedlock. I started getting into trouble, legal trouble; DUIs, things like that because of my drinking. That kind of got my attention. I realized that, ok, maybe there’s a problem here.”
West attended support groups and treatment programs. His life improved. He established contact with his son. He paid child support. And then it fell apart when he began drinking again.

“I did that multiple times, where I’d relapse and I’d get myself in trouble again and I just couldn’t get out of that cycle.”
His drug use escalated. Eventually he developed a heroin addiction. He lost his job as a machinist and his fiance left him.

“I started doing meth. So I had a full-blown meth and heroin addiction and I didn’t have a job. I was renting this place. I stopped paying rent for this house on the South Hill. So now I’m squatting in this house and I have no means to support my habit," West said.

"So now I start turning to crime. And so now that kid who grew up in the town of Palouse, that was MVP of my football team my senior year, now I’m thieving off people’s porches and stealing from department stores and   eating out of garbage cans and rummaging through dumpsters. Never in a million years did I think that would be my fate.”

His family cut ties with him because they couldn’t trust him. West said he felt guilt and shame from not being a part of his son’s life. That led to more drug use.

"I kept getting picked up for theft charges. Throughout my substance abuse battle, I’ve had 30 criminal charges, ranging from assault to resisting arrest to theft to obstruction to possession. I ended up getting picked up on a possession of a stolen motor vehicle charge. That is what really got my attention. That’s what really helped me to finally get out of that rut," he said.

Sitting in jail at the age of 34, West said his life took the U-turn that finally got him headed in the right direction. He had a religious conversion.

“All that time I was seeking that fulfillment and all those things, and we are created to have a relationship with our creator and that’s where the real true fulfillment is.”

He was released from jail a few weeks later.

“And the first thing I did is, I bought a cigarette from the first guy that I met. I went to 7-11. I panhandled. I bought a beer. Then I went to the dopeman’s house, got a front on something. ‘Hey, look how good I look. Can you front me something?’" West said.

"Then I’m back down to Macy’s. Then I’m stealing jeans. Just like that, within a day. But now I have this conviction in me. I’m like, what am I doing? When I was locked up, I was more free in there, learning about who I am and God, learning about my identity, thinking that I’m free by doing whatever I want.”

In May 2011, West entered the Adult and Teen Challenge program. He wanted to leave Spokane and all of its temptations behind, so he went to the organization’s Portland campus. It’s a 12-month program. Ten months in, West says he felt a calling.

“God isn't healing me and saving me and delivering me from addiction and restoring my family and restoring my health all for me," he said. "He’s doing that because he wants also to use me to help others that are in similar situations.”

West came back to Spokane to be closer to his son. He interned at the Adult and Teen Challenge campus, then took a job overseeing the place on nights and weekends. He worked his way up the staff ladder and, in 2017, became executive director.

“So now I get the privilege of helping men like me, who have gone through similar things like me, and helping them find freedom and helping them learn how to be a man of God and a disciple of Christ and how to rediscover who God created them to be and then help them take those next steps so they can live a life of true fulfillment, not that false fulfillment that people experience from getting high,” he said.

Credit Doug Nadvornick/SPR
Ryan Ahearn is now interning at Adult and Teen Challenge after taking a four-to-six month 'refresher' course.

Many of the men who work here first recovered here. Ryan Ahearn wears a dark blue Adult and Teen Challenge sweatshirt as he tells us he’s lived here for six months.

“I did a restoration program, which is a four-to-six month program because I graduated the program originally back in 2016. Went out there and slipped up one time and got in some trouble so I came back to do a restoration," Ahearn said.

That slip up cost him 12 months in prison. His wife left him. As he sat in his cell, Ahearn says he was searching for what he would do next and felt the call to come back. He’s now an intern at the campus.

“We help out with staff duties. We help with the students; we’re kind of like the buffer between the students and staff.”

He says living here has helped him become a better person and a better Christian.

“I’m very wound up, anxiety, always in a hurry," Ahearn said. "The growth that’s going through me right now, how God’s helping me to grow, is to be still, to being able to slow down a little bit and really listen to God. Stop trying to do it my way, trust in Him and let Him guide my steps.”

Of the men who come to Adult and Teen Challenge in Airway Heights, Tyson West says one in four complete the full-year program. He hopes to increase that to one-in-two.

“It’s a year commitment. In today’s day and age, a year seems like a really long time. What I tell the guys is this isn’t a year out of your life, this isn’t like doing a year of jail time. This is a year invested in the rest of your life, where you can build a solid foundation to build your life on,” West said.

As the community dialogue continues in Spokane about how to address the issue of homelessness, Adult and Teen Challenge has been mentioned and praised by some of the city council and mayoral candidates.
Tyson West and his development coordinator, Jana Roberts, say they’re working to get the organization’s name out there.
“Unlike a lot of resources out there in Spokane that are full or at max capacity, we are sitting at about 20 empty beds, so we can still offer help," Roberts said. "It’s communicating that effectively to the community. Tyson and I have both been blessed with relationships as we’ve stepped into our roles that have allowed us to start that dialogue and really start to move into the downtown Spokane area with a voice that we are here, we are a resource. And it’s a solution that works.”

“One key in that conversation is some people find themselves there because of addiction and so, if you address the root cause of the problem, then you can help prevent homelessness in the future for our students,” West said.

That’s a concept espoused by some of the council and mayoral candidates.

Jana Roberts says one of Adult and Teen Challenge’s strengths is its location.

“Personally, I think it provides a little bit of the separation from downtown that the guys really need out here," she said. "I’ve heard stories about how they’ll just walk the property and visit with God on their own. Or they’ll take the guys out and, we’ve got a little bit of a track system and they can just walk. And they’ll just walk and talk amongst each other. As the area is growing, it’s really nice because we have 32 acres out there. So the ability to expand and build this program up to meet the need of Spokane, but also grow with our students is really powerful.”

Doug: “So what do you still need, Tyson, out here as you have a lot of places you can build? What have you thought about, envisioning as part of your organization out here?”

Tyson West: “We need a treatment portion of our program, so I want to open up a 30, 60, 90-day clinical program that’s still Christ-centered out here. In our residential program, we also have vocational training, so guys are working, guys are supporting their own program. They’re learning transferable skills. I want to build some vocational training out here. We have a pumpkin patch that we grow every year. We do an outreach off of Highway 2, where we sell pumpkins. We have bouncy castles and a petting zoo and it’s a fundraiser for us, but it’s also a way for us to get out into the community. I want to move that here. We have all this property here so I want to do some agro-entertainment out here, kind of like Green Bluff, but have our own pumpkin patch out here. Families can come out here and pick their pumpkins, have a corn maze out here, a petting zoo, tractor rides out here. So that’s one piece of it. I also want to build a state-of-the-art wood shop, metal shop, even a hot rod shop as well. So g guys are learning these skills and these talents, also able to support their program while they’re here, but they can take these things with them as they move forward.”

Adult and Team Challenge operates a thrift store at Sprague and University in Spokane Valley. It’s looking for volunteers to work at its store and its campus.

Inland Journal is Spokane Public Radio’s public affairs radio program and podcast. You can subscribe to the podcast at Apple Podcasts, NPR One or Google Play.