Graduates of drug treatment celebrate

Helping Up Mission has its largest ceremony

October 27, 2003|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

To the cheers of family members and enthusiastic applause of program donors, about 30 men walked across a stage yesterday in Woodlawn after completing Helping Up Mission's yearlong, faith-based drug treatment program.

It was the largest ceremony -- in terms of audience size and number of graduates -- since the 118-year-old East Baltimore nonprofit group began its drug treatment program about a decade ago, organizers said.

"Success breeds success," said the mission's executive director, Robert K. Gehman, noting that many of the men who enroll in the 150-bed program do so after learning about it from relatives or friends who have completed it.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who mentioned Helping Up Mission in his first State of the State address, stopped by the ceremony to offer his congratulations.

"To the graduates, you now know that faith works," he told them. "Helping Up works."

Helping Up Mission is a residential drug treatment program for homeless men that centers on Jesus Christ, Gehman said. The men live and work at the nonprofit group's building, and participate in Bible study and a 12-step addiction program.

Typically, about 10 percent of the 400 men who begin the treatment at different points during the year graduate, Gehman said. Fifty-one men graduated this year, although not all of them attended the ceremony.

The nonprofit group raised nearly $2 million last fiscal year and has plans to expand its long-term bed capacity to 210 as it completes renovation of another building on East Baltimore Street.

Donors said they continue to give to Helping Up Mission because they see the program working.

"It's terribly humbling to go talk to the men there who have nothing but whose lives are richer than mine," said Helping Up board member Dr. Anthony Kameen, who has contributed to the nonprofit group since 1997.

About 1,500 people -- many donating to the privately funded Helping Up Mission -- filled the Martin's West banquet hall for the graduation ceremony and listened to testimonials from three of the graduates.

Audience members gasped at the men's tales.

Eric Forte, 40, recalled how, at the height of his drug addiction, he sold his brother-in-law heroin so strong that even he wouldn't use it. His brother-in-law overdosed and died that night, he said.

Joseph Moss, 41, said he "fell in love with smoking crack cocaine" during his 20-year drug addiction, which he said ended when he arrived at Helping Up Mission's doorstep in the 1000 block of E. Baltimore St. the day after Christmas last year.

"The drug had me chained and bound until then," he said. "Thanks be to God that I'm free today."

Kevin Sheehan, 41, told about how he threw away a George Washington University education, a successful insurance business and a family because his life spiraled out of control in the late 1990s. He said he had been addicted to drugs and alcohol since age 14 but that he had been able to contain his habits to the weekends until his father died in 1997.

Snorting cocaine damaged his nose and sinuses so badly, he said, that he had to learn how to smoke cocaine. The man who taught him had warned, "`Now, don't let this ruin you life,'" Sheehan recalled.

"Well, it did," he said.

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