COLLEEN: When I first moved into the neighborhood, kids would come—and my house is their place—and I was like, “What do you want to be when you grow up? Where do you want to go to college? What’s after high school?
NARRATOR: It seems everybody here has to learn the hard way…
COLLEEN: And they’re like, “We don’t graduate high school here. Most of us just deal drugs like our brothers or our dads or our uncles.”
NARRATOR: East Baltimore is not like everywhere else.
COLLEEN: And my heart broke. I literally was like, “I’m not even sure I know what to say at this point.” And I was like, “What are we doing?”
NARRATOR: “Stories of Hope” is a podcast about people who meet needs and change lives. In this episode… Colleen Smith had a problem.
COLLEEN: I will probably never have children of my own biologically. But I think that God knew that I wanted to be a mom and he’s given me a million other kids that are my kids. And… I want my kids to know who Jesus is. And I want them to live their lives for Christ
COLLEEN: But I also want them to know that there is more than drugs and alcohol and poverty for them—and murder and crime.
COLLEEN: How do we do that
NARRATOR: The answer was buried underneath a teenager’s bed, hidden inside a dusty shoebox. The boy who put it there never meant for it to be found.
NARRATOR: But one day, it was.
NARRATOR: This is Stories of Hope, Episode Fifteen… “The Secret Inside the Box.”
NARRATOR: It started in a back bedroom, on a second floor of a creaky, old, red-brick East Baltimore row-house…
NARRATOR: James Wise was 14 years old when a church mission team came to renovate his nothing-but-a-mattress-and-box-springs bedroom.
JAMES: There was just always white walls. It was just… boring. I just can’t stare at something that’s just a bunch of nothing.
NARRATOR: Every kid deserves something more than just four white walls. That’s one of the first things Colleen Smith learned when she moved to East Baltimore and got to know the kids in her neighborhood.
COLLEEN: A lot of their homes are chaotic. And I think what makes me sad is that they think there’s no hope for them. Because the reality is, in 2018, we had over 300 murders—and, if you looked at the murders, those are just the reported ones. And so, at the end of the day, I want my kids to have a safe space in their home. And, if that means we have to redo their room, then we have to redo their room.
NARRATOR: And that is how James Wise ended up locked out of his bedroom for one whole week in the summer of 2018. It was all a part of Colleen’s well-rehearsed, done-it-a-dozen-times-before, Extreme Bedroom Makeover itinerary.
COLLEEN: Before the teams come that do the bedroom makeover, we sit down with the kid and we just dream about, “If you could have a bedroom, what would it be?” And so, most of the time what they’ve dreamed about they get, because they’re not dreaming about vanity things. They’re like, “No. I want a mirror. I want a desk to do my homework or I want a bed or I want a comforter,” like, things that they genuinely need. And so, I think once someone sees that they’re like, “Let’s give them that, but let’s give them something fun too.” So, we’ve done everything from a princess room to a University of Maryland Terrapins room. We did a superhero room.
COLLEEN: And that first day, the kid is there and I’m there. And then the rest of the week we’re not there. And then on Friday, we try to find a photographer to come with us and we do this huge reveal. It’s like a big thing.
NARRATOR: James Wise had asked for a Baltimore Ravens room. He had helped pick out the perfect shade of purple paint. And then, he and Colleen had disappeared so the mission team could get to work.
NARRATOR: And that is when they found the box.
NARRATOR: It was hidden underneath James’s bed. It was filled with tiny airplanes. And when Colleen first heard about it, she thought the toy planes must have belonged to James’s younger brother.
COLLEEN: They told us about this box of airplanes that they found. And I immediately thought, “Oh they must be Gabe’s because Gabe’s young.” At the time, he was probably in 1st or 2nd grade. But someone came back and said, “James told us that they’re his airplanes, and that he dreams about being a pilot.”
NARRATOR: Colleen had known James for five years. But she’d never heard him say anything about airplanes. And when she asked him why that was—he had a perfectly reasonable but unexpectedly sad explanation.
COLLEEN: He had obviously outgrown the airplanes. But also at that point, he told me that the airplanes are in the box because someone had told him that he was in so much trouble, he would never be a pilot.
COLLEEN: And my heart broke that night. I was like, “That’s not true. You can be whatever you want to be and that person doesn’t really know who you are.”
