Rumors started spreading among Colorado Springs homeless teens about a month ago that a wealthy benefactor in Missouri would clothe, feed and school local runaways in a yearlong program leaving them with new job skills and $27,000 in their pocket.
That seemed too perfect, at least to local advocacy workers.
"There were a lot of red flags," said Andrea Falvey, a caseworker at Urban Peak, a local nonprofit group. "It was sounding a little too good to be true."
The mysterious benefactor turned out to be millionaire insurance executive Charlie Sharpe, a controversial Evangelical. Sharpe's vast 17,000-acre farm, where hundreds of homeless teens live, work and attend rehabilitation programs, is currently under investigation by Missouri state health officials. In October, authorities arrested seven Heartland employees with felony child abuse charges and removed 115 children from the compound.
Instead of a $27,000 salary, the pay is minimum wage with an 18-month commitment. And the new job skills? Working on a dairy farm.
Sharpe visited Colorado Springs Dec. 8-9 at the request of local Evangelicals working at "The Fortress," a downtown homeless center that is funded by numerous well-known Colorado Springs ministries and businesses downtown on Bijou Street across from Acacia Park in the old Norton Office Supplies building.
During the visit, Sharpe offered his spin of Jesus and salvation during a presentation attended by about a dozen local homeless teens and young adults. Though he doesn't actively recruit teens to his Missouri compound, he extended the offer to anyone who's willing to adhere to his rules.
A bus could leave in early January for Sharpe's Missouri headquarters of his CNS Ministry Alliance, which includes the Heartland Christian Academy and Heartland Recovery Center.
Several homeless teens say they might be going, though no one has yet firmly committed. That worries at least one local group that also works closely with this troubled and often overlooked homeless population, which is roughly estimated at 180.
"Why are they sending all the homeless kids from Colorado Springs to Missouri?" asked Urban Peak's Falvey.
Down on the farm
The 74-year-old Sharpe made millions in insurance. Now the powerful and well-connected Missourian, whose friends include U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, wants to share his wealth with America's troubled teens -- but only if they accept Jesus.
More than 200 teens and 100 adults from several states live and work on Sharpe's sprawling Heartland complex, which includes two restaurants, an airstrip, dormitories, a school and a 7,000-head dairy herd. Dairy trucks emblazoned with "Jesus is the Answer" ply local roads.
Students follow a strict regimen at Heartland. They rise at 5:30 a.m. with early-morning Bible study and breakfast, followed by a day of lessons at Sharpe's private religious school. Some work on the farm, or attend rehab programs, before bedtime at 9 p.m. Boys and girls are separated and students cannot leave the farm without a chaperone. Sharpe and his wife, Laurie, who live on the compound, also have 13 girls living in their house.
His methods are controversial. Students who break rules are disciplined by what Sharpe calls "swats" with a wooden paddle. Other forms of discipline include shoveling cow manure.
"We do swat kids -- it's absolutely true," said Sharpe in a twangy accent of the Missouri hill country where he was raised. "It's not controversial in our minds because we know there are times that kids need to be swatted to get their attention."
Missouri officials disagree with Sharpe's methods. The state's statutes don't require religious-affiliated programs to be licensed. However, following up on complaints, officials from the Missouri Division of Family Services removed 115 teenagers on Oct. 30.
In June, five Heartland employees were charged with felony child abuse. Also, a senior administrator has been accused of hitting a teen-aged girl 35 times with a wooden paddle, causing bruises and contusions.
Sharpe and his wife also face a charge in county court of taking possession of a child without court approval, stemming from a former resident's wish to take back a baby that she allegedly gave to Sharpe and his wife to care for. The baby is now back with the natural mother.
Teens not convinced
Sharpe's message turned many off right away.
"I was offended," said an 18-year-old Springs man who ran away from home three years ago and has lived on the streets since.
"[Sharpe] said Jesus was the only way, and I don't believe in that," said the teen. "It's very scary that way."
Several of the teens who heard about the program were initially excited about moving to Missouri to earn money -- until they met Sharpe.
"I want to get out of Colorado Springs," said a 19-year-old who's been homeless for two years. "But after hearing about it, these places can be wacky. It sounded like a cult to me."
Still, a few teens and young adults are considering going. Anyone under 18 needs parental or guardian consent to enter Sharpe's farm, and the pastor requires young adults to sign up for 18-month commitments to live and work there.
A representative from Urban Peak attended the Dec. 8 meeting with Sharpe at The Fortress and helped the teens ask questions. Unconvinced, the organization was worried enough that it contacted Colorado Springs police and the FBI, but both agencies told the group there was nothing they could do unless a crime was committed.
"We don't want to knock it down. We just want to check it out and help the kids make an informed decision," said Urban Peak's Falvey about The Fortress. "We're not suspicious about anyone who is working with youth. That is wonderful, but we needed more information about this group."
It's a Jesus program
Ken Henderson, a flamboyant Evangelical who started the "Soldiers for Jesus" motorcycle club in the 1970s, is the founder of The Fortress. Since it opened this summer, nearly 100 local religious groups and businesses have contributed money, including The Navigators, New Life Church, the World Prayer Center, Safeway, King Soopers, Domino's Pizza, Carrabba's Italian Restaurant and Perkins Motor City Dodge.
At a Dec. 15 fundraiser, more than 400 local evangelical and business owners gave $50,000 to The Fortress, which will close down after the holidays for remodeling. When it reopens this spring, Henderson says homeless teens and adults will be able to access the Internet, play pool, and get free food, clothing and drinks. In addition, Henderson has plans to develop a Sharpe-like operation on 900 acres of ranchland donated to his group in Rush, about 35 miles east of Colorado Springs
Henderson has been working closely with homeless and runaway teens since last summer and invited Sharpe to the area to provide them with an option for getting on their feet.
"I told the kids about it. There's no place in Colorado Springs to go if you're under 18," Henderson pointed out. "I said if you need a job, it's there, but it's a Jesus program. They knew that right out of the gate."
Henderson, who also organizes the local Jesus March every June, says he's worried people might misunderstand his work following Sharpe's visit. Henderson called Sharpe's tactics "his business" and said he had heard that the problems in Missouri had been resolved "in favor of Charlie."
"Charlie's pretty intense. He's not quite my style," said Henderson, 46. "We don't shove religion down the kids' throats. We never preach to them. If they want it, we're here."
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