Mission graduates celebrate sober new life

Recovery program helps men quit drugs, find jobs and hope

October 22, 2001|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

Eighteen months ago, Michael J. Bulls walked desolate Baltimore streets as a homeless drug addict and alcoholic.

"I tried Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, nothing seemed to work for me," said Bulls, 45. "I thought I was going to die."

Yesterday, Bulls joined 29 fellow graduates receiving diplomas from a spiritual recovery program operated by the Helping Up Mission in East Baltimore. The mission, which has existed since 1885, houses 140 men in its yearlong recovery program.

Bulls received his diploma in front of 1,200 mission supporters at the annual Samaritan's Circle Banquet at Martin's West.

"Today is a starting off point for the rest of my life to get off that wide road of hell and damnation," said Bulls, a former aquatics and wetlands researcher.

Mark O. Langston knows the feeling. About a year ago, Langston, 36, sat in the county jail in Manassas, Va., serving a 90-day sentence for drug possession.

When released, Langston had enough money to make it to Baltimore, where he got a bed at the Helping Up Mission. Yesterday, he described his journey in a poem calling the mission "a sanctuary for the broken to be revived."

Langston now has a fiancee, a paramedic he met while helping another man into an ambulance.

"Things improve," Langston said after receiving his diploma. "I've been waiting for this day."

Mission studies during the past two years show that graduates of the program have an 80 percent chance of being employed and sober a year later.

"When you witness our program - graduates receiving their diplomas - you are witnessing miracle after miracle," said Robert K. Gehman, mission executive director. "These are men who were pulled back from death's door and not just rescued from drug addiction, homelessness and despair, but given a new life."

Under the program, the men are charged $40 rent after the first six months or when they become employed, in order to teach responsibility, Gehman said. Fifty percent of the participants drop out of the program within 45 days.

"Our program is long enough to change patterns or habits," said Gehman, who has directed the mission for 6 1/2 years. "That's why 30-day programs don't work for most people."

Mission board member Kevin Turner led a 50-man mission choir in songs such as "Victory Is Mine."

"You would not believe how these men have taken responsibility for their lives," Turner told the crowd. "You would not believe how these men have taken responsibility for each other."

For mission financial donors and volunteers, the graduation served as a chance to see their investment pay off.

"This is victory for us," said Dr. Tony Kameen of Towson, who serves on the mission's board. "These men had nothing, and they've won the battle."

Baltimore County Councilman T. Bryan McIntire was one of several elected officials in attendance.

"This is my favorite charity," McIntire said. "They've taken these men off the streets, and they've redeemed them."

For family members of the graduates, the program signified renewal.

"It's wonderful, it's beautiful to see him succeed," Ella Waters of Havre de Grace said of her nephew, Jerry C. Jones Jr. "It's nice to have him back."

For men still in the program, watching new graduates served as inspiration.

"It's a goal," said Andrew Reed, 47, who came to the mission a month ago. "It's something I can set my sights on."

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