WALWORTH–Much like close sisters, Faith and Olivia are bantering about the condition of their bedroom.
With a smile, one is teasing the other about clothes on the floor. When their giggling stops, Olivia shares a serious side.
“I haven’t been getting angry,” she says proudly. “At first I would blow up. But now I’m not getting angry.”
The girls, 12 and 13, share a room at Walworth’s Agape House and School, the only private treatment home and school in the state for girls and young women overcoming the effects of abuse and trauma.
Both have anger issues. Faith’s father is in prison and her mother died three years ago. “Sometimes it’s up and down,” Faith said. “I would rather be at home, but I know it is best for me here. Day by day it feels more like home.”
She and Olivia are among a dozen or so girls at the Walworth County home and school, which provide Christ-centered ministry services and activities.
Pam Patterson, founder and executive director of Agape House, explains the importance of God in the girls’ lives.
“I believe the root of many of their problems is that they believe they are not loved and that they have no plans for their lives,” she says. “We help them realize there is a creator who loves them unconditionally and who has a plan for them.”
Many times adults in the girls’ lives are too broken to provide the nurturing the girls need, Patterson said.
The girls try to fill their emptiness with drugs, sex and alcohol. Some cut themselves or have eating disorders.
“When we meet them, they are mad or depressed with their hair hanging down over their faces,” Patterson said. “When we see them transformed it is worth more than all the money in the world.”
About 15 years ago, Patterson and her husband, Ben, founded the nonprofit Agape House, which has offered help and hope to more than 100 girls. The organization offers four Biblical-based ministries: a safe place to live for girls, ages 12 to 18; schooling with individualized programs for girls in seventh through 12th grades; counseling; and a transitional-living home for young women, ages 18 and older.
“Yes, we are strong in our faith,” Patterson said. “But we also are huge on teaching responsibility, academics and life skills.”
All programs are about healing.
“We don’t focus on behavior but on the ‘whys’ of the behavior,” Patterson said. “Many programs are about behavior modification instead of tackling the pain. Our premise is to get to the root, where the pain begins.”
Most of the girls have been sexually abused.
“Almost all have been emotionally abused,” Patterson said. “Every girl comes here because she is struggling with everyday life.”
Girls need time to reveal their pain.
After several months at Agape House, one teenager confided that her uncle had been molesting her for years.
“We are now seeing a totally different child,” Patterson said. “As girls begin to feel safe, they share their pain. We help them stop the negative messages in their heads: ‘I’m bad.’ ‘I’m ugly.’ ‘I’d be better off if I had not been born.’”
Carol Langley, head teacher and education director, guides the girls, but she also gets much in return.
“The girls teach me about life, patience and love,” she said. “I am doing what I have always been gifted to do.”
Langley has a master’s degree in education, is working on a degree in counseling and earns $26,000 annually.
“I am excited about what I do,” Langley said. “There is not a day goes by when I don’t feel loved.”
Becky Wissell is a full-time house parent who lives on-site with her husband and two children.
“I act like the girls’ mom,” she said. “I make sure they clean their rooms, help with conflict resolution, make meals and show them the love of Christ. You can do so much with love and patience.”
She said a huge part of the girls’ healing process is being able to trust adults.
In the 1990s, Patterson and her husband were Walworth County foster parents who became known as the home that would take in teenagers.
In 1997, they began Agape House from their Delavan house. The Greek word “agape” means unconditional love.
“I was praying, and God gave me a vision,” Patterson said. “He wanted me to open a Christian children’s home and to take in private placements. We saw a need to minister to kids.”
Later, she, Ben and her family moved to a bigger house in the country. In 2006, they bought a former church in Walworth. With volunteer help, they transformed it into a school and living quarters with five bedrooms.
“Ninety-nine percent of the labor was donated,” Patterson said.
Today, the choir loft is a family room,and the former sanctuary holds a large dining table, book cases and a leather couch.
“I never thought when we were building a home for the girls that it would turn out like this,” Patterson said.
Girls mostly come from within a 90-minute radius of Walworth.
Ever since junior high school, the 50-year-old Patterson has known that she wanted to work with hurting families.
Her dream continues to grow.
Last year’s budget was $300,000. This year, Agape House hopes to raise $500,000 to meet current needs and to provide services to more girls.
“We’re maxing out and scraping by,” Patterson said.
The organization, with six full-time employees, gets about 80 percent of its funding from donations. The rest comes from services, including tuition.
Tuition is $1,800 a month for an on-site residence, school, counseling and mentoring.
“But we’ve never had a girl pay full fees,” Patterson said, explaining that many come from economically-struggling families. “I don’t believe in putting a price tag on a child’s head.”
Girls whose families have limited incomes pay partial tuition. Some pay nothing.
Patterson believes people donate to Agape House because they care about the girls and because many had rough childhoods themselves.
She would like to see more homes like Agape House.
“There are a lot of hurting children out there, who need to know they are loved and valued,” Patterson said. “So many kids are dying inside, but how do you get the world to see it?”
Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at (608) 755-8264, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.