Onward Christian Sara

Orlando Weekly/September 26, 2002
By Jeffrey C. Billman

Walk through the doors of the House of Hope's south Orlando facility and you immediately come face-to-face with the Christian right's unofficial trinity: two 1980s-era pictures of President Ronald Reagan flanking a painting of Jesus. Just below that is a copy of House of Hope director Sara Trollinger's new book, "Unglued & Tattooed: How to Save Your Teen from Raves, Ritalin, Goth, Body Carving, GHB, Sex, and 12 Other Emerging Threats," along with directions on how to buy it ($21.95, major credit cards accepted).

Down the hall are more pictures: Trollinger with Gov. Jeb Bush; Trollinger with President George W. Bush; Trollinger with Rich DeVos; Trollinger with Beverly LaHaye (wife of Tim LaHaye, co-author of the apocalyptic "Left Behind" best sellers).

Since House of Hope opened nearly two decades ago, Trollinger, a former school teacher and juvenile-justice worker, has seen her star rise in the faith-based movement thanks to her high-profile work with troubled teens. Her formula is simple -- religion, chores, school, counseling and more religion -- but it has made her the case study of how Christianity can be applied to heal social ills.

She doesn't seek or accept state or federal funding because the money couldn't be used to proselytize and would come with a ban on hiring discrimination. But there are political heavy hitters, including President Bush and Orlando congressman Ric Keller, who'd like to see those rules changed. They want to give religious groups more access to federal money with fewer strings attached. The U.S. House of Representatives already passed a bill to that effect, though the Senate killed it. Now, the Senate is working up its own, more moderate version of faith-based legislation, but House conservatives have vowed to kill it because they think it doesn't go far enough.

If conservatives get their way, look for groups like House of Hope, and leaders like Trollinger, to be at the head of the line for federal dollars. And that makes Orlando's homegrown, faith-based phenomenon worth a look.

A Guiding Light

Sara Elizabeth Trollinger is a tall woman who favors crisp business suits in dark, conservative colors. She speaks softly, smiles broadly, and walks with a distinct sense of urgency and importance.

She grew up in Ashboro, N.C., in a strict, Methodist household. By her own admission she was never a rebel; no drugs, no sex, no swearing.

Trollinger earned a bachelor's degree in elementary education in 1955 from the University of North Carolina. After graduating she taught grade-schoolers for one year in Washington, D.C., and four years in Winston-Salem before moving to Florida. Her first job here was teaching handicapped kids in Orange County schools while working on a master's degree in elementary education, which she earned from the University of Florida in 1967. Trollinger spent two decades teaching elementary kids and, later, the emotionally handicapped at Kaley Elementary and Stonewall Jackson Junior High, respectively.

Beyond that basic biographical sketch, Trollinger doesn't offer much more about her personal life. She bristles when asked her age (she's 69) and is particularly reticent to address her long-ago, one-year marriage to a doctor in North Carolina, saying only that she chalks up the divorce to "different goals." She does say that she was born again at a Billy Graham crusade at the University of North Carolina in her freshman year.

After teaching for 25 years, she retired in 1985 and worked briefly at the Orange County Juvenile Detention Center, which she describes in her book as a "revolving door." The problem, as she saw it, was that God was absent from juvenile justice.

She didn't know what to do, so she prayed. When she got an answer, it was very specific: "The Lord told me in a prayer to start a place and call it House of Hope." Trollinger says. The Lord also told her to seek a grant, she says, and specified the amount -- $95,000.

Trollinger and four friends pooled their resources -- a meager $200 -- and started looking for property. They found two adjacent houses for sale on 30th Street in south Orlando. But the $117,000 asking price was far beyond their means. Miraculously, the seller called back and lowered her price to $95,000.

She didn't have the money, but she said she'd take it anyway.

The next day she received a letter from the Edyth Bush Charitable Foundation of Winter Park. Trollinger got her $95,000 grant. She took it as God's endorsement of her work.

House of Hope opened in May, 1985, as a center for troubled girls. In 1995 she moved the operation to a 10-acre lakefront plot on 36th Street in Orlando. She paid $250,000 for the property. In 1997, she started accepting boys into the program.

Today there are 10 buildings on site including a gym, dorms and a cross-shaped administration building. Across the lake, fittingly enough, is the 33rd Street jail, a constant reminder what happens if her clients stray from the straight and narrow. Saving Souls Inc.

Trollinger's work has put her at the head of an emerging empire. Last year she created National House of Hope Inc., a nonprofit designed to foster centers similar to the Orlando facility across the country. There are 13 planned or already-running House of Hope affiliates in places like Jacksonville and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, plus smaller burgs like Clayton, N.C., and Jasper, Ga. Thirty-two unaffiliated House of Hope copycats have also opened, Trollinger boasts.

By 2010 she wants a House of Hope within driving range of every major American city.

Here in Orlando she purchased and renovated the defunct J.J. Whispers nightclub on Lee Road; in November, Trollinger plans to open the Last Wave, a "light club" for young Christians.

