Having an impact - and being impacted themselves
Every Monday, Mike and Chris Wexell of Galva drive to Kewanee for a date night. After dinner out together, they leave for their next destination – the local youth facility.
The married couple has been leading a Bible study at the Illinois Youth Center (IYC) since 2007. They have up to 10 youth in their group each time, all who voluntarily attend the one-hour sessions.
The IYC-Kewanee is a medium-security facility for male youth offenders between the ages of 13 and 21. There are eight such facilities in the state, and the Kewanee complex houses boys with severe mental health issues, substance abuse problems, or who are sex offenders.
When they first learned of the opportunity to volunteer there, the idea appealed to Chris, but not to Mike. Despite a busy schedule, he went forward, and now both agree that it is “one of the most rewarding things” they have ever done.
What the pair has observed in the youth over the last two years is not what those outside the system might expect.
“All of the kids are very respectful, using ‘Yes, Ma’am’ and ‘No, sir,’” Mike said. “They all look like the boy next door.”
For one hour each week, in a bare room with juvenile justice specialists visible at all times, the Wexells strive to show the boys that they matter – to God and to them. They use a variety of Bible study materials to do this, including resources from David Jeremiah, Billy Graham and Joyce Meyers.
“They come from dysfunctional families, so we try to focus our studies on family topics, as led by God,” Chris said. “We explain that we’ve made mistakes and aren’t perfect.”
The Wexells have witnessed positive changes in several of the Bible study members.
“We’ve seen some fruit, which is what the Bible talks about,” Mike said. “It’s awesome; sometimes they don’t even have to tell you they’ve changed because you can see that they’re more relaxed and content. The edge and anger disappear.”
Chris and Mike believe that their regular visits to the facility help the youth realize that someone cares for them.
“It means a lot that a volunteer keeps coming back each week. It shows them they matter, especially since some of the boys aren’t visited by family,” Chris stated.
In April the Wexells received a “Volunteer of the Year” award for their service. They were nominated by IYC Chaplain Rodrigo Donan, who noted that they are the most active couple at the facility, volunteering over 118 hours in 2008.
At the spring awards ceremony, some of the boys in the study read letters about Chris and Mike to the audience. One youth, serving a long sentence, wrote, “Mr. and Mrs. Wexell are a great example to us. They keep coming back each Monday night and that is what we love and respect about them. They are not about to give up on us just because some days we fall short.”
Donan added that, “The Wexells have shown the youth that they’re valuable in God’s eyes and that they care about them, regardless of the past. “
He stressed a need for additional volunteers in a variety of areas at IYC-Kewanee. Those who are interested in learning more should contact Donan at 852-4601.
The Wexells also encourage the public to call them at 932-9002 if they are willing to donate new or used Bibles to the inmates, who would not otherwise receive them. These can also be dropped off at the IYC gatehouse, according to Donan.
Chris and Mike look forward to continuing their ministry at the prison for as long as possible.
“The boys have changed and we’ve changed,” they noted of their time in Bible study together. “We’re humbled by their big hearts, even with the misfortune they’ve had in their lives.”