By Sam Bojarski
Dr. Julio Volcy, lead pastor at Rendezvous Christ Church in Delmas, did not have a role model for most of his childhood. At the age of 12, he said, his father walked out on the family.
Although Volcy recalled being angry at his father for years, he now sees things differently. Unfortunately, Volcy explained, his grandfather did the same thing, as did his great-grandfather before him.
His life could have easily gone a different way, but Volcy now leads a mentoring program out of Rendezvous Christ Church called Haiti Teen Challenge. The church provides a welcoming environment for Teen Challenge participants, and members of Volcy’s congregation even volunteer their time to help youth develop.
In eight years, Volcy has helped nearly 200 Haitian youth become the role model he had such a hard time finding. He has used the time-tested Teen Challenge model to inspire adolescents to rebuild their communities.
Two things drive Volcy’s life: his desire to be a good husband to his wife and a leader in his community, he explained. By encouraging personal growth in young people and participation in community service, he aims to create a change in his country.
Volcy himself went through a change, after he finally met a role model, at the age of 16. That role model, he said, ended up being a white, North American man visiting Haiti on a mission trip.
His positive experience with outside aid isn’t something most Haitians share. According to community activist Wadson Desir, who lives in Boutilliers, many different aid groups visit Haiti. However, he said, their impact is often limited to a very small number of people, and they often don’t understand the problems of ordinary Haitians.
Speaking about his own situation, Volcy said his mentor, who is now working in Nigeria, helped him learn more about the word of God. But he acknowledged with some regret that it was “very difficult to find a Haitian guy to look up to.”
Eventually, Volcy chose to become a pastor and served for years in the Bradenton, Florida, area, where he ministered to many Haitian-Americans. He would return to Haiti periodically and became active organizing leadership trainings for youth prior to the 2010 earthquake, he said. But he knew he wanted to return permanently.
“I knew that I always wanted to move back, because I felt like God called me to move back,” Volcy said.
In 2011, soon after he returned, he started Haiti Teen Challenge and opened the program’s doors to youth ages 16-24.
“I knew in order for Haiti to be the country we want it to be, we needed to create role models, so what we decided to with this ministry was create leaders of integrity,” Volcy said.
The Teen Challenge model
Haiti Teen Challenge, a nonprofit, uses Rendezvous Christ Church as its administrative and organizational center. Forty-seven young men and 21 young women, all from vulnerable communities near Port-au-Prince, currently participate, according to Erick Pierre-Val, director of the men’s program.
The curriculum, which combines Christian discipleship with life skills training and vocational education, is loosely modeled after the U.S. Teen Challenge, developed about 60 years ago for at-risk teenagers in New York City. Participants go through an 18-month residential program that features two phases.
The first 12 months focus heavily on Bible study, as students develop “an understanding that they have purpose and they have value,” said Haiti Teen Challenge Vice President Vicki Jefferis.
The staff helps students work through the psychological trauma they often carry. Many have dealt with addiction, and others were involved in gangs and prostitution at one time, according to Jefferis.
Young people, she added, learn the importance of service through several different outreach programs, including one with the mayor of Delmas, where Teen Challenge participants help feed local street children.
Program directors pair each young adult with a mentor early on, with the hope that the mentorship lasts well beyond a student’s time in the program.
“A lot of the mentors come from the church congregation, and I think right now we have more people (wanting to be) mentors than we have students,” said Jefferis.
Interest in Haiti Teen Challenge has grown among local youth, as well. When he started the program, Volcy primarily used local churches to get the message out. Since then, word has spread beyond individual congregations.
“A lot of times they’ll say that ‘my cousin told me to go here, they heard about this,’ or ‘I saw the change in this person and I asked them what happened, and that’s why I applied.’ So we have a lot more applicants than we have space for,” Jefferis said.
A young man’s journey
Jacky Francois, 21, lived on the street, in a prison and in an orphanage before hearing about Haiti Teen Challenge. In a testimony he made at Rendezvous Christ Church, Francois explained how he navigated through several personal and legal struggles.
