Frank Denton: Meet the grateful recipient of a rescue mission

City rescue Mission had the privilege to host Mr. Frank Denton, Editor of the Times Union, last week. Mr. Denton had an opportunity to tour our facilities, both New Life Inn and the McDuff Campus. Prior to the tour, Mr. Denton was introduced to one of or eligible LifeBuilder Graduates, Kathleen Wood, who will be walking across the stage this upcoming Friday night, 7:00 PM for the Spring 2016 Graduation.

Check out Frank Denton’s opinions of City Rescue Mission and Kathleen’s story below:

You know how you avert your eyes when you see some derelict, likely a wino or a junkie, stumbling down the street, maybe holding a handwritten sign at a freeway exit or panhandling you for spare change. If you’re introspective, you may think “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” Or if you’re more judgmental, you may feel disgust and ask yourself, “Why doesn’t he get a bath and a job, like decent people?” As you might imagine, there are many reasons why some people destroy their own lives with substance abuse, most of them you and I would not accept, others we might consider. Let me tell you one — the story of Kathleen Wood — and you decide.

Kathy started out as a typical Jacksonvillean — born and raised here, public schools into the former Nathan B. Forrest High School, a Navy brat, one of eight children of a chief petty officer who retired after 30 years. The fates seized control early. Kathy was 9 when her mother died of cancer, but as bad as that can be for a little girl, what happened next was worse and, we can only imagine, sent her life off a cliff. “The Navy tolerated drinking quite a bit back then,” Kathy, now 54, said. “When my dad got drunk, he was abusive verbally, physically and — after my mom died — sexually.” Breathe that in, for just a moment. Kathy told a neighbor, and the police came. “The judge, as I recall, said he could go to jail, or I could leave home,” Kathy said. “I had no say.” She was shipped off to live with some of her mother’s family in Pennsylvania for two years, then “my dad got married and the judge said I could go home. My aunt tried to fight for me, but my dad came to get me, and he brought my brother, and I’m packing my little suitcase getting ready to go. “It was traumatic, ripped away from everything I knew, it was gone. Twice.” “It’s been a heartbreak,” she said, falling into tears even now, more than 40 years later. Her father was on the familiar drunk/sober/drunk/rehab/relapse cycle, and often alone with the “weird” stepmother, Kathy succumbed. “I began at age 12, started drinking, a beer here and there. By 15, I started the hard liquor, then marijuana, and I got pregnant, by my first boyfriend. I had an abortion because I knew my father would kill me.” Then the boyfriend became abusive, before he left. “I was drawn to men who abused me, all my relationships,” Kathy said with the clarity of mature, sober hindsight. “I guess I was addicted to the chaos at home.” The descent accelerated. “The drugs began. Quaaludes, acid, partying all the time.” She dropped out of Forrest in the middle of her senior year but continued working, as she had since she was 16. “I had a part-time job in school, and I had to pay rent to my dad — in the 11th grade, and I was paying $25 a week to stay there.” The drinking and drugs continued, and the “partying,” by which she means sex. “I was addicted to sex — partying … I was just looking for somebody to love me. I had so much pain, I was hurting so much inside.”

At 19, Kathy got pregnant and married, but when her son was 10 months old, she left the husband. Then she got pregnant again and gave birth to her daughter. On her 22nd birthday, someone close to her helped her celebrate by turning her on to cocaine, to which she became addicted. “The next year, he turned me on to free-basing cocaine, cooking it up so you can smoke it. It’s a quicker high, a better high.” Kathy maintained various jobs all this time, “basically just to support my habit,” and she and the kids moved around, often living with her sister or friends. “My family was always there for me. They never knew about the drugs.” Well, they figured it when, “eventually, it got stronger than I was. It overcame me.” Her sister had to take in Kathy’s daughter at about age 9 “because I was living in a car, down deep in my addiction. “I have lost everything I owned four times.” She’d be evicted and her belongings sold or trashed. She held up four fingers. “Four times! I lost all the pictures of my kids.”

You ask why she didn’t try to break the pattern. She did, many times over 21 years — “rehab probably five times, outpatient, inpatient, AA, NA, I tried it all. I was ‘saved’ in 2004 and 2008, something like that. Nothing worked.” The relapses may have been worse than the addictions. “As soon as I messed up,” Kathy said, “I would wallow in the pain, the anger and the guilt. Just wallow in it. You’re mad at yourself, you’re angry and ashamed.”

You’ll notice this story is in the past tense. That’s because Kathy now is in the present tense, dreaming in the future tense. It’s difficult to figure out the specific stimulus for her redemption. Maybe it was turning 50. “Something just clicked in my head. I had nowhere else to go. I was on the street. I had burned all my bridges. I finally just surrendered.” So she walked into the City Rescue Mission’s emergency homeless shelter on State Street — which has a sign on the wall asking: “Are you tired of feeling tired?” — and said: “I need help.” “April 26, 2013.” That day is carved in her new consciousness. As it does with approximately 700 homeless people every day, the mission took her in and fed her, and as it does with more than 150 men and women every day, it provided a place to bathe, wash her clothes, gave her a clean bed then assessed how serious she was about getting real help.

Kathy was serious, so the mission took her to its McDuff Avenue campus and allowed her into its LifeBuilders Addiction Recovery Program, which it describes as “a Bible-based, residential, transformation program.” In exchange for her commitment — to actively participate, quit smoking and, obviously, eschew alcohol and drugs — she received an individual assessment of her situation and a specific plan taking advantage of the mission’s counseling, recovery and education programs. It can take 18 months or more, almost three years now for Kathy. City Rescue Mission says its success rate is “over 70 percent,” compared to a national rate for successful recovery from addiction of 27 percent. Through the counselors and other people in the program, Kathy finally found the right person to love her. “They understood. They actually loved me until I could learn to love myself. They taught me God had to be the center of my life. “It had to be God. He slowed me down physically, so I could work on my heart. I’m redeemed, definitely redeemed, a new person. God has given me a new heart.” Kathy credits the program. “CRM allows enough time for people who come here to building a strong foundation. They gave me the time and the space.”

There was a brief relapse. “About a year and a half in, I went out to help my daughter with her kids,” she said. “I began smoking cigarettes, and when I began drinking a couple of beers, I picked up the phone and called CRM, and they told me to come home.” And she did. Kathy still faces physical problems. She has severe osteoarthritis and uses a wheeled pink walker, and she is awaiting a hip and two knee replacements at UF Health Jacksonville, thanks to your city tax dollars. And she’s getting new upper teeth, thanks to Social Security Disability, which she just started receiving, thanks to your federal tax dollars. Please pardon my sharing the details of a story you probably have heard about someone else, maybe in your own family. The problems are common; the redemption, if it comes, tends to be unique. We can have different ways of thinking about Kathleen Wood. One might have pity for her largely wasted life or disgust for her weakness and behavior or even anger for her reliance on charity and public assistance. Remembering how all this started for her at age 9, I admire her tenacity and courage.

Friday at 7 p.m., Kathy will be among 22 people graduating from LifeBuilders in the City Rescue Mission chapel on McDuff Avenue. Both of her kids, their seven kids, her sister and her daughters will be there to cheer. Telling me about it Thursday, she raised her arms in triumph, smiled and cheered for herself: “Woo-hoo!” This time, when she cries, it will be not out of pain but out of joy.

“I’m graduating into life, the life God intended. I can’t wait to play and dance with my grandkids.”Kathy