Magazine Features

Bridging the gap, investing in lives

Dustin LeMaster (right) talks to Anthony and Zyler during a Bridging the Gap meeting. “We’re trying to fill a ‘tool box’ in these kids,” says LeMaster. “Train them up and send them out, off probation, into the community.”

Dustin LeMaster (right) talks to Anthony and Zyler during a Bridging the Gap meeting. “We’re trying to fill a ‘tool box’ in these kids,” says LeMaster. “Train them up and send them out, off probation, into the community.”

You simply can’t stand there and preach at today’s kids. That doesn’t work for this generation,” says Captain Bryan DeMichael. “You need to build a connection with him or her. The key to bridging the gap is building relationships.”

The Salvation Army’s Bridging The Gap (BTG) program was developed to get court–appointed first–time teen offenders off probation, out of trouble, and on a path to successful and productive lifestyles.

Originally developed at the Springfield, Mass., Corps, the program has since been modified and launched at the Lancaster, Ohio, Corps under the leadership of Captains Bryan and Laura DeMichael, corps officers. It now offers first–time offenders a unique opportunity for redemption.

“I never saw myself working with teens, or being any kind of youth secretary,” said Captain Laura. “But my passion has always been for people. They just happened to be teenagers—the people in the greatest need in Lancaster.”

From court to corps

The inspiration to begin the program came to Captain Laura in 2015. Three boys from the corps youth group who had vandalized property appeared before a judge. At the time, all delinquent teens in Lancaster had to appear in the same city court, whether the charge was petty theft, truancy, or murder.

“This made first–time offenders feel like hopeless criminals, even for the small crimes they committed,” said Captain Laura.

She appeared at court hearings in uniform to intercede for the boys. “And by the grace of God,” she said, “they kept their records clean through court–ordered community service.

“Neither the court nor the boys expected someone from our corps to show up,” says Captain Laura, “But I wanted them to know they were not alone. I also wanted the court to know these young men were not criminals.”

Bridging the Gap intern Tia Isham leads a discussion on anger management.

Bridging the Gap intern Tia Isham leads a discussion on anger management.

By the time summer arrived, the boys had finished their service. But the DeMichaels had discovered a passion for such intervention, in the name of The Salvation Army.

“It speaks to the heart of what we want every teen to get out of this program,” she said. “We bridge the gap between probation and a positive message from God in their lives.”

The city’s courts welcomed the idea and were fully aware that it would come from a church.

“When probation officers asked if we would share our faith, we told them yes,” said Captain Bryan. “We will not force it upon any teen, but they will know our values come from the Lord. The community was fine with it, which was a sign that we would do well. God made a way for the program before it had started.

“When the young men and women finish BTG sessions, they learn a valuable lesson—the world isn’t out to get them.”

Skills and testimonies

As ministry assistants, Soldiers Dustin and Amber LeMaster coordinate the BTG program. They spend the most time with teens. The LeMasters design the 6–8 week required curriculum and make sure each student reports to his or her probation officer.

“The teens come here to do their homework, do chores for the corps, or play video games and pool,” says Dustin. “But that’s only half of it. Later in the day, we might have an older teen speak to the class about crime or drug addiction. The next day, we’ll welcome a representative from a bank who will talk about money and balanced budgets. On another day, the class will write resumes and practice job interviews.

“These are skills that would be of use to any teenager—skills they don’t always learn in school, or even from their parents.”

These lessons are a crucial part of Bridging the Gap. They help the teens build self–confidence and relationships with other people in the community.

“When someone from the local bank recognizes you from a BTG lesson on money, it’s easier to walk into their place of business and build connections and allies,” said Dustin. “People know you and want you to succeed in life.”

Dustin said teaching the lessons also reveals knowledge about the teens and their home situations. He remembers a young man who wanted to learn how food stamps would  apply to a balanced budget.

Foosball, darts, and video games are available to enjoy at BTG.

Foosball, darts, and video games are available to enjoy at BTG.

“He already knew, to the penny, how much he would have to make in order to keep receiving government help,” says Dustin, “because his family lived it. We try to teach teens there’s another way to live. They can be successful and earn their own money.

“Getting off probation is the first goal. We want to see them trained and employed in the community.”

Even though how to manage money and end probation are not necessarily faith–based lessons, every teenager in BTG knows the people offering them help are followers of Christ.

“If it comes up, we’re always happy to talk about it. We’ve had a lot of good conversations about the Lord and the role He plays in our lives,” says Dustin.

These discussions have brought strong testimonies from the members, like from Sarah, 17, assigned to BTG due to truancy. Her mother was in a coma. Sarah’s grandfather had placed her mother in the living room of their home. Sarah became angrier each time she walked past her comatose mother.

“We invited Sarah to a teen night session, and she wanted to keep to herself,” said Captain Bryan. “When we got her into our program, she began the afternoon by saying,  ‘I don’t believe in God.’ By the end of the night, she confessed to us, ‘I’m so, so angry at God.’ That’s a big change to see in only a few hours.”

‘Love these kids’

“When we started Bridging The Gap, we had one fixed rule,” said Captain Bryan. “You have to love these kids. Through that love, you become invested in their lives and build relationships. You keep up with them long after they’ve finished the program.”

Love made Captain Laura appear in court for the teens. Since then, all have continued to be involved at the corps and serve as role models for teens who enter BTG.

“My goal is to have 3 out of 4 BTG kids join a church,” says Captain Laura. “I want them to know that all things can be used for the glory of God, even those struggles they have faced.”

As BTG enters its second year of operation, the Captains DeMichael and the LeMasters look forward to their work with young souls. As they develop the tools to succeed in life, they’ll also remember they never have to feel alone.

“It feels like I’ve known them for years,” says Captain Laura, smiling. “It happens when you invest in the lives of others.”

by Hugo Bravo
photography by Ryan Love

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