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Mothers of hope

By John W. Kennedy

Amy nervously awaits her turn to speak before 400 worshippers gathered for Sunday morning service at Church on the Green (Assemblies of God) in Sun City West, a retirement community outside Phoenix. Along with seven other impeccably dressed and coiffed women, Amy awoke before dawn to prepare for the two-hour bus trip from Home of Hope, the Teen Challenge women’s facility in Casa Grande in southern Arizona.

From the platform, Amy tells how she started sneaking alcohol out of her parents’ liquor cabinet at age 11. How a decade later her 53-year-old mother — her best friend — died from an aggressive form of leukemia. And how, in an attempt to fill the void caused by that loss, she turned to cocaine.

The drug addiction expanded to everything from prescription tranquilizers to crystal methamphetamine after Amy’s father died of congestive heart failure and diabetes. In less than four years, she squandered an inheritance that included two homes and $50,000 in cash.

Amy ended up homeless and entwined in a cycle of shame, guilt and depression.

Her account is hard to believe just by looking at Amy, 31. Broadly smiling and wearing a black blouse and skirt, she looks like a friendly teller at the local bank, not someone in drug rehabilitation.

After six months in the facility she has a new lease on life.

“The Lord has done so much for me,” Amy says. “He’s delivered me. He’s my Redeemer and Savior.”

Recounting her life story in front of rows of well-attired churchgoers is a far cry from her life in 2003 — when she wound up hospitalized 11 times because of overdoses.

Amy is one of 16 women — and 15 children — who live in Home of Hope, a 35,000-square-foot former assisted-living facility in Casa Grande. The home, which opened in July 2003, is one of only two such Teen Challenge centers in the nation (the other is in San Jose, Calif.) where children are allowed to live with their mothers.

Most of these women had no other option but to simultaneously receive treatment and continue caring for their children under age 7. Without relatives to help, their children likely would be in the protective custody of the state Department of Family Services.

After the service, the women return to Casa Grande, a burgeoning community of 30,000 people between Phoenix and Tucson.

Diane Hernbrode, who worked as a registered nurse for 18 years, is Home of Hope’s director. When the recovering addicts aren’t revealing their stories elsewhere on Sundays, they attend First Assembly of God across the street, where Hernbrode’s husband, Al, is children’s pastor.

The center had been boarded up for seven years before Assemblies of God Financial Services helped to negotiate the $2 million asking price down to $500,000. Mission America Placement Service volunteers saved Teen Challenge another $150,000 by completing renovations. The center has a beauty salon, arts and crafts room, library, and nursery with an enclosed playground. Women with children have their own living spaces, often a modern, furnished studio apartment.

Besides the structure’s physical resurrection, Home of Hope is a place where families that have been torn asunder can be restored. Many of the women are single parents whose husbands or boyfriends are incarcerated or in a treatment program themselves.

The children often arrive malnourished. Moms, while learning how to get their lives together, also learn how to love and nurture their children.

There are no television sets to plop toddlers in front of to watch cartoons or videos. “We assign mothers time to read to their children,” Hernbrode says. “We do a lot of reading.”

At 18, Shirley is the youngest enrollee. She became a Christian in July while in an adolescent treatment program in Tucson. The intervention came just in time. She had been living on the streets of Phoenix — with her toddler and while pregnant. As she slept in coin-operated laundries, Shirley wanted to abort her second child, but her boyfriend stopped her.

She gave birth, then Child Protective Services removed her two sons — both under age 1 — from her care. A ninth-grade dropout, Shirley says she learned her crystal meth addiction from her parents, who are both clean now.

“I would be dead if I wasn’t here,” Shirley says bluntly.

She hopes the parenting classes help her regain parental custody. She sees her boys every Friday, and is grateful they are living with Christian foster parents. While anxious about child raising, Shirley is confident that God will help her.

It’s a baptism by fire in the Home of Hope nursery, as mothers work four-hour shifts to learn how to be calm while controlling 10 toddlers at the same time.

“Initially I thought my sons stopped me from doing what I wanted, that they were a hassle,” Shirley says. “Now I thank God that He has entrusted me with these precious kids. I messed up once. I won’t do it again.”

Unlike some of the older women at the center, Shirley’s life has been turned around before her early adult years could be wasted on drugs.

“I’ve really come so far,” Shirley says. “God has so much in store for me. I can’t comprehend it.”

Not all are hooked so young. Stara didn’t start doing drugs until age 22 — four years after marrying. Police arrested her 11 times in less than two years. During that span she lost everything she owned and went to prison for a year.

“I had enough meth in me to put down a horse,” Stara says. “And I’d never even been sent to the principal’s office.”

She came to Teen Challenge after ineffective stays at other drug rehabilitation programs. However, two weeks after moving into Home of Hope Stara made Jesus her Savior.

“A force bigger than me can change anything,” she says.

Three months into her stay, her in-laws — who had not allowed Stara to see her two children for 18 months — agreed to let them stay permanently at the home.

Still only 24, Stara has gained self-assurance. With her husband in prison until next year, she knows it’s her responsibility, at least for now, to be the family leader. The children say prayers as soon as they wake up and right before going to bed at night.

