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A thrift store, a car wash and a mission to fight addiction

By Cole Bradley, High Ground News

At the intersection of Madison Avenue and Cleveland Street, a familiar sight greets passing motorists. A group of men, high energy and wearing bright orange shirts, advertise a car wash and usher vehicles into a parking lot behind the BAM Thrift Store at 1340 Madison Avenue.

What many Memphians may not know is the car wash and thrift store are both initiatives run by Memphis Adult Teen Challenge, which is located at 33 North Cleveland Street behind BAM.

The nonprofit residential facility is an long-term alcohol and drug treatment program for men ages 18 and older and offers housing, treatment, spiritual guidance, workforce development and community service opportunities within a single block of Madison Heights.

The organization aims to help clients stay sober through Christian teachings, relationship building, exploring the roots of addiction and exposure to new life skills and interests that will sustain independence and sobriety after residential treatment.

Clients are typically enrolled for 13 to 15 months and staff the car wash and thrift store as part of their recovery process. BAM is an acronym for Business As Ministry.

The men of Memphis Adult Teen Challenge are a staple of the Madison Avenue-Cleveland Street intersection. Clad in bright orange shirts they entice commuters with affordable car washes and friendly service. The car wash is one of several initiatives run by Adult Teen Challenge as part of its long-term, faith-based drug and alcohol treatment program. (Ziggy Mack)

Anatole Williams is a graduate of Memphis Adult Teen Challenge and its executive director.

“One of the powerful things about working in a ministry organization like [Adult] Teen Challenge is on a consistent basis you get to see men come through the doors broken, life complete in shambles, their families have been destroyed as a result of their drug use and behaviors,” said Williams.

“And then you watch as they embrace the program … I get to see consistently men’s lives being completely transformed. That’s just an amazing thing to see.”

In addition to staffing BAM and the car wash, the men also build custom furniture, restore antiques and roast and package organic coffee for their own Cozy Cafe line. In September 2018 Adult Teen Challenge launched the Cozy Cafe mobile coffee bar where clients gain experience in food truck service.

Williams said the men work around 30 hours a week as part of their core program, in addition to attending classes, community outreach and individual spiritual and recovery work. They aren’t paid for their labor, as it is part of the workforce development and skill building portion of their  program work. Williams said the value is in relearning how to participate in a workplace in a supportive and structured environment.

All profits generated by the various endeavors go back into ongoing programs, staff costs and housing and facility needs, as well as a scholarship fund for men facing financial hardship.

“It’s just rebuilding that self-worth, self-confidence that they do have value, they are important,” said Williams. “All of what we do is about their program and helping them change their lives. It’s not about simply generating revenue. We believe that’s what God honors because we keep the men first, we keep the program first.”

Memphis Adult Teen Challenge clients participate in a number of initiatives to teach job skills, good work habits and the value of community service. Here, men unload a truck of antiques and other finds from a recent estate sale. Families donate items that fail to sell to BAM Thrift Store, and in exchange, the men discard unwanted items and trash and help clean the house. (Cole Bradley)

Launching a Challenge

Adult & Teen Challenge was founded in 1958 and currently has over 1,000 locations worldwide. The Memphis location opened in 1972 and was known as Teen Challenge until it was rebranded Adult Teen Challenge last year to more accurately reflect that they serve men 18 and older.

The car wash opened in 2010 and BAM in 2014. The Cozy Cafe coffee line is their newest endeavor and was launched in early 2018.

Williams said the majority of the men housed at the Madison Heights location are from other cities in Tennessee including Cookeville, Jackson, Lexington and Paris. People who are from Memphis and enroll in treatment are often sent to different locations to put distance between them and familiar people and places that might lead to a relapse.

Adult Teen Challenge’s main building can house up to 32 people. Clients complete nine months of treatment there before moving to the Vining Sparks Hope House located behind the main facility. The Hope House can house 14 men as they begin to transition to independent living.

Twenty-five to 35 graduates complete the full 13-to-15-month program each year.

Faith in Community

Williams said the car wash, thrift store, coffee and other endeavors also benefit the community and connect the men to something bigger than themselves.

