PSR alum brings care, community to at-risk youth

March 16, 2010

Toni DunbarIn 1998, when Toni Dunbar first began her chaplaincy at San Francisco’s Juvenile Hall, she wanted to bring a sense of care and community to the institution. For the first event for the young men at the correctional facility in San Francisco, she threw a full-blown Super Bowl tailgate party—something no one had done at the high-security unit before. Dunbar rolled in a 55-gallon drum barbecue pit; deacons from a nearby church brought salads; ladies wearing hats and gloves toted in homemade desserts; and the group enjoyed an afternoon of football together. “The boys ate until they could fit no more,” Dunbar says, laughing.

The change in pace signaled a different approach to spiritual care and community-building. “Before, there was no fire, no knives, no churchwomen in that unit,” Dunbar says. “The Super Bowl party made an impression with the institution, and so they decided to give me a try. We did things that were innovative, that shattered the mold.”

Since that football Sunday, Dunbar, who earned her Master of Divinity from PSR in 1998 and anticipates completing her Doctor of Ministry this May, has continued her unorthodox ministry and community work. She chaperoned incarcerated youth as they performed a gospel concert for the city’s mayor, invited people of all faiths to participate in the spiritual environment at the detention center, and created plans for the young men and women to develop a safety net—complete with social services and concerned church members—after they were released. “We normalized a community for the kids,” she says. “We gave them something trustworthy in terms of spiritual care.”

Now Dunbar operates an evening reporting center, where young men are assigned instead of being incarcerated. The alternative to detention centers provides a normalized, not punishing, environment for the youth to eat a hot meal, learn life skills such as anger management, participate in educational programs, and go on field trips. “A lot of apathy can set in for a youngster whose world doesn’t include caring deeply for others,” Dunbar says. “Our goal is to restore that compassion, improve their performance at school, help them learn about their roles in society, and have a little fun.”

Dunbar has found that her approach not only reflects her faith, but gets results, too. “We partnered with the system to bring a new element into the correctional institutions, an element of care in the tender loving sense of word, based on model we have in Christ. There’s no proselytizing, just loving,” Dunbar says. “They respond when they realize that not only do you love them, you like them.”