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A place where it's safe to learn

--- Agape School now a reality

Donna Lenz Wright/The Week

(Published Sept. 27, 2007, 4:18 p.m.)

At 13 she felt she had nothing to live for.

Her family failed her. Her school failed her. And her self-esteem was gone along with her dreams of becoming a veterinarian.

Her mother's boyfriend sexually abused her for seven years, beginning when he was just 6 years old. He said he would kill her family if she told. So she suffered silently believing it was what she was supposed to do.

By the time she was 12 she was using drugs, cutting herself, failing in school, labeled as a behavioral problem by teachers and completely alienated from her family.

When she was 13 her abuser was arrested for hurting two other young girls. She felt it was her fault for not stopping him before he could hurt them too and completely fell apart.

Her mother saw her daughter unraveling and had a horrible feeling. She asked if he had hurt her, but she denied it.

Not sure she was telling the truth, the mother went to the police. They offered a female officer with extensive experience in sexual abuse to talk with the girl-and everything came out.

The following emotional upheaval of admitting the truth, legal proceedings against this monster and her mother's feelings of guilt and failure left the family in a real trouble.

Enter the Agape House, a Christian-based safe place for kids in crisis. Agape is Greek for unconditional love.

For over 20 years Pam and Ben Patterson have opened their Walworth home to girls in every combination of dilemmas.

Their focus on girls is due to the lack of support services available to them as opposed to boys.

Girls hurt differently than boys-silently.

"Ninety percent of the time when boys struggle they act out," Pam said. "They get into fights and get arrested.

"Girls, they internalize it. They have eating disorders, they get depressed, they have babies, they cut."

They gave the girls love, security, faith and helped put their lives back on track. But there was always something missing; something that no matter how much they could offer still wasn't enough.

They were still failing to succeed in school.

"A lot of times these kids are needing healing more than academics," Pam said. "Don't get me wrong, they need their education, but they need healing too.

"And to try to fit that in during eight hours of algebra and chemistry, and you just went to court the day before or you're having flashbacks about your sexual abuse-the two just don't go together."

The Pattersons visualized a school where they could educate their kids the way they needed to be educated-at individualized speeds.

"Most of these kids are just so far behind that they just can't get caught up," Pam explains. "They've missed so much and lost so much; they're trying but they just can't catch up."

"And that's when they turn toward their other devices to make themselves feel well," Ben added, referring to destructive behaviors like drugs, promiscuity, etc.

Agape School

They knew their already-overflowing home was not going to provide the space to start a school. They began looking at potential locations-and ways to finance-the school they dreamed of creating.

"I got a phone call saying that I should come and look at Grace Church because it was for sale," Pam said. "'I don't want a church,' I told her, but she convinced me to look anyway.

"And it's perfect."

It truly was, and the Pattersons began raising money to buy the church over a year ago.

What better place for a Christian-based school for students with extraordinary needs than walls that have housed a church congregation until it grew so big that it needed a larger home?

The blueprints have been drawn up: The chapel will be the kitchen, dining and living area using the pews to construct all of the furniture; the chapel's loft will be the rec room with games and entertainment; the classrooms are still classrooms and others will be bedrooms; the pastor's office will be the resident couple's apartment; the gymnasium will stay the gymnasium; and the remaining rooms are or will be offices.

It's such a good fit that divine intervention is not being overlooked.

"We've prayed and prayed on it and this is our answer," Pam said. "The only major things that need to be done is installing a sprinkler system and bringing the bathrooms up to code.

"And after our open house, a man came up to me and told me to send him the bill for the sprinkler system," she said happily.

The new school year

There are now two students at the Agape School in downtown Walworth with another going through the applications process.

Hopefully, by next year at this time there will be up to 12 full-time resident female students, another 25-30 daily students and dozens of youth benefiting from their other programs: parenting classes; addiction programs; financial counseling; prayer; counseling; mentoring; Bible studies; respite; and short-term emergency care.

The current students are already thriving using the Pace Program.

Hailey Burger was really struggling in public school. She fell further and further behind to where at the end of the last school year she was in real academic trouble.

In just the first few weeks she is excelling to where she is already passing up her goals.

"It's a lot quieter here," Burger said. "I've been getting a lot more done. My old school was so chaotic and noisy that I couldn't think."

Kiaitiey Reed struggled in her school for different reasons. She was having trouble in the way of behavior and emotional areas. At Agape School, she's getting the attention and support she needs to stay focused and learn.

"I set my own goals every day and take the responsibility to get it all done," she said. "And when I'm done I don't have to wait for the rest of the class before I can move on."

Students correct their own material, making it easier to understand what happens when there are mistakes, Reed added.

"Kiaitiey's been doing great. She's a sponge. She's an inspiration," said teacher Kelly Stech.

"Students can't go on until they score 80 percent or higher instead of getting an F and just moving on," Stech said. "They have to understand the material so when it comes up again they know it."

Stech has been teaching for 20 years and is finding this position and program extremely rewarding.

"This is the first job in my life where I can spend the amount of time with my students that I want and need to," she said. "I can honestly say that I look forward to coming to work every day."

Shar Schultz, teacher's aide, has been teaching for 30 years and feels the same affiliation working with the Pace Program.

"The way the program is designed, it takes much less time in lesson planning and gives more time to spend working directly with the students," she said.

Agape School also has a teacher intern, Amy Hiemstra-McErlean, who is attending Upper Iowa University and plans to intern through this school year.

"I can already see the girls beginning to enjoy learning," she said, adding that the Pace Program is something that she'd like to work with after graduating.

"The pride they feel when they 'get' something is great to see."

Burger is currently in 11th grade and after graduation she's planning to join (Youth With A Mission) YWAM and become a missionary.

Reed is in eighth grade and plans to get a degree in tattooing and piercing-and if that doesn't work out she'd like to be a Spanish interpreter.

It's evident by talking with the first lucky students to attend Agape School that their self-esteems are skyrocketing and along with it their educations, potentials and future life accomplishments.

Agape School is a non-profit organization and always welcomes monetary donations, material donations for the school and boarding rooms and volunteers of all kinds. For more information, visit www.agapehouseforgirls.org or call 275-6466.

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---IF YOU GO---

What: Agape School Open House

When: Oct 5 at 7 p.m

Where: 215 S. Main St., Walworth

What: Agape School Apple  Harvest Party

When: Oct. 20, 2-4 p.m.

Where: Agape School, 215 S. Main St., Walworth

Info.:  This Agape School Shower is to gather items to support the school. Check registries at Target, Wal-Mart and Staples.

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