“When we opened BAM and the men began to work in the store and communicate with people, the store became a beacon of light for the community,” said Williams.

He notes the vast majority of the store’s customers are Madison Heights residents and most are low to moderate income. The car wash offers affordable rates and the store helps them find nice clothing and household items at steep discounts over retail.

“This area is really the bread and butter of the store, the clothes,” said Williams. “That’s where most people come in and that’s where we can really serve the community because they can come in [with] $1, $2 and find nice stuff.”

Customers browse the BAM Thrift Store. The vast majority of customers are Madison Heights residents and many are low-to-moderate income residents who benefit from the store’s reasonable prices. (Cole Bradley)

“I love this store. Simply because I’m on a fixed income and I get gorgeous things for my house,” said retiree and regular customer Patricia Jones. “They treat me nice and I enjoy coming here. If they were to close the BAM, I would just go to pieces. I get so many good things, so many pretty things.”

Michael Skouteris manages BAM’s daily operations and said working its register was the first  place he learned to empathize with another person. He said the store’s staff know customers by name and regularly connect with patrons over prayer and kind conversation. Skouteris believes it’s their strong Christian orientation that sets BAM apart.

“The main thing to understand is that our ministry is first before it’s a business and that’s why people like coming here,” he said. “It’s just a safe place, and it’s a place people like to come because they feel God’s presence.”

As part of their recovery, the men also prepare and host a weekly community meal in the Adult Teen Challenge parking lot. Each Wednesday at 3 p.m. they share food, testimonials, prayers and a listening ear. Most guests are Madison Heights residents and people experiencing homelessness who frequent the area for its dense clustering of service organizations.

Related: “Newly opened health clinic provides free services to the homeless population of Memphis

They also do outreach and service work in prisons, on mission trips, at community events and in partnership with youth agencies like Memphis Athletic Ministries and Service Over Self.

“We’re about changing lives,” said William. “It’s not just about the men in the program, it’s about the people who live in the community, it’s about the people who [patron] our store.”

Practicing What’s Preached

Adult Teen Challenge has nine full-time staff members, most of whom are themselves recovery success stories and are now committing their lives to giving back to the program.

Williams has 27 years clean while Skouteris has almost a year and is expected to graduate the program in July. He is currently enrolled in Adult Teen Challenge’s four-month internship program, which includes a job placement in a significant role within the organization and weekly staff training to prepare interns for employment at the Memphis location or beyond.

Elijah Willis is a program graduate and BAM’s general manager. He also manages the BAM estate sale clean out program where families can donate estate sale items that fail to sell. In exchange, the men remove unwanted items and trash and help clean the homes.

Willis said the opportunities sobriety and the program have provided him have been limitless and now he’s passing it on.

“[It’s] being able to live and to show them on a daily basis what it looks like to be a Christian man out on the road working side by side with them,” he said. “We [took] for granted in our past lives just driving down the road, seeing trees, seeing people, waving, smiling, just holding a door for somebody,” he said. “It’s simplicity that brings peace.”

A window display at the BAM Thrift Store advertises scrubs for medical professionals. The store is located in Madison Heights, one of several distinct neighborhoods within the larger Medical District. (Cole Bradley)

Next Steps

The men of Adult Teen Challenge recently renovated BAM’s second floor and built roughly 20 climate-controlled storage units that serve Madison Heights residents. They’re now working on renovating the rest of the building for additional storage units and corporate offices.

“The men deal with a lot of sense of failure,” said Williams. “So you look at them being able to accomplish building those storage units or running this store, that’s a huge accomplishment. That’s building self-worth, self-esteem.”

The organization also earned a grant from the Memphis Medical District Collaborative for facade improvements to BAM’s Madison Avenue frontage. Construction is expected to begin June 1.

“I saw the prints, and it’s beautiful what they’re getting ready to do, so we’re looking forward to that happening,” said Williams.

In the meantime, the staff and clients of Memphis Adult Teen Challenge are committed to building each other and their community.

“It’s not so much what you can do, it’s the men around you,” said Willis. “Being able to figure out what they can do, pulling the best out of them and really just refining yourself as a leader.”

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