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By JoANNE VIVIANO



Published: Sun, September 29, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



By JoANNE VIVIANO

VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER

T'S NOT QUITE 7 A.M., AND THE

discussion focuses on deciding who has the ultimate basketball skills.

As one man wipes down the cafeteria-style tables, he insists Kobe Bryant could outplay Michael Jordan.

It's almost breakfast time, and the empty tables, each with a water pitcher, are clean. Food is placed in the serving line, in anticipation of the rush.

At 7:25, it's time for grace. Then the cereal and milk start pouring and doughnuts disappear from a wide tray.

Residents of the Rescue Mission of Mahoning Valley shelter are served first. The general public comes in next.

Tom Collins skips the cereal and doughnuts. He's been up since 5:30, but decides "I'm just gonna drink coffee," as he pats his stomach. "I gotta watch my weight."

Collins, a resident, has had a busy start to his day. His job at the mission is to work in the dorm area, where 54 transient residents sleep. He must wake them, wash their sheets and make the bunk beds. He also unlocks the room where their belongings must be stored overnight.

By 6 a.m., he was done and crawled back into bed for a 45-minute nap before showering and getting a second start to his day.

Second time around

This is Collins' second stint at the mission, where residents stay for a year to rebuild their lives. Drinking, drugs and a "lustful eye" dragged Collins in the first time.

With a day off from his job as a press operator, he had left his apartment one Sunday morning to find someone to drink with. Alone and near no open liquor store, he became depressed.

Tears accompanied him to an Interstate 680 overpass and he thought about jumping as he remembered "people I had hurt on my journey."

But, he said, as his shoe slid to step off the steel, he realized, "God must have a real sense of humor because that was the first time I found out I was afraid of heights." A feeling of calm settled over him, and a city police officer appeared and drove him to the mission.

There, coordinator Edward Neil Bunkley embraced him and told him things could be a whole lot better.

In his office just off the cafeteria, Bunkley keeps a long black jacket. It is a reminder that he, too, was once a resident at the mission. There's a hole in the seam, near the bottom. That's where Bunkley hid his drugs.

The former social worker had started snorting cocaine recreationally with co-workers. He became a drug dealer, with money for himself and contempt for those who stayed at the Rescue Mission.

He often went there to collect on debts and came to realize that the men there were being saved. Eventually -- after losing his family and his hope -- Bunkley, the son and grandson of ministers, went there to save himself.

As Collins continues with his story, women and children from the family services section of the mission trickle into the cafeteria to join the men. The families live at the building for much shorter stints than the men, until staff can find them a place to stay.

A little one plays with a football. Laughter fills the room as men speak of working out and losing weight and playing pool in the mission's recreation room.

Trying again

Collins, 36, says he stayed at the mission for about a year, leaving clean, to a new house and job near his family in Maryland. He went like the prodigal son to a family who accepted him with open arms after nine years of no contact.

He returned to the mission four months later, after a four-day drinking and drug binge.

This time, he plans to stay. Even after he's back on his feet, he hopes to work for the mission.

"I decided on being here and being around the guys. My heart has gotten bigger for the guys we serve and deal with on a daily basis," Collins said. "It's just something that's been on my heart."

After breakfast, it's time for a "graduation," and Collins joins the Rescue Mission family gathered in the chapel to say farewell to Mark.

Mark came to the mission after spending days in the facility's back yard, overmedicated on anti-depressants and lying in the grass and sun, only going inside for meals or to sleep on occasion.

Collins follows along as John Ervin Jr., director of client services, reads from the Bible, Isaiah 40:31: "They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint."

He encourages Mark and the others to be like eagles that use turbulent flow to soar: "We're gonna come upon our own turbulence, just spread our wings and let God lift us up."

Residents cheer as Mark receives his diploma. Now, staff will help him find a job and a place to live.

Curtis and his children sit in the back row. LeQuanna is 1; Curtasia is 2; Curtis is 3.

As another man walks by, he asks the elder Curtis: "You hangin' in there, bro?" LeQuanna offers up a bright, wide smile that almost rivals that of her quiet brother.

Curtis came to the mission late last year. After a night of drinking, partying and smoking, he said he "lost everything" when he was driving under suspension and had an accident.

A police officer took him to the mission after he was released from jail. There, Bunkley saw him in the parking lot, embraced him and said, "I love you, and God loves you."

