Non-profit organization takes a “leap of faith” at the center of the old teenage challenge

Melody Mabet

In response to the rapid increase in gun violence and murder in Lansing, a newly formed nonprofit wants to open a shelter and home at the former Teen Challenge Center on the northwest side of Lansing for men transitioning from foster care, incarceration and homelessness.

Darren Bollinger created the non-profit organization MI Just Cause late last year with the goal of providing housing, job opportunities, and spiritual guidance – all under one roof.

Latest plan: Transform the former addiction-focused Teen Challenge Center at 510 W. Willow Street into a space for men to live and receive vocational training and counseling as they transition to a full-time job and, eventually, a permanent place to call home.

Bollinger, who served as director of the men’s shelter at the City Rescue Mission on Michigan Avenue, believes that local men risk turning to violence when they lack not only safe housing, but also job and counseling opportunities.

“About 40% of the men we saw had never had a male role model in their lives. They never had a father—someone to help lead and guide them,” Bollinger explained last week. “The Bible says iron enacts iron. Everyone needs someone to call you when you’re out of line and have fun with you in times of excitement.”

After months of searching for a location, Bollinger believes that God brought MI Just Cause to the Teen Challenge building through its owner “Discount Dave” Sheets. Sheets, known as Lansing’s Mattress King, owns more than 100 local properties, according to county registries.

Spreadsheets offered the nonprofit group a “generous discount” on a three-year land contract on the property beginning this month, Bollinger said. He declined to reveal additional details about the contractual arrangement, except to stress that the deal was “appropriate” for the group.

Bollinger also readily admitted that the property is much larger than he was initially looking for. With more than 17,000 square feet, 48 bedrooms, a commercial kitchen and a column barn, the start-up costs for the facility’s renovation are estimated to be somewhere between $2 million and $5 million.

The group starts with a $9,900 donation from 242 Church in Okemos, where Bolinger was recently hired as its logistics manager, and is actively looking for more donations.

“I’m the first to admit that this is crazy,” Bollinger said during a brief run. “This was a leap of faith. I know it sounds crazy on paper, but I know God will provide it.”

Before closing in 2017, the Teen Challenge Center had served for more than 60 years as a place to help local teens find housing and recover from substance abuse. The outfit reportedly suffered in its final years of maintenance and financing and was auctioned off by Sheets.

Sheets said he had originally hoped to make some repairs and flip the property around for a big profit, but eventually decided he “owed God” to sell the property to the group for a modest $200,000—a loss of $300,000 in his calculations, because he values ​​the property at about $500,000.

In the hallway, the broken windows are still riddled with bullet holes. Glass is spread inside. The stucco bits have been removed from the bedroom floors, but there are still holes in the ceilings. Paint hangs in sheets from the wall, as a result of a ceiling repair that came too late. The freezing air smelled fishy, ​​as if something had died inside. Long, dark corridors echo from smoke detectors with batteries on the verge of extinction. Bollinger stopped working.

The building also lost its partition status to a refuge after years of vacancy. Currently, MI Just Cause can only allow six residents to stay inside unless the city agrees to a repartition request. Bollinger said he plans to file an application allowing up to 50 men to stay there.

Meanwhile, Bolinger said MI Just Cause will select a small group of men who can begin living on the premises early next month while doubling as an in-house renovation team.

Bollinger said the strength of his nonprofit lies in the members of its board of directors. They include: Zachary Pope, Mark Grafton, Dan Hofstra, Jason Feig and James Keaton. Bollinger said he met Keaton – a former NFL player – while working for the City Rescue Mission.

Keyton also introduced Bolinger to Derrick Knox, co-chair of the campaign Metro Lansing Poor People and director of the employment-focused nonprofit Advancement Corp, which also plans to offer apprenticeships after residents begin moving into the building.

The Knox Group recently purchased CW Otto Middle School to create a community center.

Bolinger plans to work closely with local residents and neighborhood associations as plans begin to emerge together. Officials at MI Just Cause also recently met with Lansing Mayor Andy Shore to explore other rehabilitation services the nonprofit can provide in the new location.

“We’re really digging deep into this neighborhood,” Bollinger said. “We’re really looking forward to adopting the school, shoveling snow and how we can use the kitchen to provide free dinner.”

Although religious guidance is a key component of the plans, Bollinger stressed that biblical advice is entirely optional—which could allow broader access to public funding.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me, our foundation, and the city of Lansing. We are going to do some transformative things for the people and the community,” Bollinger said.

MI Just Cause is a registered 501(c)3 nonprofit organization capable of receiving tax-deductible donations. Bollinger said community support will be key to keeping his plans on track.

“We need everything. We need workers, people who know what they’re doing. We need paint, kitchen utensils, household and household goods. We don’t start with anything,” Bollinger said.

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