North of Grand Rapids and 45 miles east of Lake Michigan, the four corners called Trufant has a bar, a bank, a post office, a pizza shop—and a lighthouse. Donna Rajah Betten ’92 is lighthouse keeper, with a mission to guide kids adrift in a place reeling from the economic bust.
“I see in this area a generation without hope,” Betten said. “There’s no money in the schools, no money at home, no jobs. These kids don’t dream. So our motto here at The Lighthouse is ‘Dream. Pray. Believe.’”
It seems to be Betten’s own motto. When her father-in-law was about to bulldoze a dilapidated former grocery store he’d bought for $5,000, she said, “Why not make it a youth center?” He, her husband and the rest of the family caught the vision and gutted the building, then remade it. Trufant’s St. Thomas Lutheran Church bought liability insurance and paint. Family acquaintances donated pool, table tennis and Foosball tables, a TV, a drum kit and other musical instruments. In the spring of 2007 the fresh, bright building opened its doors as The Lighthouse Youth Center.
Three days a week kids from ages 7 to 14 crowd through the door. They are loud, and sound ricochets around the big room.
“They get on the bus as early as 6:30 and get here at 4:00 after a day at school,” Betten said. “They need to blow off steam. Then, after a while, they open up.”
Individually they approach her or another volunteer to talk about things at home and at school. Thirteen- and 14-year-old girls talk to her about sex. She talks to them about God’s dream for them.
Sensing the need for some structured conversation about God at The Lighthouse, last fall Betten asked Wendy Greenway Deurloo ’82 to introduce the GEMS (Girls Everywhere Meeting the Savior) curriculum, modified to include boys.
“It was challenging!” Deurloo said. “They mocked the songs, they walked out, they talked over me. But we weren’t going to give up. There are some powerful messages about God and His love in what we share. From the start we prayed with them about bad things happening in their lives. It’s incredible to see the change since November. Now they sing, they pray, they participate. I truly believe God’s spirit is working in their lives.”
Dream. Pray. Believe.
Betten is dreaming of a bus. On summer afternoons she’d like to take Lighthouse kids out of Trufant to a swimming pool, to Grand Rapids museums, to Calvin.
“I’d say to them, ‘You could go to college here. Can you dream yourself here?’”
Far from Trufant, Betten met another group of kids without dreams last Christmas.
Visiting her home city of Harare, Zimbabwe, she saw for herself what her family had been telling her: the poverty and hopelessness of young people. Just weeks earlier, her nephew had been hung in a tree by drug lords.
In that very different place, Betten saw the same need. With the help of her sister and another woman, she’s opened a youth center in Harare that offers dance and music lessons, art instruction and, most importantly, hope through the love of God.
“Jesus told us to go into all the world and preach the gospel. Sometimes that’s an ocean away, sometimes a mile. But the job is the same: to dream kids into the people He created them to be—and to help them get there.”
Contact Betten at firstname.lastname@example.org to help send a child at the Zimbabwe Youth Center to school.