The Orlando House of Hope is incorporated under the name Fellowship of Faith Ministries Inc. According to tax records from 2000, Fellowship of Faith has a $1.5 million annual budget, $665,000 of which comes from direct support, with another $215,000 from in-kind donations.

Her organization has very generous benefactors. Individual contributions from her six biggest givers range from $25,000 to $75,000. (It's impossible to tell who gave the money as names on the tax documents are blanked out.)

House of Hope holds an annual "humanitarian dinner," a fund-raiser at which Trollinger names a humanitarian of the year. In 2000 the dinner pulled in more than $264,000.

She also runs the House of Hope Thrift Shoppe on South Orange Avenue, which reported $175,450 in profit for 2000. She pays herself an annual salary of $42,667 and has 37 employees. (Tax records for National House of Hope Inc., which Trollinger incorporated in April 2001, aren't yet available.)

Income from parents paying to put their kids in House of Hope covers about 11 percent of the costs of running the place. Trollinger wouldn't say how much she charges per student.

It's a very successful operation. "I still don't know where all the money's coming from," says Trollinger in a videotaped welcome she shows to guests. "But God's always been faithful."

The Good Books

Trollinger doesn't book a lot of time for interviews. So the best way to get a perspective on her theories of healing troubled teens is to read her books, which include Breakthrough: How to Listen to the Lord and Faith for Today and Hope for Tomorrow.

Her latest, Unglued, published by Lifeline Press in 2001 and endorsed by Gov. Jeb Bush (whose wife, Columba, is on Trollinger's advisory board), is a 183-page tome that starts with a curious chapter on the long-dead Orlando rave scene:

"Clubs like Firestone know how to pack them in, and they do so by creating an otherworldly atmosphere that begins with brilliant and mood-altering lighting and is underscored by pulsating, frenetic music. These nightclubs also turn a blind eye to underage drinking, drug taking, and sex in the bathrooms ... "

She also takes on clothing fads, advising parents that unusual forms of dress or self-expression are to be viewed skeptically. (Goth kids, she adds, are inclined toward drugs, horror movies and perhaps Satanism.)

Trollinger tempers her outlook with a dose of reality: "The answer is not banning those clothes," she instructs. "You have to get to the root of the problem, which could be feeling rejection from you, not spending enough time with you, dealing with hurts in her life, or trying to find an alternative way to get attention."

Pop music -- particularly rap -- gets a tongue-lashing, too. She writes: "Rappers, in their stylized monotone, jive-talk about 'bustin' bitches' and 'hos,' and employ street terms to describe oral sex, anal sex, and rape. They put down anything that's good, and they glorify cop killing and drug dealing. Kids lap it up because it's antiauthority."

In a chapter called "Still Throwing Up After All These Years," Trollinger asserts that nightclubs gladly sell to underage drinkers. To keep kids off the booze, she suggests parental role-playing:

"Dad: Hey, Billy, wanna go drinking?

Son: Nah, I don't think so.

Dad: What's the matter? Are you chicken?

Son: No, I just don't want to.

Dad: You're going to miss out on a lot of fun.

Son: That's okay.

Dad: Everyone will be there.

Son: I don't care. I'll be doing the right thing."

On Faith

The idea behind government money for faith-based organizations is simple: Social services are more effective when taken with a dose of religion. Whether battling drugs, homelessness or poverty, faith-based groups try to treat the cause along with the symptoms.

And there might be evidence that the approach works.

"As a general rule, faith-based groups appear to be as effective as [secular] groups," says Doug Koopman, director of the Center for Social Research at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. Then again, no definitive study -- one that compares similar secular and religious programs -- has been done.

There's also a problem in defining success. In drug treatment, for example, is success defined as the percentage of people who graduate from a program or the percentage who stay clean? If the latter is the benchmark, how do you track that?

Trollinger claims a 95 percent success rate, as in 95 percent of her kids graduate from the program. But there's no way to verify the claim. Assuming it's true, there's no way to know how many stay off drugs and out of trouble. And if her program is that successful, would a secular program using the same techniques have the same results?

"The bottom line is, we don't know what difference religion makes," says University of Arizona sociology professor Mark Chaves, who specializes in sociology and religion. "To interpret [Trollinger's] 95 percent, I'll bet there's major selectivity."

Like parochial schools, some faith-based groups screen their applicants to see who will do best, says Chaves. (Trollinger says she accepts everyone except pregnant girls and the emotionally handicapped.)

"Personally, I'm skeptical," Chaves says. "If these are easy cases that's a key factor."

Many of those cases come to Trollinger's program via the courts, though neither House of Hope nor the Ninth Judicial Circuit will say what the percentage is. If a troubled teen faces probation, a juvenile-court judge can make the House of Hope or a similar program part of it, if the parents so desire.

"Sometimes the programs use [the court order] as an additional thing to hang over the kids heads," says a former juvenile probation officer who asked not to be named. If Trollinger kicks them out, they've violated the terms of their probation. In one instance Trollinger used that threat to her advantage, says the administrator.

