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Panama City Rescue Mission

"Panama City Rescue Mission" Continued...

Issue: "The audacity of real change," Aug. 23, 2008

Melanie Ashley, 55, has passed evaluation and is in Phase 1, which has behavioral change and spiritual growth as its goal. Now she works at the Bargain Center, one of the three thrift stores where the mission sells donated items from the community. "God has shown me His power," she said, "I am powerless without Him over drugs and alcohol." She covered the Harley Davidson tattoo on her right arm with her opposite hand, saying she has had to "change her playground and playmates" after her drinking problem turned into addiction to the prescription drug Xanex. She consumed 60 pills in four days and woke up in the intensive care unit before her daughter brought her to PCRM. Ashley now lives in a ranch-style home at Bethel Village five miles away from the mission's headquarters. The gated home is designed to house single women and their children.

Phase 2 of Pathways prepares students for the workforce by helping them build a resumé. Thirty-seven-year-old Maka Millican gains job experience by working in the recycling program. Fox calls that venture his "one stroke of genius" because it provides a service to the community and helps fund PCRM.

Millican stood with gloved hands in the backyard sorting cardboards, plastics, and aluminum from a heap of blue trash bags. To the left of the sorting, Kukla squeezed in a workout on the rusty gym equipment, which was set up among broken-down lawn mowers and behind a wire fence with a barbed-wire top. To the right of Millican, a two-on-two ball game raised dust near a portable basketball hoop, but she ignored it as she flattened cardboard boxes and dropped them into the corresponding container.

The mission's business enterprises, including the thrift stores and recycling program, cover 30 percent of the mission's operating costs. They also give residents the opportunity to work. Millican's efforts will help net around $25,000 a year for the mission, a yield Fox said is possible because "the labor is so cheap." Millican earns only $15 a week in Phase 2, but she expressed her contentment in having the mission meet all her material needs (except cigarettes). She smiled at the gecko that clung to the side of her white tank top and said she's glad for the chance to love God more than the life she was living.

After graduates complete the first two phases, they can either intern to join the mission staff and continue living in the dorms, or take an outside job and live in the apartments behind Salvation Army. They are to save money and stay accountable to their case managers. Ninety days is the time limit, after which the individual should be self-sufficient.

A year-long commitment to the program may seem endless to Tony White, who struggled with 11 days of sobriety. He pointed over the courtyard and across the bayou to a gray building with closed-up windows. The county jail, he said, was his "second home. They cut all the trees down so you could have a direct view of the next step." Before coming to the mission, White slept on the Panama City streets or in a jail cell of that very building, and he knew the "swig" he had taken put him in danger of returning to the streets.

At 6:45 p.m. White was still contemplating smoking the cigarette between his index finger and thumb, when a voice came over the loudspeaker: "If you're stayin' here, chapel is required." If he were staying he had only 15 minutes to smoke-or he could go out on the streets and smoke when he wanted. This time, he started desperately asking for a light.

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