By Justin Dawes
It’s midnight, and after a long day and two hours on the phone with a student he had mentored, 23-year-old GRCC student Benjamin McClellan finally lies down to sleep. About to drift into a slumber, he is pulled back when he hears a loud knock at the door. Standing at the door crying his eyes out is a young boy of eleven, one of the many neighborhood kids of the ghetto where McClellan had recently purchased a rundown house.
He asks what is wrong, and the boy, through gasps of air, manages to get out, “I stabbed my sister’s baby-daddy in the stomach.”
Such an experience was very different from what McClellan knew before moving to Grand Rapids. He did have an unusual childhood, but he learned valuable lessons along the way, and these lessons are what he uses to deal with situations as this.
McClellan grew up unlike most kids. He never went to a school a day in his life. Instead, his father believed in teaching important values and life skills, so that is what he did for Benjamin and his eight brothers and sisters. But everything he knows, he can apply.
What was different about his education is that he uses all the knowledge he gained. “Everything I know, I can apply,” McClellan said.
“It was a form of education that is completely bizarre to the way we think.” But he learned to read and he had math skills.
He didn’t really know anyone in his childhood other than his parents and siblings and verbally abusive grandmother who lived with the family for a short while. It was hard at times being with all the same people throughout the first part of his life, but Benjamin said, “You learn to love and have relationships.”
After 21 years as a computer programmer, his father decided he didn’t enjoy what he was doing, and he quit his job and the family moved into a travel trailer, where they lived for a year and a half, travelling all over the country.
There wasn’t much money, so the family survived on rice and lentils and each other’s company. “All of us ate with forks out of the same bowl,” said McClellan. One time, the family ran out of toilet paper, so his father made them use rags.
They stopped in Florida for nine months, where they lost a lot of money in the farming of watermelons and tomatoes.
The McClellan family then ended up in Ohio for three years, living in a cabin with no electricity. For light, they used old lanterns and candles.
While in Ohio, they received a newspaper with an advertisement about a log home business being sold in Michigan. His father felt this was a great opportunity, and they decided to purchase part of the business. This took them to Ludington, Michigan, where the family has been living ever since.
The family moved into the house that was on the business’ property. Unfortunately, it caught fire and burned down, and the family moved into the barn on the property. They have been making repairs and slowly turning it into a house for the past three years.
The four oldest brothers, including Benjamin, worked alongside their father. “It was a lot at times, but it taught me to be responsible,” McClellan said, regarding how he felt about the child labor. He worked with his father, building railings and furniture, as well as doing odd constructions jobs, until he decided to make a big life change at 21 years old.
McClellan always wanted a house of his own, and in 2009, he got it. He purchased a foreclosed home needing much care in the ghetto of Grand Rapids. The house lacked water, gas, and plumbing, but McClellan and his brother Jason moved in anyway. They did without water for two months and without gas and plumbing for the first six months.
In the meantime, Benjamin and his brother felt inspired to set apart one bedroom of the house for a man who had lost his way. They were hosts of three men, each living there for several months, all at separate times. Each of the men were unhappy with how their lives had been going—they had been in out of jail, had dealt with drugs of some form, gangs, murder—but they all made it clear they wanted a change.
McClellan believes that with his positive reinforcement, the first two men really made progress. He helped the first man see how badly he was addicted to cocaine and how it was ruining his life and almost his marriage. He recalls how the man “was boggled by the fact there was a house occupied by people who were completely against drugs in a place where they were sold all around.”
McClellan believes the second man, an ex gangster from Los Angeles, had a realization that the life of “wickedness” he had been living was not normal and not ok.
Although the third man talked as if he wanted a change, his addictions overpowered him, and he took advantage of the members of the household, stealing many expensive things before finally leaving.
However, this story really begins on the first day of repairs to the house when Benjamin became acquainted with some neighborhood boys who would influence and inspire him in a way he did not expect.
Back when McClellan had first moved into the house, his family and friends and he began making repairs. He recalls the day in his blog: “The banging and bashing attracted about ten of the neighborhood boys… My mom took a break from her vigorous cleaning and said, ‘Do you strong boys want to help?’ Their reply in unison was, ‘Yes!’”
They boys’ faces became more and more familiar around the McClellan house, and McClellan soon gained knowledge of some of their situations and lifestyles, which were very different from his own.
