WESTMINSTER — As Rhoda Ellison lay in the emergency room bed, her arm growing blacker by the minute from the cocaine mixture she'd injected into her veins, she knew she needed to change her life.
The drugs she had experimented with for 20 years were taking control of her body and her mind, and she was ready to ask God for help.
"The poison was running through my body so fast you could actually see my arm changing color," the Sommerset, N.J., native said. "I just prayed that God's will would be done.
"I said, 'I don't want todie this way, but if it's your will, I'll go.' "
The advice of a family friend and evangelist brought Ellison, 34, to the Westminster facility of New Life for Girls, part of a nationwide program that attempts to rehabilitates female drug and alcohol users through Christian teachings.
"Janice Purnell came to me in the hospital and said 'I know of a Christian program down in Maryland,' " Ellison said. "I went
through the interview process on the phone and just knew this was where I was supposed to be."
One of six introduction centers in the two-phase program, the Westminster home has helped hundreds of girls since its inception in 1981, said the Rev. Edwin Matos, director of the program here.
Other homes in the non-profit, nationwide program are in Chicago; Phoenix; Bronx, N.Y.; Fresno, Calif., and Villalba, Puerto Rico.
Fifteen women stay in the home at one time, each leaving after she has finished the three-month segment offered here. They then move on to a training center in Dover, Pa., to complete the year-long program.
"They all come from very different backgrounds," Matos said. "We try to make this a family setting and give them a sense of belonging."
Before entering the free program, women must gather a doctor's written consent, a birth certificate and Social Security card.
They also must go through the interview process in which they are notified of the three-page list of rules. House rules include a strict dress code, no chewing gum during class or chapel andno drugs, tobacco or alcohol.
"Once the girls get here, there is no charge," Matos said. "This is totally a faith ministry, supported by the donations of area churches and people who believe in the work we are doing here."
At the facility, the women take Bible classes and attend a song-filled chapel service with an inspirational speaker-- often a graduate of the program -- each day.
They are also required to read one book a month and write a report on it.
"Most of these women have not been in school for a long time, and they haven'teven read a newspaper regularly," Matos said. "We're trying to get them used to thinking about ideas and using their minds, reading and comprehending.
"That's a part of themselves they've left unused."
Bible studies also help the women rebuild their lives, Matos said.
"As Christians, we are trained to read the Bible," he said. "Thereare truths and pearls of God's wisdom there, but you have to read and study the Bible to learn them."
Ellison said she prepared herself for what would be required of her by attending revivals and church services.
"When you're on the streets, you have no discipline, no conscience," Ellison said. "I knew I was going to have to start my life again and, like a child, a child of God, I was going to have to learn everything all over again."
The daughter of a female evangelist, Ellison said she's found the program somewhat easier than others might because of her childhood teachings.
Ellison said she began using drugs out of peer pressure and a desire to experiment with a world different from the one she grew up in.
"A lot of the ladies here, they have no idea how Jesus Christ works," she said. "It's hard forthem to understand his method of doing things. But I've seen throughmy parents how long suffering, keeping the faith and putting Jesus first has brought blessings.
"People come up and give my mother money for no reason, just for her telling them about Jesus."
Withdrawal symptoms are not a problem at New Life for Girls because most of the women come to the program from detoxification programs, Matos said.
For Ellison, she said the physical addiction broke when she honestly turned to God and Christ for help.
Like some other women in the program, Ellison had to find care for her two children, ages 15 and 3. Children are allowed to visit their mothers every other weekend and can rejoin them at the nine-month camp in Dover.
For Ellison, that help came through her mother.
"I asked God a favor, to not let me miss them," she said. "I know they are in a Christian environment and that they are fine."
Deborah Kimmerly, a 1982 graduate of the program, was not that lucky. She decided to come to the program when the state took her daughter, then 2, claiming she was an unstable mother.
"I knew I had to get my life together," Kimmerly, 30, said."I felt that I was in a wilderness. But God has his reasons for suchthings."