by Ishanvi Kommula
Although dependence on substance use has become increasingly acknowledged as a chronic condition, the U.S. government continues to cessate funding towards addiction treatment centers, ensuing crises in the ongoing drug and alcohol addiction epidemics.
Its effects are clear. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, as the percentage of treatment centers receiving government funding further declines, the number of deaths due to overdose skyrockets at a rate unseen before. Hence, remaining centers struggle to pull together resources and volunteers, leaving them scrambling in the everlasting demand for treatment.
On October 19, 2019, Kristina Burwell was introduced to one such center that changed the course of her life. As part of her early release program, she initially completed Teen Challenge’s rehabilitation program in order to get out of jail, but the program left such a lasting impression on her that she decided to stick around as a volunteer aiding with fundraising and procurement.
Teen Challenge is a faith-based group of rehabilitation centers across the US that aids in drug and alcohol recovery using a Christ-centered model. After finishing the year-long program, Burwell was offered an additional six month internship, where she experienced the recovery process in a different perspective: the ability.
“It’s helpful to people that have completed the program to step back into the world in baby steps…Once the reins are taken off and you don’t have so much of the constant supervision, you’re kind of allowed to stand on your own two feet,” she explained. Following the internship, Dana Rowe, the Chief Development Officer for Teen Challenge NorWestCal Nevada, had asked Burwell if she wanted to continue working in fundraising. “‘I think this is your calling and this might be something that you’re good at’”, Rowe told Burwell, “so I continued to stay the course and here I am.”
“[Working in fundraising] wasn’t necessarily something I chose, it was kind of a gift I have: the ability to talk to people.” Burwell hadn’t discovered that skill until coming to Teen Challenge. “I was never a people-person or really good at talking to people…I have a way of explaining things to people that gives them a little bit better of understanding of where their things are going that they’re choosing to donate…it really helps a person get involved with a non-profit if they know directly where their funds or the things that they’re wanting to donate are going.” As Teen Challenge is a non-profit organization that relies on a donation system, so Burwell’s role is vital in furthering their reach and influence.
“I didn’t come from a really bad background. I have a normal family who loves me, and they take care of me. I just made really bad decisions that led me down the wrong path which led me into the doors of Teen Challenge,” Burwell explained. As Teen Challenge uses a Christ-centered model in their programs, their students practice Christianity as well. “I did not [grow up practicing Christianity],” Burwell recalled. “The Lord came to me while I was in jail. I cried out to God, and He opened up the doors for me to come to Teen Challenge. Ever since then, I’ve allowed Him to guide and direct my life, and He has been nothing but faithful.”
Burwell believes a large portion of the mission of Teen Challenge is to “encourage and understand that God doesn’t judge us for our past mistakes. He forgives us for them. As human beings we are innately simple people. We make mistakes, we fail, and we fall every single day. It doesn’t do any good to hold those things against ourselves because he’s already forgiven them. So why not walk in that forgiveness, walk in that love, and walk in that absolvement of our sins, so that we can be the best people that we can be.” Burwell carries this mindset in her everyday life and hopes that it is instilled in future students.
In comparison to other programs, which range from month-long to 90 days to secular programs, Teen Challenge is distinct in the way they target addiction. Alternative programs “focus on sobriety, but they kind of focus on sobriety through abstinence,” Burwell says. “And it’s a great formula, and it works for some people, but Teen Challenge works on finding the root of your addiction and figuring out what caused it…Helping someone to process through why it happened helps them to maintain an extended amount of time in sobriety…You’re not just sweeping it under the rug.”
These methods have proved to be successful. According to a study conducted by the Center for Compassion at Evangel University, 78% of graduates from Adult and Teen Challenge recovery centers remain sober and substance-free. “By digging up those roots, figuring out why it happened, and figuring out that our mistakes don’t define us, that bad situations don’t define us, and that the things that society told us don’t define us. The only thing that defines us is Jesus.”
Burwell’s son, a six year old named Kolton, was taken away from her when he was about nine months old. “I fell into drug abuse, and for five years he wasn’t with me.” After becoming a Christian, she accepted that she would receive custody of Kolton at the right time. “God gave me a promise, which was that my kids would be returned to me with his timing and not mine, and I needed to be okay with that. It was something that I stood on all throughout my program and all throughout my internship, and it was a promise that he had given me that if I didn’t lose faith that those things would be returned to me.”
