Herb Meppelink started Detroit Teen Challenge in 1964, just a few short years after David Wilkerson founded the original Teen Challenge in New York City. Herb came to Detroit from a small Dutch community in Iowa. Hearing the call of God, Herb and his wife pulled up stakes and moved their house trailer onto the property of Ferndale Assembly of God. They were given permission to use the basement of the church parsonage as an office.
Herb and his wife led a small team of volunteers that canvassed the streets daily, handing out gospel tracts and sharing the love of Jesus with anyone who would listen. They focused on three main areas in downtown Detroit: Mack Avenue, Twelfth Street and Jefferson Avenue. In all, they prayed with over 400 people during that first summer. At the end of that year Herb was able to acquire the first piece of property to be used as a center in Detroit. It was a beautiful mansion at 154 Arden Park in Detroit. However, word quickly spread through the Arden Park neighborhood that certain “undesirables” were about to enter the community.
A court case ensued and the house eventually had to be sold. Herb was discouraged but not defeated. Over the next seven years, the center was moved some six times before the property at 4600 Lovett Street was acquired. Finally, Teen Challenge had a semi-permanent home. Herb was on the road weekly during those early years casting a vision, raising support and seeking volunteer help. His travels took him well beyond the Detroit area.
Strong-willed and determined, he was a man of great faith. He believed God for the impossible. Despite his toughness and his grit, he was well-known as a man with a soft spot in his heart for the underdog.
After leaving Detroit, Herb took leadership of Teen Challenge on both a local and national level. He retired in Springfield, Missouri.
In 1974 Sam Dobrotka, his wife and four children came to Detroit to take over the center. Same was a young preacher with a calling to make a difference in the lives of broken men and women.
By this time, the main office was in a room at Taylor Assembly of God and the male students stayed in a house on Scotten in Detroit. The women were housed in one bedroom of the church apartment. Both the men and the women met for chapels and classes at the church Monday through Friday. Eventually, as the women’s division grew, Teen Challenge rented a farm Downriver where the women were housed and much needed vegetables for the daily menu were grown. The men moved to St. James Convent in Hazel Park. Later, the entire center, men, women and administrative offices, relocated to St. Monica’s Convent on Kentfield in Detroit.
Sam was a very warm and friendly man who enjoyed having fun. He put people at ease and left them with a sense of being valued, even prized. He loved his family and took time to camp, boat and ride motorcycles with his children. He also appreciated antiques and was an avid collector. Sam also started a radio program called Shine Ministries that touched many in the Detroit area.
The next light to shine for Teen Challenge in Detroit was Jeff Bonzelaar’s father, Cal Bonzelaar. He came to Detroit in 1982 after serving as Women’s Supervisor at Muskegon Teen Challenge for seven years. He took over with just eight students in the program, a staff of two (Sister Leff and “Mama” Lyons) and six months of unpaid bills. The center was on the verge of closing. But God is faithful and the gates of Hell will not prevail against His church. God used Cal Bonzelaar to take the center from an old, run-down ministry to a new building on Grand River in 1986 and, from there to our present, beautiful facility in 1991.
Under Cal’s leadership, the center grew to over one hundred students and thirty-plus staff with a budget of over half a million dollars annually. Cal was a man full of energy and always envisioned new projects. One former staff declared of Cal, “He was a man who loved sinners.”
Then in 1994, Cal’s son Jeff took the reins as Executive Director of the ministry. The name was changed to Life Challenge of Southeastern Michigan to reflect the fact that most of the men and women who enter the program are adults, not teenagers. Life Challenge continues to shine its light here and in our newest center in Flint. By the grace of God, Life Challenge will endure, helping people who struggle with the challenges of life for the next 100 years and beyond, until the Lord comes and we finally reside together as a church, forever in heaven.