Finding direction

Curtis said he had nowhere to go and had lost all direction. He asked the Lord to "just take it away." After several days, Curtis said, the Lord "opened up doors," helping him fill the void in his life.

After several months of being drug-free, he was granted custody of his three children, just before they were going to be adopted out. Since Mark's graduation, Curtis has received job training and moved out of the mission.

"Every time I feel like I can't go on, God's giving me that nudge," he said. "I immediately think about how much they need me. That's my future. We're gonna be all right."

Collins said graduations and goodbyes are sometimes difficult. Watching a friend leave is hard.

"You're used to seeing the same faces from sunup to sundown," he said. "It pulls on my heart strings. We bond really, really tight."

Collins dreads the graduation of his friend Marvin, who rooms next door. "He's like my big brother," Collins said. Marvin has found an apartment, and Collins will miss his friendship and time spent playing pool, backgammon and watching movies.

Next stop for Collins is in the learning center. Residents are required to spend at least two hours there each day.

They learn vocabulary and reading, math and high-level computer skills. Juanita Ervin, learning center instructor, says a goal is to help the residents get better jobs and careers. Collins is writing computer programs and getting ready to take a GED test.

Also in the center is Tim, who graduated from a high-ranked private university on the East Coast in 1996 and worked as a technical support specialist. He also had managed a homeless shelter.

He said he was "real cocky" when he started going to the learning center, but has since realized he needed a refresher.

Beware of stereotypes

Tim, 49, was a functioning heroin addict for 30 years. He and his wife, a Youngstown State University graduate, moved from Connecticut to Youngstown when her mother became ill. It was here that Tim's addiction beat him, he lost his job, messed up his finances and his wife left.

"It's really important for people to know: Don't stereotype people who come in here," Tim said. "It's not just uneducated alcoholics and drug addicts. I'm an educated drug addict, and I'm no better than anybody else."

Tim has a son in college and a 10-year-old daughter to whom he writes. He and his wife are talking again.

"I have hope, and that's the main thing, because I came in here hopeless, and it's the best thing that happened to me," he said. "I give God all the credit."

Collins puts in his time at the classroom and decides it's time for a break. A long hallway with closed wooden doors and a shower room make this look like a college dormitory.

Collins has his own room with a chair, night stand, dresser and a bed. There's a television, a fan, a personal CD player and boom box. Residents don't have VCRs or stereos. Those can be found in an entertainment room, where residents gather in evenings for movies and video games.

A cork board in Collins' room features photos of his "baby sister" and other family members, and one of him with Bunkley.

Collins' baptism certificate, dated May 5, is tacked among the memorabilia, near a ticket to a Cleveland Indians vs. Baltimore Orioles game.

Tiny metal fire engines are in formation on a night stand near a book titled "Daily Reflections." On a dresser sit a Bible and a backgammon set.

Marvin is good at the game. "He gets me all the time," Collins said.

"We have a good time up here," added Collins, talking of pillow fights and water fights. "We get yelled at sometimes up here acting like little kids."

But things are not always "peaches and cream," Collins added. The men have their conflicts.

"I don't think a day goes by that there's not a conflict between someone," he said. "The men handle it in an adult way. They're not throwing hands, they're not cursing out or pointing fingers. They sit down and work out a compromise ... and shake hands.

What causes trouble

Back down in the dining room, a "crew" resident is vacuuming. Collins says there are three categories of men at the shelter: Transients are permitted to stay five nights per month; those who take jobs on the "crew" can stay for 30 days while looking for a job; residents stay for a year and begin their job search at nine months.

Men are given second chances but can be asked to leave for violence or for smoking, drinking or using drugs.

The Westlake Terrace housing complex abuts the area, Collins said, and drugs and women there are often a temptation. In the summer, scantily clad women try to lure the men, knowing they have saved money. He and Andre chat as they await lunch service. Andre left his family just before his son's graduation and is wrestling with guilt and shame.

He knows his children feel let down and he's trying to kick his drug habit "for them." This time last year, Andre said, the family was on its way to a two-week vacation in Colorado Springs.

"Everything I said I'd never do, I did," said Andre, a former teacher, counselor and football coach.

As lunch is served, Curtis wraps a long, green apron around his son; the boy still has a wide smile.

Today's menu is hamburgers, hash browns and soup. Mission residents visit a fixings station to add onions, pickles, ketchup and mustard to their burgers as Ms. Juanita cuts a watermelon.