NARRATOR: With James’s secret out, Colleen decided she would show him he really could be a pilot. She found a friend whose father flew his own airplane…
COLLEEN: I told her the story, and she said, “My dad would love to do it
NARRATOR: And then, Colleen took James on an I-believe-in-you, you-can-do-anything-you-set-your-mind-to field trip.
COLLEEN: We planned a whole day. We went about an hour from Baltimore and as we were driving there, it was such a good day because James and I got to share some things about our life that are similar, like, intimate things. And at that point, he hadn’t even experienced the plane experience yet and he said to me, “This is the best day of my life.”
COLLEEN: And so, we got there and he got to go through the whole nine yards. He got to pull the plane out of the garage, he got to do the safety check
COLLEEN: And I guess they flew over some mountains and then they asked if James wanted to drive the plane and he said, “Yes!” So, he got to drive the plane.
NARRATOR:I don’t want to do it again. I almost died. Twice. But just being up in the air—I really liked that.
NARRATOR: There is the gallows humor of a 14-year old boy. And then, there is the truth.
COLLEEN: He says that he almost crashed the plane but I hear he did a great job. So… he got to be the honorary pilot for the day.
NARRATOR: And what is now truth for James Wise is—no one will ever again be able to tell him “you can’t be what you want to be.”
COLLEEN: Ooo, it’s a packed house in here tonight…
NARRATOR: And what is true for James is now true for dozens of other kids in East Baltimore.
BACKGROUND: Any middle schoolers? Who’s in middle school? What grade are you in? (kid) Sixth…
COLLEEN: Ok, you can come with me tonight… (mix in some general noise in here too that lets us know there’s a lot of kids here)
NARRATOR: Colleen calls this GEM—Gospel, Education and Mentoring. Every Wednesday night, she opens up her church to 30… 40… sometimes even 50 kids from the neighborhood—and she and her volunteers give them what they can’t get anywhere else.
BACKGROUND: How many of you have ever read about Peter in the Bible?
COLLEEN: They’re divided down by age groups. And if you walked into each room, you would hear very genuine conversations about Christ.
BACKGROUND: How many of you, if Jesus ever said, “I want you to give up everything and walk away—would you do it?”
COLLEEN: They come and that’s their place to learn about Jesus and to be loved on and it’s amazing. So, we believe that the Gospel changes lives. But there’s also another piece of—like, there needs to be some education. We really want to develop a life plan for them. Like, what are your goals to get thru elementary school to get to a good middle school? What are your goals to get from middle school to a good high school? And then—what is your plan? Like, if you don’t have a plan, you probably are going to be stuck here.
BACKGROUND: God takes care of you when you do what He asks you to do—when you’re faithful to Him.
NARRATOR: In a community where kids once told Colleen “dropout and drug dealer” were their two best career options… 17 of those kids have now graduated high school.
NARRATOR: And James—he’s determined to be number 18. Earlier this year, he and his family moved to the other side of town—but he still takes an hour-long bus ride to come to GEM. And he’s always here. Nobody remembers the last time he missed.
NARRATOR:It’s just like—I come across town to do anything else I want to do. So why not come commit myself to God?
NARRATOR: One day, James Wise will be somebody. He knows that now. And he doesn’t have to keep it a secret… hidden in a box… underneath his bed.
COLLEEN: James said it, and the other kids will say it—there’s a huge difference. And I truly believe there is a huge difference in a lot of our students.
COLLEEN: And it is the most beautiful thing I think I ever get to witness—to live here—that I get to celebrate with these kids and I get to walk alongside them in all of their moments—all of their good and bad. And I get to watch them begin to trust and begin to open up and begin to become who I believe they really want to be.
COLLEEN: So, but… they just, they’re my kids—they’ve become my kids. And they will always be my kids.
NARRATOR: This has been “Stories of Hope” from Send Relief. Today’s episode… “The Secret Inside the Box”.
NARRATOR: You and your church can meet needs and change the lives of kids like James. For tips on how, go to send-relief-dot-org. And to learn more about how Colleen and her GEM volunteers are sharing the Gospel with families in East Baltimore, visit them at captivate church dot com.
NARRATOR: If you like what you’ve heard here, rate and review us on iTunes. That will help other people to find us. And join us in two weeks for another episode of “Stories of Hope.