Being homeschooled his whole life, McClellan did not have much experience with other people, especially not those from the ghetto. One main aspect he noticed about the culture is the strong discouragement from succeeding in life.
These ideas are stressed to the children from the time they are small, and if they try to make something of themselves, they are ridiculed that they are trying to “act white,” or they think they are “too good for welfare.” “Most of the people are able to work, but they don’t want to,” McClellan said.
It is known that having children will make individuals more qualified for state welfare, so some people will have many children to be able to receive more money. There are people in McClellan’s neighborhood who are part of these large families, some having eight or nine children.
There is one neighborhood man who talked to McClellan about welfare, saying he is on disability because he cannot turn his neck the whole rotation
He noticed how much everyone pulls each other down, rather than building up. “Even complementing makes people think you’re trying to look good,” said McClellan.
But knowing the children are capable of so much more, he could not help but intervene. He opened his house to them as “a place to run to.” McClellan started taking the kids to church with him, and now it has become a regular event. He picks them up every Sunday morning and drives them to the church. Following the service, everyone goes back to the house, where they make lunch together and spend time with another church member and the neighborhood children he mentors.
“We have dinner every Sunday and the kids learn how to cook.” The house quickly became known as “Ben and Jason’s House” among the neighborhood kids.
Besides teaching them how to cook, McClellan said, “We like to teach them life skills.” They will often build things together; it maybe just a box or something simple, but he does it just for the sake of teaching them crafting skills. They also assist is making a fire in the wood stove. The goal is to teach responsibility, just as his father taught him as a child.
That night the boy knocked on the door crying because of the stabbing, McClellan sat him down and waited for him to start talking. The boy said he was scared and ashamed; he just stabbed the man and ran. They talked about forgiveness. He let the boy know there was someone there for him; he was not alone.
“None of that culture knows about forgiveness,” said McClellan. “It’s eye for eye, tooth for tooth. If you’re angry, you stab with a knife.”
But McClellan wants to teach them there is a difference between right and wrong; there is morality in this world. And he wants them to know they are worth something; they can go further in life than they have ever been told.
McClellan would not think of his house as a ministry or anything of that sort. “I don’t want people to think these kids are a project,” he said. “They’re not. These are boys I love, and I want to change their lives. It’s about relationships. We’re not heroes. We’re just people who are doing what is right—just normal people,” said McClellan.
One of the children who spend time at the house, ten-year-old Carl Jones, said he enjoys everything they do. “We cook stuff. We build stuff. We split wood. We go to Ludington.”
Ludington is where McClellan’s family lives, and he sometimes takes the neighborhood children when he goes to visit. That is where Jones met McClellan’s ten-year-old brother, and they have since become good friends.
Referring to Jones, McClellan said, “He’s just a sweet and innocent kid. He seems so untouched by the world he lives in.”
Jones is one of nine children. McClellan says he is lucky, though. He is one child whose mother really does love her children, but that cannot be said of all the mothers in his neighborhood.
Jones is not the only one who has felt affection towards the family. McClellan recalls one Sunday evening when he found this to be true. They had eaten and it was getting late; McClellan said, “Alright, everyone. It’s time to go home.” “But we are home!” shouted Jay, a neighborhood child he mentors.
It is through his work as Vice Chair of the Hope Project that inspired him to show compassion for the young boys. According to the organization’s website, “The Hope Project began in 2005 as an outreach program to educate and inform the community about the issue of human trafficking.” There is a long-term rehabilitative home scheduled to open in Muskegon. It will provide “shelter, education, counseling, and case management services.”
McClellan believes it is important to fight human trafficking at the core, and that happens by teaching young boys how to behave.
“If you teach a boy to be a man, that stops human trafficking. If a boy is a real man, he will not abuse others or allow others to abuse him,” McClellan said.
He tries to instill this thought into their heads in even the simplest of activities. Following a Sunday meal, he asked one of the kids, Kyle, to help with dishes. When he complained, McClellan said, “Being mature means understanding that sometimes you have to do things you don’t want to do. Sometimes I don’t want to go to school, but I do anyway because I have to.”
Though McClellan’s current situation is not what he had in mind when moving to Grand Rapids, the relationships he has created with children just looking to be loved are more rewarding that he could have imagined.