A teen-age girl, court-ordered to House of Hope, had done particularly well in the program and Trollinger had her speak publicly about her experience. But when the girl's mother wanted her to come home, Trollinger said no.

"The program did not want to let her go," the probation officer says. "In my opinion, they were using her as a promotional tool. This would not be a place I would send my child."

Despite its religious roots, House of Hope does many things that meet the approval of secular therapists.

It's an on-campus program, so kids are largely removed from the environment that got them into trouble in the first place. No indecent movies or rock music -- except 1950s tunes Trollinger deems safe -- and no problematic peers.

Teens are also kept busy. A typical day begins at 6:30 a.m. with devotions, followed by chores, breakfast, school, lunch, school, more chores, counseling, a nighttime activity, then bedtime at 9:30 p.m.

Trollinger also forces parents to get involved in their childs' treatment. Parents must agree to attend church, weekly parenting classes, hour-long counseling sessions every week, and two-hour visits with their child every Sunday afternoon.

Tax Money at Work

Faith-based funding became law under the 1996 Welfare Reform Act -- pushed by then-Sen. John Ashcroft -- and opened the door for religious groups to compete for federal social-service money that serves welfare clients.

Prior to 1996, religious organizations could obtain federal funds by establishing a separate, nonprofit company devoid of religious aspects. But under the 1996 law, the church itself could now seek federal money if it was willing to meet certain sanctions: no proselytizing, no refusing clients and no hiring discrimination. Many churches opted out.

When President Bush took office, he sought to expand the program exponentially. Moreover, he wanted to allow groups that take federal money to discriminate in whom they hire, even if such discrimination is blocked by local or state laws.

In July 2001, the House of Representatives gave him what he wanted. Its proposal allowed religious groups to proselytize as long as they did not force recipients to attend worship services or convert. But the bill was mired in controversy. The left predictably fretted about church-state implications, while conservatives such as Pat Robertson worried about religious groups they didn't like getting money. The bill died in the Senate.

Earlier this year, Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) worked a compromise with Bush. The so-called "CARE Act" would throw out the controversial elements of the Bush plan and instead give additional tax incentives for charitable donations.

House Republicans think Lieberman's compromise is too watered down and want restrictions on discrimination lifted. They've threatened to kill the Senate bill if it passes.

"I would like to see organizations like Sara's have access to federal dollars," says Congressman Keller, who sits on the House committee that oversees faith-based legislation. "The president wants organizations to compete based on how successful they are. Sara has about the best faith-based organization for helping runaway and hurting teens. There's a lot of love there."

Keller is so impressed by Trollinger that he used some of her kids in his first campaign commercial. Her advisory board is the only private board to which he donates his time.

He recognizes that there would be some restrictions to the federal money. Trollinger couldn't use it, for instance, specifically to proselytize. Instead, Keller says, she could use government money to pay her teachers and money from other sources to teach religion.

It's a work-around church-state separation, but Keller thinks success is the bottom line. "My whole thing is, give money to successful organizations," he says. "Don't use it to proselytize, use it to do the need-based charity we want you to do."

Some church-state experts doubt, however, that organizations like House of Hope could ever legally compete for federal dollars because they are so deeply rooted in a particular religious doctrine.

Trollinger herself proclaims that religions other than Christianity have no place at the House of Hope. Last year, when Congress was probing the possibilities of further funding faith-based groups, Trollinger testified on Capitol Hill. A lawmaker asked her, "Would you hire a Muslim?"

"I said, 'No.' We are an unabashedly Christian organization," Trollinger recalls. "Everything we teach is based on Christian principles."

Open and Closed

Another issue is access and accountability. Private, nonprofit groups like the House of Hope can tightly control the information that gets out to the public, something Orlando Weekly confronted while reporting this story.

When we asked to meet and talk to some of the teens in the program, we were directed to a pair selected by the staff and given only a half hour to talk to both. The interview was monitored by a staff member.

Though we began researching this story in August, we received an e-mail Sept. 12 from Laura Montgomery, Trollinger's assistant, indicating that Trollinger no longer wanted to cooperate for the story. Montgomery offered no explanation other than "policy and procedural changes."

Trollinger herself denied the paper access to a training seminar she hosted the week of Sept. 12, though earlier she touted the event as evidence of the growing influence of her organization.

Her reluctance to open House of Hope to public scrutiny is understandable. Tight control, after all, is a benefit of private funding.

But the lack of access also means that the public must accept on faith her methods and results. "I think we're a model because of our belief in being a ministry of excellence," she says. "We're living up to that name. Other places recognize that."

When, and if, governmental dollars get funneled to places like House of Hope, access and accountability will certainly become an issue.

During our first -- and last -- chat with Trollinger, she abruptly ended the conversation, explaining her 30-minute interview rule. We'd already gone over, she explained, and she needed to go.

Before leaving the room, however, she offered a last admonishment: "Let that light shine," she said with her characteristic broad smile. "You know what I'm talking about. The love of Jesus."

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