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New CEO to serve Teen Challenge of the Ozarks

Down a quiet road on the outskirts of Branson West, great things are happening. Based on the core values that have made Teen Challenge one of the most effective programs in addressing life-controlling issues and crises for over 60 years, Ozarks Teen Challenge offers a faith-based residential program to help troubled teen boys and their families.

 

The 15-month boarding-school program includes structured, daily habits; spiritual nurturing; group counseling for drug, alcohol and behavioral addictions, and recreational therapy, all rooted in the core belief of the transforming power of God. The Globe recently sat down with Mitchell Easter, who began serving as CEO of the Branson West facility in February 2024, to hear more about the facility and the program, including ways Ozarks Teen Challenge partners with other area nonprofits and serves as a resource in the communities of Stone and Taney County.

 



Easter studied at Evangel University and Southwestern Assemblies of God University, and earned a master’s degree in public administration and emergency management from Missouri State University. He served as enrollment director at Ozarks Teen Challenge from 2018 to 2020, before serving the Adult and Teen Challenge National Office in Ozark, Missouri, as Director of Learning. In that capacity, he oversaw training and curriculum development for 224 centers in North America before accepting his current appointment. He and his wife, Alyssa, a physician with the CoxHealth system, have four children and live in Ozark, Missouri.

 

Easter’s work with Teen Challenge is not his first experience with human brokenness. He grew up as a missionary kid in Malawi in East Africa, which he says “would be a fourth-world nation” if that designation were available. While working in such circumstances is heart-breaking, he observed his parents and other missionary workers finding ways to turn that emotion into both spiritual and practical help, a concept he says is also part of the Teen Challenge approach.

 

“Seeing young men struggling and broken pulls at your heart,” he says. “But faith lines up with recovery best practices, because those practices are God’s principles at work. The Gospel calls us to make disciples rather than just converts.” This is evident through many studies demonstrating the long-term success rates of faith-based recovery. At Ozarks Teen Challenge, 76 percent of program graduates go on to more education; many enter some type of ministry or nonprofit service, including some who return to work for Teen Challenge.

 

Ozarks Teen Challenge helps with issues of drug or alcohol abuse/addiction; sexual issues and addictions; chronic low self-esteem; and defiant behavior or running away/truancy. Services provided include counseling with licensed professional counselors; high school education programs including tutoring and IEP development. The program uses a five-phase approach, progressing through several stages, all rooted in biblical principles:

·       Finding personal value

·       Building and maintaining relationships

·       Servant leadership

·       Changing culture

·       Transitioning home

 

A typical day includes not only academics but also practical and life skills through regular chores; expectations for personal organization and hygiene; time for recreation and activities; and regular devotions and spiritual development opportunities. As the teens progress through the phases, they are also provided opportunities to volunteer in the community.

 

As CEO, Easter has significant administrative and supervision duties but also enjoys doing activities with the students; a Springfield Cardinals baseball game outing was being planned the day of our visit. Easter’s missionary connections also come in handy as students are taken on a missions trip during Phase 4 (changing culture). For example, a trip to Ecuador included opportunities to use building skills, see humanitarian aid in process, and learn the importance of clean water through water-filter distribution. Ozarks Teen Challenge and other U.S.-based facilities coordinate with Global Teen Challenge, said Easter, to “help them see that in the midst of the hurt we’ve incurred, we can still find joy in serving others.”  

 

Ozarks Teen Challenge is a fully-accredited recovery program and accredited academic program, including transfer of credits with other high schools. The residential program model helps students unpack layers of trauma and learn to deal with the consequences of bad things, whether their own choices or things done to them, while also learning to focus on Christ, receive His comfort and power, and even help others.

 

At present, the Branson West facility accommodates 28 beds. Client demographics vary, with 65 percent coming from an adoption/foster background and some court-ordered, but others from more traditional family background. “Addiction is no respecter of persons; it impacts people from every kind of family,” says Easter. Many calls come in the summer, when students do not have the routine of school, and the COVID-19 restrictions and shutdowns were also tough on mental and emotional health as well as exacerbating difficult home situations.

 

While the program facilities obviously cannot accept every troubled teen in the area, plans are being made for expansion. A capital campaign helped provide a new academic building last year, with a student life center next on the schedule and then the expansion of dorm space. Easter also reminds the community that Teen Challenge is available for advice, referrals, or networking. “We want to be a resource for local churches and businesses,” he said.

 

A primary fundraising focus, however, is scholarships. Quality service involves costs—good counselors, teachers and administrative personnel, in addition to facility maintenance and utilities—and those costs add up to approximately $4,300 per month per student, something most families cannot afford and many insurance plans do not cover, or not entirely. To help provide services for those who need them, Ozarks Teen Challenge invites the community to participate in a family 5K Walk/Run to be held at Branson Landing on Saturday, May 18, starting at 8 a.m. All entry fees and sponsorships go directly toward scholarships. Learn more and sign up at www.RunforHope5K.com.

 

Also, mark your calendar for the annual banquet and silent auction, to be held Saturday, October 5, at the Chateau on the Lake. To stay up to date as details are developed, or to learn more about the program or get a confidential referral for your own troubling situation, visit www.ozarksteenchallenge.com.

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