ELKHART — Darrell Peterson spent 10 years in the construction business before joining LifeLine Youth for Christ.
The executive director will tell you he’s still doing construction — a reference to changing lives — but his first three years have been more about remodeling and expanding.
In those 36 months, the Christ-based organization that began 49 years ago at 174 State St. has shifted gears, spiffed up its game room and is in the midst of an aggressive plan that will result in a much larger group of counselors working with some of the city’s youth.
Lifeline in Elkhart was founded by Irv Polk, whose impact in the State Division neighborhood is memorialized on a nearby honorary street sign. Polk had a guiding hand in establishing the group and its mission of providing a sense of family, community and spiritual influence for children.
Over the years as Polk and other directors established Lifeline, though, the historic neighborhood began to devolve from one that included some architecturally significant homes to one overrun by blight and crime. Numerous houses around the Lifeline headquarters are vacant.
Yet, Peterson estimates there are nearly 1,000 children within the immediate area who could be served.
“To a certain extent, the mission changed with the neighborhood,” Peterson said.
While the national Youth for Christ organization runs various outreach programs, including one involving schools, Peterson and the board of directors chose to narrow their scope and end its work in schools.
Today, Lifeline works closely with families in the immediate neighborhoods, including River Run Apartments, a public housing complex that has had drug and violence problems over the years and is home to several hundred children.
For three years, Lifeline has hosted weekly summer cookouts at River Run and promotes its in-house programs that are just a block or so away.
Barb Woodcox, community manager at River Run, said children love the programming, and she believes the efforts have improved the quality of life for residents.
Don DeGroff, a former Lifeline board member who has been involved for more than 35 years, said the relationship with tenants at River Run has had an impact on the children and their parents. A consistency in building relationships has been a key factor.
“It helps build trust in the relationship with kids, but I also think it has an impact on the parents and that’s what we’re looking for is life-changing opportunities, not only for the kids, but the extended family,” DeGroff said.
Aside from organized activities for students in grades 3 to 12, Lifeline has launched an open gym night on the last Saturday of the month.
With the help of a $15,000 donation over the winter, Lifeline was able to renovate its game room with new paint, carpet and 11 new XBox games. Peterson said he also hopes to establish a tutoring program later this year and a summer work program and summer sports leagues next year.
But its biggest venture sits across the street from its headquarters on State Street, where Lifeline was able to acquire two homes eight months ago.
Lifeline intends to renovate both houses to serve as living quarters for interns and is working to develop an intern program with Goshen College and Bethel College.
“The internship is a total game changer because we could do so much more,” Peterson said.
First Baptist Church of Elkhart bought the houses and Elkhart County Community Foundation provided $60,000 for renovation costs, he said.
One house could be ready later this year. The other is rented and will be used to help offset the costs of utilities for the other, Peterson said.
He likes the idea of pulling together the resources of Bethel and Goshen colleges with Lifeline.
“Those three entities teaming up, I think, could change the landscape of downtown Elkhart for these kids,” Peterson said.
Peterson said it became obvious that they needed more counselors, but needed to do it in an inexpensive manner.
Having a handful of interns could potentially equate to having a handful of full-time counselors, Peterson points out.
In turn, the students get free housing and the experience of working with youth.
DeGroff said he’s enthused about the creative use of limited funding.
“It brings more feet on the ground, but it also gives practical experience to college kids who want to have this as their life’s work,” he said.
Peterson, 49, and his wife, Leslie, have three grown children, but are active with many of the children beyond programs on State Street. They host activities at their home and if the children want to attend church, Peterson says he’s willing to take them, but only if the kids are willing to take notes. A lack of cooperation in that regard, he says, results in a ride home.
When Peterson took the job as executive director, Lifeline was struggling financially, a fact Peterson said he worried and prayed over in part because he doesn’t like the fundraising aspect of the job.
But soon afterward, the organization was given a sizeable estate gift that helped wipe out the deficit.
Peterson credits God.
DeGroff might not argue that point, but also thinks Peterson possesses a style of promoting Lifeline that leads people to support the group financially.
“There are some people who are natural fundraisers. That’s not Darrell,” DeGroff said.
“Darrell does it through trying to bring results and show people some of the benefits that are happening.”