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Seminarian helps troubled youth find answers, hope at YMCA shelter

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–Twenty-five-year-old Jeff Kukuk isn’t much older than the inquisitive teens he ministers to every week at a shelter house in downtown Louisville, Ky.

They may be there because they are physically or sexually abused. Their parents may be alcoholics or drug addicts. The teens are searching for solutions, searching for the meaning of life.

Kukuk points them to the answer — a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

Kukuk, a student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, is senior youth worker at the privately funded Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) Safe Place Services Shelter House in Louisville. Each weekday, from 4 p.m. to midnight, Kukuk and his co-workers take in troubled youth who are in the midst of family crises.

The teens, ranging in age from 13 to 17, are offered a place to stay while they and their parents undergo counseling. Everything is free.

“A lot of these guys come from the inner city, where they have no parents and have no positive discipline,” said Kukuk, a Livonia, Mich., native who is working toward a master of divinity degree. “I just want to show them the love of Christ.”

The Shelter House has a maximum capacity for 20 teens — 10 boys and 10 girls. The maximum stay is normally two weeks, and each week the shelter sees new faces. Some teens are there because of abusive parents. Some simply don’t feel safe at home. In other instances, the teen may be there because of truancy or vandalism.

The days are structured, and every day ends with a Bible devotional and time of prayer. Because of the nature of the shelter, the group could include teens who claim to be everything from atheists to Satanists.

“Whatever is cool is what they’re going to claim,” Kukuk said. “We have a lot of discussion. We have a lot of late-night dorm-room discussion concerning religion.”

Kukuk said he always tries to make the Bible relevant.

“I don’t candy-coat it, but I try to apply their lives to the Bible,” he said. “We have a time of discussion after every Bible study. We have it every evening before we go to bed. They have an open opportunity to ask any question that we talked about.

“Then we have a prayer time in which I open the floor to prayer requests. A lot of the prayer requests are for family members or for them to be able to get out.”

Teens arrive at the shelter in one of three ways. They can walk up to the facility and knock on the door. They can also go to a local business, such as Kroger or McDonald’s, where yellow-and-black “Safe Place” signs are displayed. An employee of the business will then call the Shelter House, and a volunteer will drive out and pick up the teen. The third way teens arrive at the Shelter House is through the court system. The Shelter House is the final step before teens who have been in the court system go home.

“We have some phone calls at 3:30 in the morning [from] kids wanting to come in,” Kukuk said. “The parents come in drunk [and are] beating them.”

After the teen arrives at the shelter, the parent or legal guardian must come to the Shelter House and sign the teen into the facility. If the parent refuses to sign the teen over, then the court system may become involved.

“They will have family [counseling] sessions throughout the two weeks they are there to see what’s going wrong and what kind of changes they can make in the child’s life and what kind of changes the parents can make in their lives,” Kukuk said. “Sometimes it’s the kid’s fault. Sometimes it’s the parent’s fault. We try to reach a medium so that they can get back on track.”

Teens continue going to school during their brief stay at the Shelter House. They come back to the shelter each day after school and eat at 5 p.m. Kukuk is in charge of the meal. He said he learned to cook while working at a restaurant in college.

The teens have free time at 6 p.m., then learn a “life skill” at 7 p.m., such as how to balance a checkbook. At 8 p.m. the teens have group counseling sessions and at 9 p.m. they have a snack and perform various house jobs. At 9:30 they begin preparing for bed. They then have their devotional and go to bed at 10:30.

“I have a sincere burden for troubled youth,” Kukuk said. “A lot of it is not their fault. A lot of it has been the upbringing or the lack of upbringing the parents have offered.”

During one recent night Kukuk said he felt led to present the “Roman Road” to salvation to the teens. Afterward he led them in the sinner’s prayer.

“I said, ‘If you said the prayer and you meant it, come to me later.’ I had four kids come to me,” he said. “Three of them were Christians, but they wanted to make sure. One of them was a true salvation.”

The Safe Place Shelter House houses between 500 and 700 teens a year. During the 26 years it has been open, it has reached approximately 15,000 teens.

After leaving the Shelter House, the teens enter the Home Front program, which involves extended counseling. In Home Front, the teens live with their parents at home.

“We have some kids who come back to the shelter,” Kukuk said. “If things don’t work out at home, they’re more than welcome to come back as long as they leave on good terms. We’ve had kids there five times. A lot of the kids do call back and ask for staff, just to say, ‘Hey, what’s going on?'”

Kukuk said the harvest among troubled youth is ripe.

“It’s very fertile,” he said.
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at www.bpnews.net. Photo title: JEFF KUKUK.

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  • Michael Foust