Jacqui Strothoff and Teen Challenge
By Fred Comella
Politicians will come and go and the talk about what’s wrong in our nation and why can be the topic of some very contentious back and forth these days. This year’s presidential election certainly highlighted the ideological and polarizing differences in America when it comes to how to fix the brokenness in our free republic. Notwithstanding Election 2016, I think it’s fair to say one doesn’t have to look or travel very far to find examples of those less fortunate or struggling with issues of addiction and abuse, be they those of their own making, or byproducts of broken families, decimated neighborhoods, and crime ridden inner cities, (though in many instances I believe much of this is intertwined). The one thing I’ve learned for certain in my own journey is that no matter your opinions or political stripes, without Jesus Christ at the center of any talk of solutions, the rest is simply political pandering or just plain news media bluster.
Now I’ve interacted a fair amount with the downtrodden in our society throughout my career, and it’s been my experience that the saddest of all these unfortunate situations, whether they are the result of abuse, addiction, poverty, or a combination of life’s blows which have brought folks to their absolute bottom, has been when they involve our young people, and more specifically and especially, young women. Having been raised in a home with two loving parents, I was schooled from an early age in the indisputable value of the nuclear family as well as the unique and critical role of women in a Judeo-Christian culture such as ours. In the most basic sense, they are the center of our family universe, and the literal birth of all that we are. Thus to turn on the flat screen these days and be witness to the denigration and outright mistreatment of God’s most beautiful creation has always been one of my most difficult of human quandaries. In the interest of perspective however, while I personally believe family is fundamentally and foundationally advantageous to the success of our posterity, it is by no means a guarantee of that success. You will understand why I say this as you read on.
Say what you will about why God’s children find themselves in the predicaments they do, or debate the great solutions of pontificating old men and out of touch politicians who simply have no understanding of a homeless and abused teenager, addicted to drugs and searching for help, often in the most rancid and dangerous of places. But I submit to you, I’ve witnessed with my own eyes the life changing and rescuing power of Jesus Christ in these situations. I’ve spoken directly to those who provide for that message with the most experienced, heartfelt, and spiritual intentions. Even more importantly, they do these things with the knowledge that only by way of a Christ centered approach to our most difficult moments of despair, may we raise up our families and wrestle back our failing societies from the evil one who seeks to destroy them at their very root.
Sorry my friends, but this is not melodrama. It is rather, an issue near and dear to my heart. And I’ve been astounded and quite frankly relieved over the past six years or so, to learn of and be in awe of the “Teen Challenge” networks around Southern New England and the invaluable work they do. The caring and spiritual guidance they offer is clearly making a difference like no ridiculous “midnight basketball” or other politically motivated program ever could. I’m certain of it. Now I’ve written pretty extensively about the efforts of organizations like “Teen Challenge New England & New Jersey”, and the history of Founder David Wilkerson’s journey from “The Cross and the Switchblade” to Teen Challenge outreach up and down the East Coast and across the country. But today I want to tell you about retiring Director of “Teen Challenge Rhode Island, Women’s Campus”, Jacqueline Strothoff. I say retiring but that’s not entirely accurate. Jacqui, (pronounced Jackie), is not so much retiring as she is moving on in her journey with Christ. Like many of us who are saved, Jacqui understands that road is never-ending, and when “He” puts a task on your heart, you get in gear, no matter the time, place, or any other mitigating factor…
So before I tell you of my interview with this amazing woman, let me first tell you that the easiest way to understand the success of Teen Challenge is to understand, its make-up is primarily a culmination of its success stories. And Jacqui’s story is most certainly a testament to the miracles Teen Challenge performs via Christ and the Holy Spirit.
Jacqui was gracious enough to give me a few moments, as her time at the helm of Teen Challenge Rhode Island has drawn to a close, and she is obviously very busy ensuring organizational continuity while preparing for the next phase of her journey with the Lord. Her story is heartwarming and utterly terrifying all in the same miracle, and it will leave you with no doubt of our Saviors commitment to us, and His undying love even when we’re at the end of our human ability to cope.
Born in Pittsburgh PA, now 68 year-old Jacqui Strothoff was the oldest of six children and went astray. At a very tender age, she learned that prescription drugs could numb the pain of her emotional struggles. Like so many other young people in distress, Jacqui even attempted suicide and later sought solace and comfort in all the wrong places. Teenage romance would lead to rejection and an eventual secret marriage to an abusive boyfriend. That physical abuse culminated in a beating so vicious, it resulted in the loss of unborn twins, and a subsequent infection that doctors told Jacqui, left her unable to ever have children in the future. She was devastated and just 17 years old.
