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'Things a dad would do'

"'Things a dad would do'" Continued...

Issue: "Face-off," Aug. 13, 2011

But Messer's own past difficulties inspired him to help: He battled a severe drug addiction in his youth, and narrowly survived a major cocaine overdose. The Christian businessman has been clean and sober since 1989: "God spared my life. . . . I've had a huge second chance, and that's why I care about these guys."

In a warehouse nearby, Hope Now graduate Eddie Martinez stood over a long Trail-Gear warehouse table, making sure components for car kits are in the proper place. Messer calls Martinez "steady Eddie," saying he shows up on time and works hard. Martinez is proud that in his seven months on the job he hasn't missed a day.

Martinez-once involved with gang members and drugs-says the Hope Now program taught him how to manage his money and work with people. After graduation, he first worked for the sanitation department of the City of Fresno (an employer that regularly hires Hope Now graduates). When Martinez did well, he says Hope Now staffer Bill Murray helped him find better positions: "Every job they give me, I try to give it 100 percent, every time."

Hope Now executive director Roger Feenstra says cultivating relationships with men like Martinez is key: Feenstra has found that giving an "at-risk" man a job without giving him help to succeed often leads to failure. The pastor and former president of a Christian bookstore chain admits that he didn't know much about gang members when he came to Hope Now, but he quickly learned: "You relate to them like any other person. They need love and respect."

Feenstra says his staffers offer encouragement, accountability, and help with simple steps like getting a Social Security card, learning how to drive, tying a tie, and filling out a job application: "We do things a dad would do." Murray-the vocational counselor-says a Christian man's friendship is sometimes overwhelming to clients without fathers: "You tell them that you're proud of them and they just melt."

Though the program doesn't require that clients embrace Christianity, biblical teaching is foundational. (A few staffers have helped start a church that some clients attend.) On a recent weekday afternoon, staffer Bryce Naylor told the 21 men gathered for a required Bible study: "We wouldn't be doing you any favors if we just gave you a job and didn't tell you about Jesus." After reading a passage from the book of Matthew, Naylor explained that true faith brings true repentance: "A true and lasting change only comes through Jesus Christ."

Not all the men make a lasting change, and some of the clients face huge obstacles. Rocky Gonzales, 26 and finishing his fourth week of the program, lives with his sister and has a pregnant girlfriend. He went to jail at age 13, serving an eight-year sentence for a drive-by shooting. He says his family members-including his parents-were drug addicts, and that he committed the crime to fit in with a gang. He says he's never been on a job interview. He doesn't have work experience.

But Gonzales hopes to get a job, despite his record: "Sometimes I get stuck, but I know a lot. . . . I feel like if people knew who I really am they would feel differently about me." Staffers will help him prepare for interviews.

I also spoke with some long-time program graduates like Oscar Rodriguez, 34. He says he never read the Bible growing up, but felt his purpose was "to steal, kill, and destroy." He joined a gang early: "The street became my family." At age 14 he was stealing cars to sell to chop shops for $400. Soon, he was using crack and marijuana. He stole beer from convenience stores and armfuls of clothes from stores. He sold drugs and survived being "shot, stabbed, and beaten."

For Rodriguez, the way out wasn't easy: The first time a Hope Now staffer gave him a card, he used it to roll a joint. He eventually completed the program, but still committed crimes: "Just because I got a job I wasn't healed."

During a fourth prison stint, Rodriguez began thinking about the Hope Now teaching and started reading his Bible. With two weeks left, he told God: "If I get out of here, I'm going to give myself to You. . . . I finally understand that I'm a sinner. I finally understand that my life doesn't belong to me anymore."

After leaving prison, Rodriguez returned to Hope Now and staffers helped him find work. Seven years later, he is lead custodian for First Presbyterian Church, the church that allows Hope Now to use its adjacent building. Now a husband and a father of five, he says life still isn't always easy: "I have so many issues. . . . But now I have an issues-solver. I have Christ in my life. I have God who says: 'Bring Me your problems.'"

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