Santa Barbara Newspress Features JUVY

Santa Barbara Newspress Features JUVY

Husband-wife team gives time to troubled youths

Published 3/15/05

On Sunday mornings, when other families are heading to church, Mike and Mary Ann Solodon reach for their Bibles and go to Juvenile Hall.

The Solodons, ordained ministers, have made this a weekly ritual for nearly two decades. In that time, they have lent an ear to hundreds of youths and shared stories of their own struggles with drugs and alcohol. The husband-and-wife team has been on a mission to get kids to turn away from lives of crime.
“It’s a very critical time for them right now. If we can grab just one of them, get them out of the system, that’s one less kid going to prison,” said Mr. Solodon, 45. “One of them might be our next senator, a judge or a school teacher.”

The Solodons, members of the Juvenile Hall Ministry, are preparing to extend their reach beyond Santa Barbara and bring their services to Santa Maria’s juvenile detention center, which recently expanded to 90 beds from 50.
More than half of the detainees in Santa Barbara are from the North County. Starting at the end of this month, all juveniles from the north will be held in Santa Maria. Juvenile Hall officials on the South Coast are re-examining the number of Sunday services they will make available to the smaller population in the south.
The Solodons, who live in Goleta, are ready to include northern Santa Barbara County in their ministry, if officials there will make room for them.

“Adult prisons are overflowing, and these young people have so much to offer society,” said Ms. Solodon, 44. “They’re just confused, and some are very angry. Every one of those kids are worth our time and energy.”
Mr. Solodon works at a company that manufactures equipment for semiconductors; Ms. Solodon is the director of children ministries at South Coast Church in Goleta. They have two children, Rebecca, 18, and Joshua, 14.
Convincing unimpressed teenagers to pick up a Bible and pursue a spiritual path is not an easy thing to do, especially when the people doing the talking are the age of their parents. But the Solodons appear to get through to young people in a way that few can.

“They connect with them because the kids sense their realness. They’ve gone through real-life experiences much like their own,” said Al Bolender, probation manager at the Santa Barbara Juvenile Hall. “Mike and Mary Ann inspire hope. That’s a short word, but it’s a real important word.”

The couple spends an hour each Sunday at Juvenile Hall. Mr. Solodon also visits the facility during his lunch hours for one-on-one meetings with the youths, who range in age from 12 to 18. Their crimes stretch from being in a street gang and drug problems to theft and homicide.

Since 2000, the couple has ministered to teens at the Los Prietos Boys Camp on Friday evenings.

The Solodons said they had their own problems with drugs and alcohol growing up in a tough Detroit neighborhood. They have known each other most of their lives and married in their early 20s. In December 1984, Mr. Solodon nearly lost his life when he slammed into a tree while riding down a snow-covered hill on an inner tube. Both had been drinking. Two months later, they quit drugs and alcohol for good and turned to religion.
They don’t lecture — they talk to the detainees in their own language.

“We were total stoners and partiers,” Ms. Solodon tells a group of five boys and three girls gathered for a recent service at Juvenile Hall. “Sin is always fun when it starts, isn’t it?”

The teens, dressed in drab olive coveralls, are a little nervous at first. They don’t answer.

She describes her younger brother who went from a handsome young teen to a hardened drug addict. At 41, he has spent half his life in prison and continues in his downward spiral, she said.

“He dropped his 7-year-old son off at the hospital and said, ‘Your mommy’s in there having a baby,” Ms. Solodon said. “Now this is Detroit, this isn’t Santa Barbara. It’s a big hospital. He left his son and went to a crack house. He didn’t come back for six months.”

She has grabbed their attention.

Ms. Solodon is like a cool big sister, experienced and caring; her husband is soft-spoken and intense.
He asks for volunteers to read a verse from the Bible. The one he has selected is about honoring and obeying one’s parents. Legs begin to jitter and a few raise their hands.

He leads them into a talk about their relationship with their parents; five of the eight youngsters come from single-parent homes.

“Is it easy to talk to them?” he asks.

After an awkward pause, one young man responds: “I don’t know what to say.”

Mr. Solodon asks the group to make believe he is their father. For some, it is a father they rarely see or have never met.

“Please forgive me,” he pleads with them and begins to cry. “I just ask that you find it in your hearts to forgive me.”

At least three of the youths start to cry.

It was Mr. Solodon’s vulnerability that made Joseph Garcia trust him. Mr. Garcia, 23, first met the minister at Juvenile Hall. Then 16, Mr. Garcia was in for a serious crime and is still serving time at a group home. He declined to reveal the nature of the offense.

“Mike wasn’t giving lip service, and it came from the heart,” the Lompoc native said. “Many of my relationships with family and friends were very superficial growing up. He struck me as a person who was there to help and be a friend. For many youths, the hardest thing is trusting people.”

The Solodons continue their ministry despite their own hardships. In August 2003, their daughter Rebecca, then 16, was diagnosed with synovia, a soft-tissue cancer that could have killed her if surgeons hadn’t amputated her left leg below the knee .

“These kids prayed for Rebecca. They still pray for her,” Mr. Solodon said. “They’re like our family.”
Every young person deserves a chance, the Solodons said.

“It’s a privilege to encourage and give them hope,” Ms. Solodon said. “How can you not?”

Both agree that they receive far more from the youths than they give.

“You know why?” Mr. Solodon asked.

“When I’m going through stuff and I need prayer, those kids are there,” he answered. “And when they talk to God, they mean it.”

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