For Esther Gonzalez–Torres, 2020 looked to be a year of celebration. It’s the 50th anniversary of Youth Challenge of Connecticut where she’s the executive director. Instead, like everyone in the world, she faces an unprecedented global pandemic and is struggling with how to keep doing their organization’s life-changing and life-saving work.
Esther’s father, Raul Gonzalez, started the program 50 years ago because he struggled for 11 years with heroin addiction. He lost everything. Nothing could help him. But then he found a program in Brooklyn called Teen Challenge and that put him on another path. He went to Bible School, then restored his marriage.
Raul, a Puerto Rican immigrant, served as a chaplain during the Viet Nam War where he helped soldiers face their drug addictions. Then he returned to Hartford, where he saw a need for a similar program to Teen Challenge, so he founded Youth Challenge.
Offering hope for a better future
Esther was the third child out of four and has no memory of her dad as an addict. She tells the residents of Youth Challenge that change is very possible and points to her father’s example. “I never knew an addicted father. I only knew a loving father,” she says. “I had a better future just because of what he did. I encourage them saying this is not the end.”
Youth Challenge addresses the mind, body, and soul. But to do that, people need to live at the facility. When COVID-19 hit, that meant extra cleaning was needed as well as personal protective equipment (PPE).
“PPE — those things are not in the budget,” says Esther. “Those are things that we had to just start providing: extra cleaning, extra gloves, masks.”
Still, she never entertained closing because being open means saving lives. “We are working with a huge opioid problem,” she says. “Last year we had 1,100 people [in the area] die from overdose.”
When thermometers become like gold
World Vision’s been partnering with Youth Challenge for nearly five years, providing items such as furniture, clothing, and toiletries for the nearly 35 residents they serve. As residents graduate from the program, more can rotate in. “World Vision is one of those amazing partners and has supported us in a way that I can’t say another organization has,” Esther says.
When they gave us a thermometer, I almost started crying.—Esther
As the number of COVID-19 cases rose, World Vision heard about her organization’s need for personal protective supplies and offered help. They continue to provide it as she needs it. “I have to prepare,” says Esther. “I need it for now and if they keep talking about a resurgence. I don’t want to be caught.”
One thing Esther searched everywhere for only to be turned away empty-handed was a thermometer. “Thermometers are priceless,” says Esther. World Vision’s Hartford site manager, Tim Reeve, didn’t know that when he packed up supplies for Youth Challenge.
“When they gave us a thermometer, I almost started crying,” she says. “I sent Tim an email and said, ‘Thank you so much.’ He didn’t know how desperate I was.” Now she’s able to monitor both staff and resident temperatures to make sure that everyone stays healthy.
Trusting God for the future
Esther’s faith helps her make it through these unprecedented times. She says, “I have more faith now. God has kept us. Nobody has gotten sick. That’s included clients.”
She sees the hope that God has offered throughout her life. She sees it in the lives of the people she serves. She sees it in the hearts of the donors.
“Thank you for caring about people, for helping the hurting, for allowing us to continue to be on the front line,” Esther says. “We need you. It’s not over. We have people that are waiting for help. For us, I can’t close. That’s a life.” And who knows what the life they save might go on to do someday?
So Esther and Youth Challenge continue their work through this pandemic. Even though so much has changed, Esther knows that God has a purpose and plan. It just looks different from what we expected, but there’s so much to celebrate — like 50 years of Youth Challenge.