DUDLEY, Ga.-A plastic orange hand mirror dangled from a shoestring around Dawn's neck, bearing the Sharpie-scrawled inscription, "I am the problem." Pushing laundry into the dryer at the Promise of Hope campus, Dawn pointed emphatically to her smiling, tight-shut mouth in lieu of explanation. The program directors had given her the mirror and "taken her voice" to remind her to look inward and hold her tongue instead of blaming others.
Unconventional, occasionally sarcastic exercises like these illustrate the tough love of Promise of Hope, a 10-year-old residential rehab center serving a dozen women in Dudley, Ga. (population 496), two hours south of Atlanta. Denise Dobbins, the program's founder, said the ministry teaches women "how to deal with life on life's terms, without using drugs."
Tough love customs include "link up," where women who dislike each other have to walk everywhere arm in arm. "Family lockdown" prohibits contact with the outside world-no calls, letters, or visits-so that dependent women can break ties that bind badly. The directors have briefly confiscated even Bibles when legalistic women use them as lord-it-over-others weapons. A plastic crown-an ironic symbol of equality among recovering addicts-awaits women who think the world revolves around them. I asked Mary Beth Ferrell, a 2005 graduate of the program, if the crown seemed sarcastic, and she laughed: "Of course it's a little sarcastic. But it works."
Ferrell joined the staff this year to be the first point of contact between employees and residents. Five-foot-one and blonde, she has a gentle face and an easy Southern demeanor that belies the description offered by residents, graduates, and even other staffers. "Mary Beth will make you be honest," said Nicole Upshaw, who works down the hall, pointing a finger for emphasis. "If something's up and you don't want anybody to know, you'd better hide from her."
When residents ask for guidance, Ferrell must first check off a list of alternatives: If the woman hasn't consulted her Bible, prayed, and talked to fellow residents about it, Ferrell can't help. "It's hard, because you see what's going on and you want to tell them what to do," she said. "But I have to tell them, 'I'm not your mother.' We can't let them depend on us or become addicted to us, because when they get outside, we won't be there."
Denise Dobbins, the founder and director of the program, said Ferrell was the most hard-nosed addict to come through Promise of Hope. After her addiction forced her to the streets, the police picked her up and a court judgment mandated her to attend rehabilitation.
Promise of Hope parallels the Alcoholics aAnonymous (AA) 12-step program, but while other programs turn the religious aspect into a "higher power," Promise of Hope focuses on the "life-changing love of God," Dobbins said-and that's not always popular. Some church people object to the 12-step approach, and some 12-step supporters don't like the Christian emphasis.
Addicts at Promise of Hope begin by admitting they are powerless against addiction. During their 6- to 12-month stay at the ministry, they move toward submission to God, accountability to their community, and responsibility for past actions. Promise of Hope relies heavily on the Serenity Bible, a reprinting of the New Testament, Psalms, and Proverbs that parallels scripture verses with the original 12 steps.
Christian teaching comes at a financial price: Promise of Hope doesn't accept a dime of federal funding but survives on donations from local churches, companies, and individuals. That's sometimes a problem: Dobbins said the ministry began building a new dorm after a generous donor promised to fund the project, but the donation was delayed. She was proud to point out that the program had never been in debt, but she also admitted that Promise of Hope recently had to open a line of credit to help pay the bills.
Promise of Hope began in a doublewide trailer parked next to an old white farmhouse on Wayne Road, which turns to dirt just past the campus. The ministry grew into a two-story red brick rectangle with white trim, a large entryway, enough room for 20 women to sleep there, and an enormous kitchen, from which emerged a lunch of Spam sandwiches, potato salad, and chicken nuggets.
Promise of Hope has received some local governmental support, evident in the one-story administrative building that the county government built for the ministry. The campus also boasts a stocky stonework chapel, the gift of local donors. In the one-room sanctuary, complete with pews and tall frosted windows, a local pastor hosts Sunday morning worship services for the residents.
Scheduled wakeup comes at 6:30 a.m. every weekday. By 9 a.m. the women have had two devotional quiet times, finished breakfast, and worked on a first round of chores. The women attend classes and groups during the day and end their evening together at 11:30 p.m. with lights out.
I attended "Peer Review" at 3:30 on Wednesday, sitting in the corner as the women trickled into the administrative building's boardroom by ones and twos. Long, thin windows let in the light of the warm, lazy day outside. Brenda Yawn, the ministry's certified addiction counselor, began the meeting by asking everyone's permission for me to stay; everyone agreed.
The meeting began by focusing on Tammy. One by one, the other women in the room noted a positive aspect of her actions in the last week, followed by a negative. "I saw you working real hard," said one woman, following with the admonition: "But you need to open up more, tell other people what's going on inside." Other comments noticed "having an open mind" or "being more joyful," while criticizing isolationism, defensiveness, or bluntness. Dawn-mirror still dangling from her neck-sat next to Brenda Yawn and silently wrote her remarks into a spiral-bound notebook for her neighbor to read aloud.
After all the comments, the woman in the hot seat had a chance to respond, thank her critics, and promise change. Then it was another woman's turn. When one woman received criticism for being "passive-aggressive," she used her response time to ask her critic for clarification or examples. In Dawn's response time, she waved her hands and grinned as the other women chorused, summing up each of their own responses, "Thank you very much, I promise to work on it."
After a resident has lived on this schedule for three months, the program finds her a part-time job at a fast-food restaurant. Once she's earning money, Promise of Hope charges a $150 weekly rent, although operating costs run the ministry about $300 a week per woman. Some of the residents have a difficult time with the employment: "I come from a family that's well-known here," said Emily, a petite woman who started using drugs when she was 12 and now has two young daughters. "It was hard."
Diane Turner, a member of Promise's board of directors, said she knew Emily before and after. Married to a professional athlete, Emily was used to luxury: "She went from riding in a limousine, buying $500 bottles of wine, to working at Wendy's." But Emily said she needed the dose of tough love. "I'm learning responsibility, self-discipline-stuff that I've not ever done before in my life, and I'm 33 years old," she said, thumbing a cigarette. "I'm very grateful. I had to go through all that to get to where I'm at today."