Bringing back the song of life at Duluth Teen Challenge

Dave Telker has never been any good at finishing things. His half-finished music career is evidence of that. So is the half-built classic car he promised to his dad. So when Dave walks up to the front of the gymnasium to receive his graduation certificate in two weeks, he won’t be smiling because of the piece of paper.

At 33 years old, Dave is finishing Teen Challenge, what is officially known as "a faith-based drug and alcohol rehab program." In short, Teen Challenge helps addicts get their lives back.

Maybe that’s why Teen Challenge, according to a 2006 study done by Wilder Research, has a 74 percent success rate, with many other court-ordered rehab programs falling behind.

Teen Challenge offers a 12- to 13-month program with 24-hour care. It was started by David Wilkerson, a pastor who went to New York City on a mission to reach teen gangs in the 1950s.

There are hundreds of Teen Challenge centers in more than 80 countries across the globe, according to Global Teen Challenge. They are funded by donations and grants from individuals, corporations, foundations, churches and civic groups. Although the name itself implies that the program is only for teenagers, the Duluth center has had residents from the ages of 18 to 77.

Being a Christian isn’t a prerequisite to be in the program. Some of the men are Christian. Some check themselves in; others come by court order but somehow they ended up in the choir.

I first met Dave at a Duluth Teen Challenge choir practice, after watching him “shred” on his guitar. He's blond, not quite short and wears glasses. He gives off a country rock star sort of vibe.

The practice is not quite what I expected. I decided to write this story after the Teen Challenge choir came to my church on a Sunday morning. They were neat and tidy in white-collared shirts, ties and slacks. Practice is a little bit of a different story. It's not that it's pandemonium, or even close. But it's definitely borderline rowdy.

They are directed, or more accurately corralled, by Nona, a middle-aged woman with white-blond hair who somehow manages to look excited most of the time. I met with her a couple days before the practice to get the scoop, though, so I already know she's tougher than she looks.

“I’m pretty much a sheltered church girl,” she told me. “When I first came in, between the tattoos and muscles and hard faces, it was pretty unnerving to me. You could tell not everybody wanted to be there. I thought, ‘What am I gonna do?’”

“She is an absolute miracle worker with these men,” Rolland Farrell says. Farrell is a teacher and part of the program staff at Teen Challenge. “Not that they need a miracle. They just need someone to bring it out.”

And bring it out she did.

“For six months they gave me grief,” Nona recaps. “And then something turned, and I can’t tell you what exactly it was except that they began to believe that I cared about them, and that I meant business.”

Voices begin to rise from the old gymnasium as Nona has them warm up. They are not quite in perfect pitch. They are shaky. They are all singing the melody with only one or two attempting a harmony. These are the voices of the users. These are the voices of the dealers. These are the voices of the alcoholics. They are shifting from foot to foot. They are elbowing each other in the ribs. They are someplace they never would have expected to be.

“That’s one of the things that catches them off-guard for a while,” Rolland says. “‘I signed up for a what?’ Before they know it, they’re doing solos and making ensembles.”

Paul Harkness, the Center Director of Teen Challenge here in Duluth and Nona’s husband, explains the purpose of the choir in what he calls a “philosophical” sense.

“Drug and alcohol addiction robs the song of our life. You’re down, you’re discouraged, you’re in trouble with the law. It robs your song. Music is a key part of this program. To restore the song. To restore hope.”

Rolland says there is a transformation that happens when the choir gets on stage. “These guys don’t put on a show. They pour out their hearts in song. Unless you’re made of stone, you can’t sit and listen to them sing and not cry. Every time they sing I’m just back there bawlin’ my eyes out. There’s no way to put into words the way that they touch people in song.”

“Music really helps us through a lot,” Joe, a resident, says to me as we stand in the back of the gym during practice. “It can make you cry when other things can’t.” He touches the left side of his chest as he says it.

The accompaniment CD begins to play and the magic starts. Nona turns into a full-on choir director. She bounces. She floats. She mouths the words. She paints an invisible masterpiece with her hands.

Nona says, “Could you show me some confidence and stand up?”

All 56 men stand instantly. With this standing motion something happens with their singing. Simply put, it gets better. They go from shaky and uncertain, off-pitch and diversified, to one strong voice. It swells and grows and fills the gym and takes on a life of its own and whoever is listening feels something funny happen in their throat.

This must be the voice of recovery.

This must be what Paul Harkness calls giving them their song back.

This must be why Dave decided maybe he could finish something.

Dave spent the last year with the choir, and now he is graduating — finishing — tomorrow. Today, he sits comfortably on a black leather couch with his legs crossed and a cup of Caribou coffee in his hand. Dave’s drinking wasn’t always limited to coffee.

“I would say I was a hardcore alcoholic from my first drink,” he said.

Dave was in his first band when he was 13. He continued playing through his teens and gained some local fame “here and there.”

