By Jennifer Bradley
Agape means “God is love” in Greek. Pam Patterson, founder and executive director of Agape House in Walworth, says that the Geneva Lakes community has shown that to her and to this non-profit organization, but most importantly, they’ve loved the hundreds of teenage girls whose lives have been changed through the program.
The story of Agape House has its roots with Patterson and her own family. She and her husband, Ben married right after college and soon were expecting. While she was on maternity leave, Ben’s sister needed someone to take her four children. “After a year of marriage, I was a mom of five,” Patterson recalls.
Although she says she and her husband took in the four children, Agape House’s origins were not driven by a single decision to help at-risk teen girls, but rather a number of occurrences and choices that brought her to where she and the program are today. “We had to get licensed as foster parents then, and were for 10 years,” she continues. “We saw a lot of need for teenagers, and became known as the home who would take in teens when very few foster homes would.”
Patterson says she would see teens in foster care for a short time; they would do a little better and then they were sent home. She and Ben felt longer placement and more time for healing would possibly get to the source of what these teens were facing.
“We’re strong Christians and I was really praying about it and felt the Lord was leading us to start an actual Christian children’s home,” Patterson explains. So, they did.
A PLACE AND A PLAN
In 1997, they started the program in their home, bought a bigger house in 2001 and then in 2006, they purchased the old Grace Church. It was renovated and now serves as the Agape House home quarters, counseling room and school facility. Across the street is additional counseling space as well as a transitional living apartment for young women older than 18.
By itself, the Grace Church story is one of miracles, but also one of a community caring for its own. Patterson explains the call was made to raise $500,000 to purchase the building. “We are a debt-free ministry, so we asked for 90 days to raise the money,” she says. “Two hours before the deadline, we raised the last $20,000 needed. In 90 days, God provided the funds for us to buy this 100-year-old church and the community came forward like you wouldn’t believe. Almost every single beam in here has been touched by volunteers and donated by businesses, individuals, families, you name it.”
With a safe and secure place, she says the continuation and success of care really is in the individual treatment plan each girl is given while at Agape House. A home-based school, counseling services, spiritual guidance and physical activity all contribute to the program. Families are also a huge component of a girl’s healing process, and must be involved in the counseling, parent group and as volunteers.
“Every girl that’s been in our home in the last 25 years (if you count the years we were foster parents) has had severe trauma in her life,” says Patterson. “Society looks at these teenagers as being bad, rebellious, defiant and while there is a normalcy in teens testing the limits, when that crosses over to more severe behaviors, most of the time it comes down to abuse somewhere.”
The Agape House offers a 10-month program, because as a non-profit with a boarding school license, it’s required to close down two months in the summer. Patterson says when a girl comes to them via foster care or privately, it must be voluntary and she encourages them to attend two, 10-month sessions. The school can accommodate 16 girls, which has a day program for mainly second-year students; the home is set up for 12 girls.
THE AGAPE PEOPLE
Patterson says the program runs with a small staff as well as many volunteers. A house staff of three lives on-site to make it a family environment for the girls, and there is a school staff as well as an office manager and counselors.
She says she never could have imagined the program growing from something she started with Ben in their home to a facility that includes a school. “We tried public school and private schools, but our girls just didn’t seem to fit at either or struggled,” Patterson explains. She says the school is one of the biggest strengths of the program. A very individualized academic program is designed for each Agape House girl. If they should struggle with something they can work through it with counseling, journaling, or one of their coping mechanisms, and then come back to their schoolwork without falling behind their peers.
Many of the girls who come to Agape House have given up any hope of graduating from high school. “They’ve lost that sparkle, that hope,” Patterson says. “Their eyes are downcast and they’re depressed or angry. We can fill those gaps, help them build self-esteem and succeed; they do graduate and a good portion go to some kind of secondary education.”
But more than that, Patterson says they start to smile, believe in themselves and leave Agape House having a confidence which they didn’t have the day they walked in. “Whether that confidence takes them to be a missionary, which we’ve seen, to college, to having their own families, to other ministry, there are not words to describe it,” she exclaims.
The Agape House has become an important part of the Geneva Lakes community and Patterson says it’s easy to see how much people care for it through the support that has been given and continues to pour in for the girls and the staff. “The community has embraced us by volunteering their time, money, items needed, opening up their businesses for the girls to do fun things, and more,” she says.
She reminds the community to recognize there are a lot of hurting kids that need someone to believe in and encourage them. “We can make a difference in a child’s life, one at a time,” Patterson adds. “It might be here at Agape, your neighbor, your own family or someone in your church. We live in a very broken world and we need people to take the time to come alongside them, tell them their worth, that they’re special and unique.”
And, of course, the Agape House is always looking for additional support. If you’d like to help, visit agapehouseheals.org.
Patterson says now that the program has grown, it’s been fun for her to see the relationships the girls have with staff members, who they usually bond with and stay close to. The very first student at the Agape House School completed a 10-month missions program, traveled to a variety of countries and now is back in the area. Patterson says what happened in this girl’s family is as amazing as the changes in her own life. “The whole family’s been restored,” she says. “I do more work now with the parents; that is my area of ministry and it’s just so neat to not just see these girls’ lives touched, but entire families getting back on track.”
She offers the example of another girl who came in with a dad, stepmom and biological mom who didn’t get along and had much trauma in their history. Patterson says all three are taking part in the program with their daughter and now talk, are friendly, involved in church and growing. “It’s been incredible to watch,” she concludes. “Agape is love, and our community is a part of it.”