As Tim feeds Curtasia, he lets out a laugh.

Collins chats about growing up the third-youngest of nine and trying to sneak into his home through a window after school to avoid his older brothers' bullying. He recalls days as a high school "jock" and drinking with friends at after-school parties.

He talks about his sore legs -- he was doing squats last night -- and tells of trips to the movies or Chi-Chi's restaurant and a recent visit to the house of his brother in Liberty, where he played horseshoes.

And he laughs as he tells the story of how Martin slipped some "Dave's Insanity Sauce," unbeknownst, into Donald's food. "I had never seen a black man turn red," Collins said.

Activities

It's about 20 minutes until Bible study class, and Collins visits the recreation room. Walter is quiet as he loads weights on a bar, getting ready for a bench press. Walter is a boxer who recently fought in Pittsburgh.

Collins and a friend shoot pool and goof off on a glider machine.

He leaves to collect his Bible, notebook, folder, pen and highlighter from his room and returns to a conference room for class.

Dr. William Finnigan, known as "Doc Finnigan" to the residents, offers a main component of the Rescue Mission's treatment: study of the Bible and Christianity.

Finnigan begins his class telling the men: "What you do for people who can't do anything in return is a test of character. Many of us give in order to receive. Real love in the Lord doesn't have the mentality 'you owe me.' It doesn't keep records."

The men nod, some saying, "Amen."

They pray and review answers to a Bible quiz they have completed.

"God made us, and he gave us a manual," he says, lifting up his Bible.

"Draw swords," he tells the men. They lift their Bibles above their heads as Finnigan announces "Romans 12: 1-2. Repeat it."

"Romans 12: 1-2," they repeat.

"Charge."

The men flip through the thin pages of their books. The first to find the passage stands and reads it aloud.

The men here say faith in God is what cures them of their addictions. Most have visited several counselors and rehabilitation centers without success. Focusing on God, they say, has been the key.

Besides class, they are required to attend a daily chapel service presided over by volunteers from the community. And many visit churches as part of a choir or to share their stories of hope.

Volunteers are what sustain the mission. The men and families there are provided for entirely through donations.

And, Collins said, they are well provided for, receiving clothing, necessities and other items, and they get to go on recreational trips.

In the summer, they make religious retreats, visit Yellow Duck Park and fish in Lake Erie.

Fall brings Cleveland Browns games but, Collins said, he's a Baltimore Ravens fan.

"During football season, they can't stand me," he said.

Special days

On birthdays, residents are celebrated with cake, ice cream and a gift.

And the shelter is open on Christmas, where men with no families celebrate and receive gifts donated from local stores.

On Thanksgiving, the mission residents serve the area's other homeless and indigent residents. Last year, Collins said, the place was "chaotic" as they prepared for two weeks, cooking 200 turkeys.

The residents also get help from one another.

On another recent day, a resident was giving free haircuts. A man showed up with a towel on his shoulders for a trimming. Another man passes, laughing: "There ain't no barbers in here, just hair hackers."

The haircuts are followed by the day's dinner.

Crew members fill trays with vegetables, hamburgers and chocolate pudding.

Curtis and his children join the men, walking from the other side of the building with the mothers and kids. Curtasia and LeQuanna run to Tim for hugs.

Collins chats with another resident about Catholic school discipline and rulers on the knuckles. He doesn't eat much dinner as he drinks Mountain Dew Code Red from a plastic bottle. He says he's going to walk to Taco Bell instead.

Besides their inner problems, the mission residents also struggle with other crises and tragedies. Days for Collins have been rough recently. "Satan has been testing my patience," he said.

He tells of PJ, the 13-year-old nephew who died this summer of a chest aneurysm. The death has torn his family apart.

"He was my heart and soul. He was my buddy, my pal," Collins said. "He could make you laugh at your worst moment."

He said his nine brothers and sisters, ages 12 to 46, and their children will pose for a Christmas photo this year without PJ. And he struggles with the thought that he is not near his sister in Maryland.

"I love her. I'd do anything for her," he said. "But this is one thing where I can't take the pain away."

But Collins said the mission is where he belongs. Now a staff aide, he helps the residents sort through problems and tries to encourage other mission clients to focus on God and repair their lives.

"This is where God needs me to be. This place saved my life," he said. "I want to give other guys the chance to experience the freedom from bondage. ... If I can help one person change their life around, it will be my blessing."

viviano@vindy.com




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