In February, Burwell received a call from the Oregon Department of Human Services. Kolton’s father had been in a motor vehicle accident, driving intoxicated with Kolton in the car. “Kolton had been removed from his care, and they asked me if I wanted him back. Within a matter of a few weeks I went from not knowing where he was and not having any contact with him to having him with me full time, and now I have full custody of him.” When her son was finally returned to her, she felt the rewards of completing the Teen Challenge program.
Aspiring to encourage students currently in the program, Burwell hopes her work in the administration office and the fact that she previously underwent the program shows them that “there is life after Teen Challenge. Even if you continue to be a part of it, that role changes, and you progress. You can still continue to be connected with Teen Challenge and walk with God, but also have individuality and freedom as well.”
“I remember going through the program and I remember feeling like there was nobody else that could possibly feel the way I feel, that there was nobody else that had been through what I’d been through…It wasn’t until someone came alongside me and said, ‘I know how you feel. Don’t give up. Don’t lose hope. It’s going to get better.’ If it wasn’t for them, I probably wouldn’t be here,” Burwell said. Similarly, Burwell wants to be that person for a future student, “showing the women I come into contact with that there is such a reward in it if you continue to work diligently.”
“Teen Challenge is a hard program. But it’s a hard program for a reason. Because it works,” Burwell said.
Through the program, she learned qualities about herself that she had been unable to see before. “If you were to ask three years ago, what I thought of myself, there was probably not one good thing that I would have been able to say,” Burwell says. “If you were to ask me that question today, it would be, ‘I’m a woman of dignity. I’m a woman of honor. I’m a woman of respect. I’m a woman of integrity.’ I know those things about myself because I walk in them every single day. And that I feel is what Teen Challenge does more than anything else. They help people to truly change their mindset on how they see themselves.”
Burwell never believed the difficulty of the program every subsided. Eventually, she realized the people around her underwent similar situations, which helped her open up about her life to them. “It wasn’t until I realized that I was in a place where I wasn’t going to be judged, or condemned, or made to feel less than…I was able to open up, but at first it was really hard. I would give bits and pieces of my testimony, things that had happened. It was almost like I would say it and I would recoil it. I would wait for the hateful things to come out, or for somebody to say something mean or something hurtful, but it never came.” The level of understanding demonstrated allowed Burwell to come to terms and accept her past, so she could instead look towards a future.
When asked what she would tell someone struggling with addiction but hadn’t made the decision to join a rehabilitation program, Burwell’s advice was “to not let fear of what they think someone is going to say or fear of judgment stop them from making a decision that will ultimately save their life.” She wanted people not to hone in on the religious part of Teen Challenge, but to look past and see the success rate that comes from people going through Teen Challenge.
“[Look at] their long term sobriety, and the numbers between someone that completes a 90-day program to someone who completes Teen Challenge. The percentage between the two is astronomical for long-term maintained sobriety. They’ve not only achieved sobriety, they’ve achieved sobriety and are living a life that’s fruitful and is producing things within their community.”
“There is a stigma that’s attached to religion…A lot of people view religion and automatically associate it with judgment. They associate religion with condemnation. That’s not what Teen Challenge does”, Burwell says. “I think that can be a deterrent for a lot of people only due to lack of understanding as to what we’re actually teaching.” She hopes that in the future, the fact that Teen Challenge is a religious organization doesn’t drive people away from getting help.
“I owe Teen Challenge everything. They not only changed my life, they helped me get my son back; they helped me to know how to be a godly leader, a woman of dignity, a woman of honor, and a woman of love and respect. Those are things that I can’t honestly say that if it wasn’t for Teen Challenge, I would not have learned those things about myself.” Without Teen Challenge, Burwell wouldn’t believe that God could forgive her or that she could move on. “It wasn’t until it was somebody showing me that love that allowed me to actually believe it, and to walk in it with confidence.”
“Whether they’re man, woman, or teenager, the things that the world says that we are, the labels that society puts on us after we make mistakes or we make poor decisions doesn’t define us. What defines who we are is what we choose to do every morning that we wake up…Not past mistakes, or past bad decisions.”
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