Escape Ministries Enables Holland At-Risk Youth to Reflect God’s Image

Written by Paul R. Kopenkoskey on . Posted in Local

Escape Ministries1235Escape Ministries founder Willie Watt, Jr. affirms his ministry enables streetwise kids to see themselves the way God sees them.Willie Watt, Jr. is well aware at-risk youth are often labeled troublemakers whose futures are too often assumed dim. That's a key reason why he named his Holland-based nonprofit organization Escape Ministries.

"People need to escape from how the world sees them to how God sees them," said Watt, a former member of the Chicago street gang, the Black Disciples, who founded Escape Ministries in 2009.

How God sees them

"I had to escape this thought process of what I believed about myself and see myself how God sees me," said Watt. "So many kids and people don't get that. They're told they're this or labeled as that and they need to escape that."

Escape Ministries operates its programs for marginalized youth out of a 2,500-square foot building at 202 East 32nd St. that its owner leases to Watt for $1 a year.

The young people Escape Ministries is reaching for Christ are either in gangs, or on the cusp of being recruited into one. Their home lives and relationships with their parents and teachers may be rocky. Some have been expelled or suspended from the schools they attend.

Those familiar with gang activity in Holland often associate it with the city's most influential gang, the Latin Kings. The Holland Department of Public Safety arrested its top leaders in 2012.

Admittedly, there are people in Holland who would prefer to either deny any tentacles of gang-related crime still have a grip on the West Michigan community, or simply ignore it.

Watt said he knows differently.

"Street cred'

"Some people don't want to hear things that are troubling in our community because it's a stigma on the community," said Watt. "There are 13 different gangs here. There have been more killings and more gang violence before and after Latin Kings (leaders) were arrested."

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As a former member of a gang, Watt has "street cred" with today's hard-bitten youth. But he still needed to learn how to operate an effective ministry.

That's why he meet with Father Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest who founded Homeboy Industries in 1988 that today is considered the most successful gang intervention program in Los Angeles.

Fire in his belly

Watt returned to Holland with a fire in his belly and the realization that inner city and at-risk kids are not the sought-after hires for jobs in downtown Holland.

Escape Ministries 2235Escape Ministries’ Joseph Jobs program enables young people to gain needed work skills.That's why Watt started early on with its Joseph Jobs program that helps youth and young adults navigate through the sometimes-unwieldy employment procedures.

Then there's Escape's Holland youth summer job program for 14 to 17 year olds that gives them practical work experience and an opportunity to develop a work ethic by contracting with area employers.

Escape's Alternative Suspension Accountably program is geared for students who have been suspended, expelled or fell behind in their studies and dropped out of school.

After-school tutoring is provided.

Escape's outreach program to the homeless provides a food pantry and washer and dryer services.

Its WestSide Boxing helps break down kids' barriers "one punch at a time" and the Redemption Fitness program is intended for the entire family.

Moral Revolution helps people make right choices.

Its Great Escape program explores what the Bible says about a myriad of life's issues kids ask about.

Its Teen Outreach Program is an evidence-based life skills/youth development program for those ages 14 to 21 years.

Ambitious undertaking

It's an ambitious undertaking to operate Escape Ministries on a $256,000 annual budget that has seen its share of lean financial times, according to Watt. When it does, Watt doesn't pay himself.

"We're an organization that needs people and companies to fund us," Watt said. "The funds go to teachers, transporting kids to work. Eighty percent of our funds goes to programs.

Show them Christ

"Escape is designed with the love I experienced when I walked into the church," added Watt. 'They educated me, got me healthy again and spoke positive things to me got me to work.

"We decided instead of preaching to them about Christ we would show them who Christ is through our actions how we give me respect and love them unconditionally," continued Watt. "We ask them where do they want to go now? We help them with their future and help them understand what they have to do to be successful."

Watt pauses and then adds with gratitude: "This ministry has had 1,487 kids come through since 2009 and 1,481 of them have become Christians."


Author Information
Paul R. Kopenkoskey
Author: Paul R. KopenkoskeyWebsite:
Paul R. Kopenkoskey is a full-time freelance writer and editor for an assortment of publications including Grand Rapids Magazine, Grand Rapids Business Journal, and Faith Grand Rapids magazine. He has completed his first novel with the working title, Karl Beguiled. He and his wife, Barb, live in Wyoming, Michigan. They have three children and five grandchildren.

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