FRESNO, Calif.-At one of its county's largest rehab centers, many of Fresno's convicted drug addicts and repeat offenders pass their summer afternoons unloading trucks, sweeping streets, buffing floors, and folding laundry. That by itself is not extraordinary, but at this center-a white cinder-block building on G Street, wedged between a giant sand lot and California Highway 41-prisoners are called "disciples" and successful businessmen work side-by-side with lifelong junkies.
Director Bud Searcy, a seasoned ministry builder, created the Fresno Rescue Mission Academy in 2003. It takes its disciples through an 18-month, four-phase recovery process that blends counseling, Bible study, life-skills classes, and remedial education. From day one the academy places a heavy emphasis on service and work as keys to overcoming addiction. After their daily work assignments and classes, the disciples organize and direct the homeless men who stay at the mission each night for dinner, a shower, and chapel.
Disciple Robert Stein has been a lifelong junkie. A talented baseball player from a functional middle-class family, he developed a drug habit in 10th grade, lost his high-school sweetheart, and spent 25 years shuttling between prison and recovery programs. "I finally hit rock bottom," he said as the lunch crowd began to thin. "There was only one direction left to go, and that was up."
Steve Rosso was a successful businessman. The ex-CEO of a Fresno floor-maintenance service, he turned to Vicodin when his business grew more stressful, his teenage children spun out of control, and his wife moved to escape painful proximity to the lot of them. "I threw in the towel," he reflected over a lunch of corn dogs and salad in the mission's noisy dining hall. "And everything just fell apart."
In the first phases of the program, disciples examine their own character and seek to mend their relationships. Rosso worried about his son Cameron, 26, who was also on drugs and blamed his dad for his problems. "I started praying for my kids," Rosso said: "It was painful and I didn't want to do it, but I did. Then a few months later, my son shows up." Rosso gestured with obvious pride across the room toward Cameron, who joined the academy after being in what Rosso thought was a beyond-hope "very dark state. To see him here is a miracle."
Along with 18 other disciples, Rosso is now in the "fourth quarter," the last of the 12-week phases the academy uses to prepare its disciples to become well-rounded individuals with a carefully plotted life trajectory. Their lunch-table discussions of graduation and future plans resembled the nostalgic con-versations that occur during a final semester of college, as members of "the family" mentally prepare to part with one another and adjust to a new life in the wide world outside. One disciple said, "I want to start a business. I can talk to people. I know how to get jobs." His companion replied, "I've taken a lot, and people have followed my example. When I start giving back, they'll follow that, too."
The academy awarded former junkie Stein the title of "house manager"-he's the on-duty authority when the staff leaves for the day-in his first quarter, an unusual honor. Now in his second quarter, Stein is an eager student in the academy's literacy class and works with an elderly tutor, who uses her elegantly handwritten notes from UCLA as teaching aids. Stein packs his schedule with classes, tutoring, and GED prep to make up for lost time: "Once you start getting high and hit jail, you stop maturing. When you've been in prison all your life, you have the maturity of maybe a 16- or 17-year-old."
That helps explain the literacy class. Against a backdrop of painted cinder-block, Francis Weaver, a 70-year-old retired Fresno teacher, tried to teach plurals and possessives. Despite Weaver's warning to keep quiet, many of his students squirmed, twisted, whispered, and studied photographs hidden in their notebooks. At one point, Weaver used a student named Francisco for an illustration. He wrote, "Francisco's shirt" on the whiteboard. "What did I just add to your name?" he asked.
Francisco leaned forward. "Shirt!"
Weaver laughed. "Not quite. It's an apostrophe! Francisco's shirt."
Franscisco looked confused. "How many Franciscos are there?"
"No, no, I didn't make it plural," Weaver corrected, pointing to the printed sentence. "It's still singular."
To himself, Francisco muttered: "Singular. Like, not Verizon."
Though still in its infancy, the academy's literacy program-a cooperative partnership between the mission and the Fresno County Public Library-is one of its proudest achievements and one of several partnerships with city and county government agencies. Reverend Larry Arcy, the mission's chief executive officer, left his job as a probation officer in 1981 to work for the mission, became CEO in 1998, and now has a network of Fresno city and county government officials that includes Fresno Mayor Alan Autry.
A portly, soft-spoken ex-Green Beret, Arcy engineered "Fresno Works," an internship program with the city of Fresno that puts disciples on downtown streets as public servants, handing out water, giving directions, and assisting citizens and visitors with any immediate need. Many disciples participate in Fresno Works during their time in "aftercare," a transitional period of accountability between their initial treatment and graduation from the program.
"It gives them a sense of pride," Arcy explained. "They're often seen as a public official, someone people look to for help." The academy also points out how its existence saves taxpayers an estimated $35,000 a year on every man who trades jail for a spot in its program.
The mission's grasp of how surroundings make and break an addict intrigued me, and my questions began to sound like those of a curious social worker who believes environments rule behavior. Arcy gently demurred: "I want to be more than a nonprofit charity. I know a lot of people say, for example, 'You can't preach to someone without feeding them first.' But Jesus preached to the people, and then saw they were hungry and proceeded to feed them. My major premise here is that everything we do first glorifies God." This conversational twist occurred several times-a staff member or disciple would halt in the midst of an enthusiastic exegesis of the academy's methodology to remind everyone, just one more time, that none of it would work without the power of Christ.
Fourth-quarter disciples learn professional interaction skills by filming and critiquing suit-and-tie mock interviews. The academy's computer lab, a converted trailer with wood-paneled walls, houses rows of cubicles and reams of job-search literature. Encircled by red, dry-erase arrows, a letter on the corner of the whiteboard exhorted: "THIS IS AN EXAMPLE OF HOW A GOOD INTERVIEW CAN GO!" In the letter, the manager of a local New Balance store lavishly praised the professionalism of an academy graduate now employed there. Many recent graduates live in one of the academy's three transitional "aftercare" homes, supervised by live-in staffers.
Barely a month into the program, Robert Stein is already a busy man. "The other guys get days off," he said, "but I have too many classes. I have a lot of time to make up." In addition to his managing duties at the academy, he attends and sometimes leads the mission's couple's Bible study-with his high-school sweetheart, who is now his fiancée.