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MILLERSBURG -- Andy Shafer said he's got to remind himself to stop saying "it just so happened ..."
Because, at this point in his life, he is certain that nothing is happenstance.
There were a few times in the past several years, he admitted, when he became discouraged. But then, Schafer said, "I kept going back to 'God wanted me to do it'."
What God wants Shafer to do, he wholeheartedly believes, is provide a youth center to the teens of Holmes County. And while it took a while to put the project in motion, nearly everything that has happened in the last two years, Shafer said, "has just fallen into place. God's taken care of everything."
Most days, Shafer can be found in downtown Millersburg, working here and there inside two Jackson Street storefronts that offer a view of the Holmes County Courthouse. That building, Shafer said, was where he spent some time during his formative years.
Shafer, now the director of the nonprofit H15 Ministries, was raised in a Christian home and was homeschooled there with his brother. But he "hated school with a passion," he said, so once he finished eighth grade, he dropped out and started working construction jobs with his father.
But as a teen with a driver's license and time on his hands and no longer sheltered by his parents, Shafer said he started running with the wrong crowd. And though he never drank, smoked or did drugs, he found he had a whole other addiction -- shoplifting.
At 16, he was arrested after running away to Arizona in a car he was in the process of buying from his parents. Back in Ohio, the shoplifting continued and escalated to breaking and entering when Shafer broke into a gun shop south of Charm and stole weapons.
Finally, he got caught.
"The first thing that went through my mind was relief, because I had been so terrified of getting caught," Shafer said. He confessed to everything and was sentenced to two years in prison, which was suspended in favor of time in the Knox County Jail, five years of probation, a fine and community service.
The pendulum swung the other way. "I went to the flip side," Shafer said, "to being neurotic. If I found a quarter on the floor, I wouldn't pick it up."
Still, he said, "I was staying clean, but I wasn't living a Christian life by any means." Shafer, who was divorced, married a second time and when his eldest daughter was born, his wife, Tammy, said she wanted to raise her in the church. But when she suggested he join her at Millersburg Baptist Church, his response was, "no Baptists. No way. No how."
But after he met the pastor at the church's booth at the Holmes County Fair, Shafer decided to give it a try. It was there the couple first started working with youth. The small group grew and Shafer said he found many of the newcomers were "kids from not great home situations." The couple's work was noticed by Duane Galbraith, pastor at Gateway Fellowship and also a chaplain at West Holmes High School. Galbraith suggested Shafer join him in the chaplaincy program, where he could continue his work with local teens.
But first, Shafer had to clean up his criminal record. Twenty-one years after his first arrest, he went back to the same attorney for help having his record expunged. And during the hearing, visiting Judge David Stucki told Shafer, "I want you to understand that God has made you uniquely qualified to help these kids."
Shafer saw lots of teens who were struggling, needed answers and wanted help. The ministry became known as H15 Ministries, for the verse in Habakkuk 1:5, "Look among the nations and see; wonder and be astounded. For I am doing work in your days that you would not believe if told."
As time passed, Shafer's desire to create a youth center grew.
At first, Shafer considered new construction on some acreage behind the Holmes County Library. But then, someone suggested there were three storefronts right downtown that had been owned by the late Jerry Hoxworth and had been passed on to his three surviving sons. He took a tour on New Year's Eve 2015, he said, "mostly in the dark and with pocket flashlights."
It was a great opportunity, Shafer said, but there was a problem. "We didn't have any money, zero, not a dime. And we couldn't ask for money, because we weren't yet incorporated."
While the incorporation was completed in February of 2016, the money was slow in coming, as Shafer said many of the businesses he contacted were willing to help, but only after the center was open.
So, instead of purchasing the buildings, he and the building's owners agreed to a lease that gives the organization five years to purchase the property. And one storefront has been leased to a small business for the next few years, which gives Shafer and H15 time to concentrate on the renovation of the other two.
The first phase of the project will include a game room, hobby stations and space for tutoring, counseling and mentoring. Following that will be a donation-based cafe run by teens, who also can take advantage of job and life skills training. And on the second floor, Shafer said he plans to offer a staffed emergency shelter for youth in crisis situations who now end up in juvenile detention in Richard County, even though they have committed no crime.
And how is this all getting accomplished? Volunteers and donations, which Shafer said are coming from everywhere. Fourteen local churches have sent work crews, businesses have donated materials and services. When there's a need, Shafer said, a check comes in the mail or a helping hand is offered.
Shafer said he'd like to have the first phase ready to open this summer, "but I've tried to quit shooting for an opening date." But it will happen, of that he is sure.
"I have a ton of these little stories," Shafer said, "of how God has confirmed things."
Reporter Tami Mosser can be reached at 330-287-1655 or firstname.lastname@example.org.