“I was really good at playing the rock star. For a long time I was able to balance both,” he says. “I could play and drink. But like any of that, it goes downhill.”

Dave went to Nashville in 2003 to try to make it big. His alcoholism got worse, and after four years there, he found himself homeless.

Back home, Dave tried to sober up on his own, but it didn’t work out. His pastor and other family members suggested treatment. Thirty or 60 days oughta do it, they thought.

He signed up for 12 months. And that’s how he found himself sitting on a couch, drinking coffee, talking about Teen Challenge.

“There’s a great value in finishing something,” Dave explains. “Addicts aren’t any good at finishing. I think that’s one of the things that a choir accomplishes without trying to. Teaches us to do something. Learning you can do things sober.”

Dave has been the student director for the entire year he’s spent in Teen Challenge: a job he claims to have been roped into.

He does hold a lot of things together for the choir. He's the guitar player, student director, and whatever he needs to be.

Although he admits he’ll miss the guys and plans to visit occasionally, Dave talks about his post-graduation plans with a light in his eyes.

“I’m going to the studio to record a new album. I’m tentatively looking at going back to college full time. Other than that, I’ll be building some hot rods.”

Alongside his auto work, Dave will be recording the music he’s been writing himself. One of his songs is called “Been There.”

“God’s saying, ‘I’ve been there before. I’m with you.’ It’s about a prostitute and a homeless drunk. It’s not saying God’s a prostitute or a homeless drunk. God is always there when we call on Him, for aid, for comfort, whatever. He’s been there. He understands. We’re human.”

“We just operate under the assumption that Jesus is the way to eliminate issues in your life — chemical issues, life issues, and hurts and hang-ups,” says Rolland. “It is the most amazing thing to watch a man come through the door broken and hurting and misunderstood, and to watch a transformation. To watch their sense of worth come back to them, to realize that they can be a good father, a good son. There’s not many things that you could do that would be more satisfying than to watch that happen.”

I ask Dave what music has meant to him. Not just during his recovery, but in his life. It’s a vague question and I know it, but he seems to have thought about it before.

“It’s the only way I’ve ever been good at expressing myself,” he says.

As for music helping addicts, Dave says, “It’s moving a part of their hearts, their lives, that you could not get to otherwise. They don’t think they have a voice. And on their own, they might not. But they’re learning that with their brothers, they do.”

Not everyone finishes the program successfully and the 26 percent who do not are never far from the workers’ minds.

“It’s crushing,” Rolland says. “It’s hard not to take it personally in the sense that you’re like ‘Well, is there something else I should’ve done?’”

It’s about a week later and I’m visiting another practice. The choir is getting ready to perform at a car show on Friday.

From the front, Nona convinces the group to try something with a little soul.

“Now you have to move on this song, or it will die,” she warns.

She's convinced Darrell, who happens to be the only African American in the choir, to solo.

One of the guys in the back calls out, “Emmanuel, we lift up your name. Not ‘yo!’” and Darrell just laughs.

The accompaniment track begins, and Darrell sings the beginning rich and slow. Then the tempo picks up and everyone joins in. The choir has found its groove—and it’s gospel.

And a few days later, on graduation day, Dave has found his groove, too. He leads the band in a few praise songs to start off the ceremony, and judging by the head banging he’s really going for it.

The dean, Dennis Bradshaw, hands the men their certificates one by one, and they each say a few words. When it’s Dave’s turn, he takes his place in the front. “My turn already.”

The irony of the word “already” isn’t lost on Dave. He’s been in Teen Challenge for 377 days. Yes, he counted.

“I was totally lost.” Dave begins to tear up. “I watched God move mountains to get me here. And now we watch God move mountains every day. From small changes to ‘Wow, I don’t even recognize him anymore.’ As long as 377 days feel, it was nothing. And it’s a whole lot easier to live 377 days here than to keep dying everyday out there.”

Dave’s picture from his first day at Teen Challenge is up on the projector screen behind him. He looks up at it and is silent for a moment.

“I was drunk in that picture,” he says finally. “And if I hadn’t had a drink that morning, I’d still have been drunk. I never sobered up.” Another pause. “What a waste. I’m so glad I’m not that guy anymore.”

The finality of his words hangs in the quiet gymnasium. It is soon lost in the sound of applause.

He’s right. He’s not that guy anymore. He came to my church for a Wednesday night service on April 28. He was wearing a black leather jacket and smiling like a free man. He said he was working 13 and 14-hour days, between his auto shop and the studio.

He plans to finish his record sometime this summer.

My guess is that when it comes out, he’ll be wearing that same old big smile. The same smile he’ll probably wear when he finishes that ‘68 Camaro for his dad.

The same smile he had on graduation day.

It all comes down to prayer at the Woodland mosque

Bike ride into the past: Duluth’s Lakewalk