Stara is learning how to show patience, consistency and agape love to her 6-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son. “If I don’t teach them the Bible they will basically go where I went,” she says. “I’m teaching them to live for God, not just to go to church and Sunday School.”

Unlike most residents, Misty didn’t check herself into Home of Hope. After a third drug violation, Misty faced 33 months in prison, but the sentencing judge gave her the option of rehab at Teen Challenge.

Misty’s addiction began at age 25 when her husband became ill with lymphoma cancer and could no longer work. Misty says she began using meth in order to keep her energy level high while working and making four-hour drives to visit her hospitalized husband. She continued using after he died. Thirty months in jail and prison followed.

At first, Misty bristled at the rules enforced during the first five months of the program, when mail and phone calls are monitored and no passes are granted to leave the grounds. She sneaked cigarettes and prescription allergy medication into her room.

After being caught, Misty had to wear an orange vest as a symbol of her punishment and she couldn’t talk to anyone else. She received extra job duties and an extended 30 days before she could depart.

Further disobedience sparked a warning: Misty faced expulsion from the program. At that point she ran to the chapel and knelt in prayer. She cried out to the Lord to relinquish her will. Baptism at First Assembly soon followed.

Misty now understands that she required the regulated lifestyle, which includes being allowed to listen only to Christian music, to change her negative way of thinking. At 30 years of age, Misty has turned her strong will into confidence. She is often the lifeline to new inductees who would rather not be here.

Meanwhile, Misty also is benefiting from the skills she is learning as a child care worker for her own children (ages 8, 10 and 12) who now live with relatives. She sees the importance of disciplining children in the developing years as the foundation for a lifetime.

“I needed boundaries and so do they,” Misty says. “Those in charge can only put up with so much before taking privileges away.”

Melonie grew up in a Christian home, but a downward spiral began from experimentation with crystal meth at age 18.

In the past 10 years she has overdosed 15 times, repeatedly been raped by men and slit her wrists in suicide attempts. She’s been to halfway houses, rehabilitation centers and psychiatrists in unsuccessful efforts to kick her illegal drug habits.

Melonie relapsed into crystal meth addiction when her boyfriend dumped her the day she gave birth to their son in 2003. Her mother took custody of the boy at six weeks of age.

A year ago, Melonie had a $200-a-day meth habit, supporting herself as an exotic dancer. She had pawned all her possessions and lived in a motel room with a boyfriend, her parents unaware of her whereabouts. At the point of death, Melonie cried out to God to save her from the blackness she felt surrounding her. Her skin had turned olive because of the drug use.

Five minutes later her dad pounded on the door. He told her the Holy Spirit had directed him to take a different route than normal on his drive home from work, and he had spotted her boyfriend’s car outside the room. Her dad carried her out of the room.

When she arrived at Home of Hope, Melonie felt ugly, unlovable and so depressed she didn’t comb her hair for several weeks. But God has removed her shame and guilt.

“I see how God loves me and has plans for me,” says Melonie, who hopes to become a pastor. She is learning how to be a mother in the Home of Hope daycare center. Melonie has reconciled with her mother, who is now caring for her son.

Melonie is grateful that she had parents who went to extreme measures to return her to sobriety. But Alisa, another resident, recalls drinking alcohol in family settings starting at age 15. At 17, a Christmas gathering of relatives featured getting high on cocaine.

During her high school years, Alisa used a fake identification card to get into bars every night. Sometimes she would go to classes the next morning without even having gone to sleep.

At 19, when she started working as an exotic dancer, cocaine joined alcohol and marijuana as part of her regular drug regimen. Alisa quit doing drugs and alcohol while pregnant with her daughter, now 3. But afterwards alcohol cravings returned.

Alisa never thought she had a drinking problem. But she started going to a liquor store before and after work.

Her daycare provider told Alisa about Teen Challenge when she started talking about not wanting to live anymore.

“What I was searching for in alcohol I’ve found in God,” Alisa says. “He’s the only One who can get me through.”

Marcella, 22, began drinking even before her teenage years. She is at Home of Hope by court order. CPS took away her daughters, but she regained custody after three months at Home of Hope — on the day of her water baptism.

“I wish I had known God’s love when I was growing up,” Marcella says. “It would have saved me a lot of pain and hurt.”

Her 4-year-old daughter wanted to know why her mother no longer loved her and she had to go live with a foster family. Her 2-year-old girl stopped talking for months because of the trauma of being taken from her mother. Marcella seems to have it all together now as she is attentive to her daughters’ needs. She works at the Home of Hope’s boutique. Although the shop is open to the public, some of the best customers are the residents themselves. Many come in painfully thin and put on four dress sizes in no time once they start eating regularly.

Because the facility allows young children to live with their mothers as they learn spiritual disciplines, Teen Challenge of Arizona Executive Director Snow Peabody believes generational cycles of addiction are being broken.

“It’s not just a revolving door,” Peabody says. “It ends here.”

Hernbrode, the home’s director, anticipates that Home of Hope can accommodate 40 residents this year.

“I believe God will appoint people to come alongside this ministry to meet needs,” Hernbrode says. “I see a future of healing, restoration, abundance, freedom and great love for the women and children served by Home of Hope.”

John W. Kennedy is news editor of Today’s Pentecostal Evangel.

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