New partnership revitalizes Juvenile Justice ministry at AU

Photo of six students who are involved with Juvenile Justice.

Most college students at a small Christian college do not spend time worried about law enforcement or correctional officers, but a small group of passionate AU students has taken on this challenge in a personal and relational way. The students involved in Juvenile Justice spend an evening with some of the at-risk youth of Madison County, building relationships of mutual challenge and encouragement.  

Mak Holland is a junior psychology and youth leadership development major with a minor in criminal justice. Wes Seabright is a senior youth ministry and youth leadership development major with a minor in music theory and literature. Holland and Seabright have both been involved in Juvenile Justice since their freshman years at AU. This year they are working as a team to lead the campus ministry in a new direction.

Up until recently, the students involved in the ministry spent a couple of hours each week at the Pendleton Juvenile Correctional Facility, a maximum-security facility for repeat or violent juvenile offenders. During the group’s visit to the facility, the students would spend time with individual units of young men and play card games before beginning a lesson or devotion. Each session ended with a time for discussion.

Because the correctional facility was a maximum-security facility, this provided some difficulties while planning and logistics for the students. “We had a pretty strict schedule and were limited on the games and activities we could do so each week had a similar routine,” said Holland. This was intentional to help maintain consistency and routine for both the AU students and the young men. Each time the students went to the facility they spent a significant portion of their visiting time going through the security gate release.

This year Holland and Seabright worked with Becca Palmer, director of spiritual formation, to find an organization that met the mission of Juvenile Justice. Palmer connected them with the Rev. Benny Santiago and Project Hope, a program he organized through the Madison County Chaplaincy.

Project Hope works with teens who are at-risk or have repeat juvenile offenses. The group meets weekly at the Salvation Army with the goal of helping these teens develop healthy relationships and personal skills.

“Now we have the resources and space to play more games and activities outside and in the gym,” Holland said. A sanctuary, gym, and a variety of classrooms provide the student leaders more flexibility in planning their lessons and activities.

Project Hope has been running for nearly eight years, and the student leaders of Juvenile Justice are hoping to assist current volunteers and help implement a more consistent structure. “Due to the flexibility that we have to have with the project, as well as the flexibility that we are allowed to have in our own program, it will likely not look the same from week to week.”

One of the advantages that the new partnership with Project Hope brings is the opportunity to work with both boys and girls; whereas the correctional facility only served young men. The group of AU students is co-ed so this group of teens will have a co-ed group of students to build meaningful relationships with.

“We have much more freedom in this new partnership. There is no gate release, which means we can easily take instruments, games, and other items into the facility,” Seabright said. “There’s also very little security to go through, saving us time. And not as many rules regarding how we guide lessons and activities.”

If you ask any of the students involved with Juvenile Justice, you will hear that they have received as much as they have given. The group of students not only bonds with the teens that they work with, but also with each other. Seabright has found some of his best friends on campus through participating in Juvenile Justice. Building relationships with team members and the teens draw students in and keep them involved “The relationships I built with the people I was ministering to and alongside is what drew me in and made me keep coming back,” Holland said.

One of the most significant moments for Holland came when she saw God’s hand working through one of the young men at the correctional facility. “There was an individual who I worked with for the majority of my freshman year in the ministry, who was extremely aggressive and resistant at first,” she said. He slowly began to open up and share during the discussion time and participate in the games and activities.

“One night he asked if he could sketch something for me to consider for a tattoo,” she said. She agreed to let him show her the sketch without giving it too much thought. “He actually ended up drawing something that was very significant for reasons he wasn't aware of.” Holland later got the tattoo, though the young man has never had the chance to see it. “I believe God used him and his talent to reach me.”

Holland and Seabright have found that their experiences with this campus ministry have had a positive impact on their personal life. “I believe Juvenile Justice helped me realize what I'm most passionate about and continues to validate God's will and call for my life and career,” Holland said. She initially began volunteering with the ministry in order to become more involved and connected on campus, and she has found that her experiences in this ministry have influenced her choice in what programs to study.

Seabright has felt a call to youth ministry on his life and found that his involvement in Juvenile Justice has aided in his understanding of the call. “Juvenile Justice has given me unique experiences with youth, and reaffirmed my call to ministry,” Seabright said. “I have seen the impact we had on the students while watching them grow and change.”

The relationships that are developed through Juvenile Justice lead to spiritual growth and development for both the AU students and the teens who are involved on the other side of the ministry.

Christina Nesslage is a senior public relations major with a Christian ministries complementary major from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. She is writing on behalf of the Anderson University Office of Marketing and Communication, through the Advanced Feature and Magazine Writing class.

Anderson University is a private, liberal arts institution in Anderson, Indiana with a mission to educate students for lives of faith and service in the church and society. Anderson University is recognized among top colleges by U.S. News and World Report, Colleges of Distinction, and The Princeton Review. Established in 1917 by the Church of God, the university now offers more than 50 undergraduate majors and graduate programs in business, music education, and theology.

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