By EMMALEE C. TORISK
Three months ago, when 31-year-old Brad Weber had nowhere left to go and no one left to turn to, he walked the mile from the WRTA bus station downtown to the Rescue Mission of Mahoning Valley on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
An hour later, Weber, who had been abusing drugs and alcohol since age 14, was enrolled in a class as part of the mission’s one-year Discipleship Academy program, in which he’s remained.
He’s studying the Bible and a curriculum that will equip him with resources necessary to transition back into society and lead a productive life, and also performing duties vital to the mission’s day-to-day operations.
He’s never been happier.
“A lot of people think it’s just a homeless shelter, but it’s so much more than that,” said Weber, addressing 31 seventh-graders from Campbell Middle School during their Friday morning visit to the mission. “Everybody here genuinely cares about everybody else. It’s more than just a bed to sleep in.”
The students from Lisa Steigerwald-Kana’s and Nadyne Stallsmith’s music appreciation and technology classes were at the mission to hand-deliver the donations they’d been collecting for the past month — which amounted to 42 dozen homemade cookies and three large boxes of clothing, toiletries and other much-needed items.
But they didn’t expect to also tour the building and hear from several residents, such as Weber, whose lives have been positively impacted by the nonprofit, faith-based organization.
Another resident, 29-year-old Ryan Burke of Niles, explained to the group that though he, too, was raised the “right way” — by a “big, huge Italian family” — he fell into a deep depression and succumbed to the temptations of drugs and alcohol after a baseball accident derailed his dreams and almost killed him, leaving him in a coma for 25 days.
But when Burke eventually found the mission, it became much more than a program to him, he told students.
“It was the best decision I ever made,” he said. “This place has been a vehicle God has used to change many lives.”
After listening to Weber’s and Burke’s testimonials, Janna Jackson, 12, said she was most surprised to see how successful the residents are, and how they’d managed to overcome their struggles to get to where they are today.
“They don’t look like they were ever that person,” Janna said.
Also impressed was 12-year-old Matt Cartagena, who said he liked seeing how residents live at the mission, and found the dormitories especially interesting. At the mission, men and women are kept mostly separate, with the exception of married couples.
“They told how their life was bad, and how they became a good person,” Matt said. “[I learned] to never do drugs, and to stay in school.”
Students in Steigerwald-Kana’s classes have been coming to the mission around the holidays for at least the past 15 years. It’s important to continue this tradition, Steigerwald-Kana said, because it helps students become more compassionate.
“They learn to be more caring and kind people,” she said, “and to look out for others who have less.”
While touring the mission’s kitchen facilities, 12-year-old Cheyenne Bradley elaborated on why, exactly, she and her classmates had worked so diligently to collect donations. This year, the classes gathered items for both the mission and the Animal Welfare League of Trumbull County.
“There are people who don’t have what we have,” Cheyenne said.
As students sipped punch and got ready to leave the mission, Robbie Jones, volunteer supervisor, offered up a challenge to students. Earlier in the morning, she’d explained that the mission runs solely on donations — and that they’d “been added to our list of donors.”
The mission relies on those donors to spread the word about the organization and its work, Jones said. She then asked students to tell their family members, classmates and coaches, among others, what they had learned during Friday’s visit — including that the mission serves 350 meals a day, or that it housed 134 people Thursday night.
“Without you, we could not do what we do,” Jones said.