Returning home to parents struggling to understand how to help her, Jacqui would try to start anew and went off to college. It was there however that she found heroin, a crushing and deadly burden that engulfed her with frightening speed, and which she would carry for nearly 12 years. During those years she would beg, borrow, and steal whatever she could to supply her growing addiction, even resorting to prostitution, brazen robberies, and sophisticated schemes of criminal deception to acquire drugs from her local pharmacy. On one occasion, deep in the throes of a night of shooting up drugs, Jacqui awoke to the coldness of her boyfriend’s lifeless body. He’d died of a massive overdose sometime during the night. Lost in a mind numbing high, Jacqui and another friend, fearing the police would confiscate their drugs, buried the body in a nearby construction site. Police did eventually discover the crime and Jacqui was charged with a lessor crime, but then committed to a mental institution for the criminally insane. Released to her own devises once again, as doctors could not accurately diagnose her illness, Jacqui moved into an apartment and essentially picked up where she’d left off. Her downward and deadly spiral into the arms of a waiting Savior was not yet over.
Jacqui’s brother Roger would pay her a visit one day not long after her release, just to check on his older sister. It was during that visit she asked him if he wanted to “try some”. Roger agreed to try the drugs and Jacqui proceeded to inject her brother with cocaine. He immediately began to convulse and stopped breathing. 19 year-old Roger died in his sister’s arms, right there on the front porch.
The horror and emotional turmoil, along with twelve years of drug addiction, had finally driven Jacqui to participate in every rehabilitation effort presented to her, as she desperately but unsuccessfully struggled to break the chains of dependency. Those years were devastating and she was committed several more times to psychiatric hospitals and incarcerated for various criminal offenses.
During one of those stays in a psychiatric hospital in 1974, Jacqui met her father’s friend “Frank”, who presented her with a book about a teen’s struggle with addiction and the healing power of Jesus Christ. On the back of that book was the phone number for “Teen Challenge”. Jacqui did not connect the dots and thought little of it. She called the number nevertheless and spoke with a welcoming voice that seemed eager to help. “Say the words and I’m forgiven, seems easy enough”, she recalled. Still uncommitted and uninspired, Jacqui did eventually go to the programs headquarters and immediately felt she’d made a mistake. She ran for the door and asked to leave. However the program administrators asked Jacqui, ever so politely, if they might pray with her for the night, and that if she still felt she wanted to leave in the morning, she could. With zero to lose that was Jacqui’s plan. She’d be on that bus come sun up. The Lord Jesus Christ had very different plans for young Jacqui however…
She described to me, “a fire”, which began in the pit of her stomach and raced at light speed through her body. As her protectors prayed over her, young Jacqui Strothoff was transformed and literally rescued from the clutches of the evil that very night. And so began a new life in Christ for this wounded soul, as well as the realization, that no one is beyond Him or His power to save them.
Jacqui would complete the program, and aspire to be one of its leaders, as is available to graduates in the form of an apprenticeship should they choose. She entered New Life for Girls, a one year Christian residential discipleship program in Pennsylvania. From there, she enrolled in a ministerial training program at Rev. David Wilkerson’s Twin Oaks Leadership Academy in Texas, where she met her husband, Bob. They spent the next several years working in Teen Challenge centers across the country and then settled in Springfield, Missouri where Jacqui earned a degree in social work from Southwest Missouri State College.
There would still be hills to climb, but Jacqui told me that after the night of “the fire”, she felt nothing or no one was in control of her life any longer except Jesus, and she was able to put her addiction in the past without withdrawal or regret. The saving power of the Holy Spirit was in her, and in complete control.
Since those days, Jacqui has come far. She has ably served the Lord in a variety of capacities in churches and ministries from coast to coast. Her life and testimony have impacted thousands of lives that were spiraling out of control as hers had been. Jacqui would centralize that experience and skill once more though, realizing to fruition, what God had put on her heart back when she was still in the early stages of His saving grace. In her deepest prayers for her future, Jacqui remembered God telling her she’d lead a mission someday, specifically tailored for women struggling in the same types of horrific circumstances that almost took her life. And so it was, that in 1994 she founded and led to this day, Teen Challenge RI, Women’s Campus in Providence. As I wrote earlier, I’m not sure I can think of a better way to secure God’s future for His people, than by providing for young women in crisis all around us every day. They ARE our future…
As I wrapped up with Jacqui, I asked why she was leaving the cause that so changed her life and so many she’d touched over the years. She explained that she wasn’t leaving so much as she was responding to God’s calling once again, and that he wanted her to take her experiences to even more people by resurrecting a ministry she and her late husband had founded not long after they met, called, “In His Presence”. She added that her efforts would even include writing a book that would put in print for all to read, her life’s struggle, her Savior, and how it all worked for His glory in the end.
Jacqui chuckled as I suggested she was “taking her show on the road”. She also reminded me of the ongoing and important work at Teen Challenge, and we talked about how they are always in need of our support. As we closed our conversation, she told me of her Son Justin and daughter Chelsea, and how they and her grandchildren Jaxon and Bryson are the true testimony to His unimaginable power. I paused in stunned amazement for a moment… remembering the words of her doctors so many years earlier… Well, I suppose they may not have known, “With God, nothing shall be impossible.” Luke 1:37
God bless you Jacqui, and be well as your journey continues….
Please support “Adult and Teen Challenge Rhode Island Women’s Campus” located at 572 Elmwood Avenue,
Providence, Rhode Island 02907 401-467-2970. They are an amazing group of people!