“My mother died when I was three. I grew up with a friend of my mother. When I was growing up I didn’t find my father in the house. The lady I grew up with did all her best to help me. But I couldn’t understand all her efforts,” Francois said through a translator.
At the age of 7, Francois began acting out. He started coming home late and later started stealing from people in his community of Bristou, a neighborhood in Petion Ville that Francois said is “like a ghetto.”
After drawing the ire of his neighbors, Francois left Bristou and began living on the street. But street life, he said, is “a complete system,” and in order to provide for himself, he joined a gang.
“This crew, what they were doing was stealing things off of the salespeople on the street,” Francois said.
At the age of 11, he got arrested during an attempted robbery and ended up at a juvenile detention center. Luckily, an American missionary who had become acquainted with Francois and his street crew worked to get him out. He left the detention center after about six months in custody and began living at an orphanage.
“There was one student that was in Teen Challenge that (worked) in the orphanage, and he was talking to me about the program. This is how, after my graduation from the orphanage, that I ended up being here,” said Francois.
A path forward
This month, Francois will graduate from the program and re-enter his community. He has recently undertaken the second, transitional phase of the Teen Challenge curriculum. Spanning at least six months, this phase gives adolescents the skills they need to rise above their circumstances, according to Jefferis.
“My dream is to build an orphanage where everyone can learn about God and have a transformation like me,” Francois said.
But first, he wants to start a small business, and according to Pierre-Val, Haiti Teen Challenge will help Francois with any vocational schooling he may need. In fact, most graduates get help in furthering their education.
Ninety percent receive scholarships when they finish the 18-month curriculum. Some train to become diesel mechanics or enter other skilled trades like construction. Two women currently have four-year scholarships to University of Notre Dame Haiti, where they are pursuing nursing degrees, Jefferis said.
Before they enter higher education or trade school, students participate in business workshops and internships. They also learn practical skills like personal finance, and even first aid, Jefferis said, so they can become first responders in their communities.
Re-entry isn’t easy for graduates, however. Young people face difficult challenges, many of which Volcy and others in his generation never experienced.
“We grew up in a time when there was relatively stable government in Haiti. The youth today are not used to stable government,” said 40-year-old Carl Gilles, who runs the couple’s ministry at Rendezvous Christ Church.
In the 1980s, the major cities weren’t overcrowded, many people had regular electricity and the streets were clean, Gilles said. On urban streets all over Haiti, trash routinely accumulates in piles, and no sanitation service comes to collect it.
In Port-au-Prince, young people today can’t even imagine catching a late-night tap tap ride and not having to worry about their safety, added Gilles.
Drugs have hit communities hard.
“When I was growing up, I’ve got to be honest with you, I didn’t know what drugs looked like, I only saw that on pictures,” said Volcy, who is 43. “Now, anybody can have access.”
Fortunately, in disadvantaged communities like Bolosse, Haiti Teen Challenge graduates have already made a difference, Jefferis said. Onel Jean, a graduate, holds sports camps for hundreds of children and a Bible study every Thursday, which over 75 people attend. Other graduates have helped rebuild recreational facilities in the neighborhood, giving young people a safe, clean space to gather.
A young man named Youbenz Gay recently started an initiative to pick up garbage and debris on Bolosse’s streets, according to Jefferis. Even though Bolosse is still poor, she said these efforts have “brought a lot of pride into the community.”
Bolosse, Martissant, Carrefour and other places may still have a long way to go. But by giving their residents an example to follow, Volcy has revealed a way forward.
The youth in Haiti Teen Challenge “will probably never speak like me, they won’t be the same size, they probably won’t dress like me, but they’ll say, ‘you know what, I like the way this pastor loves his wife.’ I’m hoping that the young women will say, ‘you know what, I don’t want to look like the pastor’s wife, but I like the way she respects her husband,’” Volcy said.