People were leaving the room.
They left in groups and pairs, digesting the information in a noise of conversation, shuffling feet and doors swinging open to the bright day outside.
One young man held back, waiting.
He finally approached the speaker when the room had cleared, tears falling, broken.
Tanya Cavanagh and the Teen Challenge team had just delivered the Not Even Once project to a Tasmanian high school, giving information, empowerment and hope to young people faced with the option of substance abuse.
She said her heart broke when she met this guy.
He opened up to her, explaining his extreme emotional pain and the fear that he would fall into substance abuse to cope. He had no sense of self worth; he felt useless and hated himself.
“It was an honour to sit with this brave young man and talk with him about the enormous step he just took to come and speak with us; to show him the gifting he has and that there is a brighter future than the darkness and isolation he was surrounding himself in,” Tanya said.
“Most rewarding, however, was the smile and eye contact he was sharing by the end of our time together.”
Teen Challenge began in 1958 when a preacher named David Wilkerson reached out to young people on the streets of New York. You can read his story in the bestselling book, The Cross and the Switchblade, which has sold more than 15 million copies worldwide.
Teen Challenge continues to help young people through substance abuse with 1200 centres in 109 countries across the globe. And we have Teen Challenge here in Tassie too, with Tanya and her hubby Peter Ferrall serving at the coalface of drug use in Tasmania.
But here’s the best bit: Teen Challenge has a documented success rate of 86 per cent of those who complete the rehabilitation program.
A 29-minute phone conversation with Tanya gave me a deeper insight into this complex issue.
“There is deep-felt emotional pain and young people are self-medicating just to feel normal. For some, the drug-induced high is the first time they have felt good since they were eight years old and that traumatic thing happened.”
She spoke of society’s disconnectedness, the loss of the art of community cohesion and what that’s doing to people.
Teen Challenge has been working in Tasmanian high schools for three years and the recent Not Even Once project reached more than 3000 students in eight days. Tanya said the focus was always on hope.
“The reality is that 90 per cent of secondary school students in Australia haven’t used illicit drugs,” she said.
Yet many only hear the almost fait accompli reports with their damning figures – like the 2013 NDHS finding that 42 per cent of the Australian population over the age of 14 had used illicit drugs of some form in their lifetime. Or they hear from their user/dealer friend that “everyone’s doing it.”
There’s great hope in delivering demand reduction programs and educating students that prevention and abstinence is a valid choice, rather than pedaling an ‘it’s-going-to-happen-anyway’ hopelessness through programs that give tips on safe drug use, educating on the types of drugs that have less side effects and long term impact. Yep, that really happens. In our high schools.
Teen Challenge is unashamedly Christian and Tanya says the stories of life-change after drug addiction are nothing short of miraculous.
“God will reach in. He loves us too much to leave us like that,” she says.
Perhaps there’s an ulterior motive in this mission to get people off drugs and along to those “funny meetings” on a Sunday, trading substance addiction for Jesus addiction.
But what about the funny meetings in kids’ bedrooms, parks, carparks and in dark alleyways, the ones that see sex exchanged for drugs? And the funny meetings that tear families apart and fill emergency beds?
“All the positives we desire in society are delivered in those little Sunday meetings.”
Resilience, respect, love – and hope.
The conversation ends.
And I feel a little bit strange because I’m realising that drug addiction is not just stupid kids doing stupid things. It’s people burrowing down into their pain because hope is lost.
“Now faith is confidence of what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” (Hebrews 11:1)
First published in The Examiner Newspaper for Keeping the Faith column on Monday February 15, 2016.