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Saturday, Oct 06 2012 04:00 PM

Changing lives: Bakersfield Rescue Mission turns 60

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    By Shelby Mack / The Californian

    Austin Kirby (left) and George Sosa patch up a ceiling in the woman's discipleship program building at the Bakersfield Rescue Mission. Kirby and Sosa are part of the maintenance team from the discipleship program.

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  2. 2 of 6

    By Shelby Mack / The Californian

    Michael McCain sits on his bed in the "A" dorm at the Bakersfield Rescue Mission. McCain is part of a year-long discipleship program at the mission that helps the participants get back on their feet.

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  3. 3 of 6

    By Shelby Mack / The Californian

    Mark Carpenter and Mike Phillips take their lunch break in the pantry at the Bakersfield Rescue Mission where they both work.

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  4. 4 of 6

    By Shelby Mack / The Californian

    Beds in the homeless shelter at the Bakersfield Rescue Mission are empty during the day. The building is closed off for most of the day to encourage the people who stay there to go out looking for work.

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  5. 5 of 6

    By Shelby Mack / The Californian

    Chris Morrow is a graduate of the discipleship program at the Rescue Mission. After graduating he completed an internship at the mission and is now a member of the staff.

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  6. 6 of 6

    By Shelby Mack / The Californian

    Delaynia Horton is currently a participant in the women's discipleship program at the Bakersfield Rescue Mission and is planning to graduate from the program in November.

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BY STEVEN MAYER Californian staff writer smayer@bakersfield.com

Christopher Morrow has nothing left to hide.

The 44-year-old Bakersfield native who goes by the nickname Niko believes the only way he can be saved from his past is to splay it open in all its ugliness, bare it to God, friends and family, and ultimately be washed clean.

Related Info

COME CELEBRATE

What: The Bakersfield Rescue Mission 60th Anniversary Celebration Banquet

When: 6 p.m. Oct. 11

Where: Valley Bible Fellowship, 2300 E. Brundage Lane

More:

Guest speaker Ryan Dobson

Musical guest Shawn McDonald

Dinner catered by Hodels

Cost: $35

Tickets can be purchased at the Rescue Mission, Berean Book Store or by calling 325-0863.

It's an excruciating path requiring abject humility and surrender, but also courage and integrity -- and it's a path he found charted for him during a year of self-discovery at the Bakersfield Rescue Mission.

"God delivered me from my addictions," Morrow said during an interview last week at the east Bakersfield facility designed primarily for homeless men. Women and children are generally served by the Bakersfield Homeless Center, located not far away on East Truxtun Avenue.

"Since I've come here, I've had two years of sobriety," he said. "No nicotine. No alcohol. No drugs."

Formed in the rubble of the great earthquakes that shook Bakersfield in summer 1952, the Bakersfield Rescue Mission is celebrating its 60th anniversary this month.

For years following its formation, the Christian-based mission supplied just the basics, "soup, soap and salvation," to the city's down-and-out men who had nowhere else to go.

In those days, the homeless were typically alcoholic men in their 50s, including many who rode the rails from one town to the next, said Don Kuhns, who has been associated with the mission as a volunteer and board member since the early 1980s.

They were known as "the least, the last and the lost," Kuhns recalled. "How would you like to be described like that?"

Such descriptions are now relics of the past. Changes in society, the changing workforce and the ready availability of hard drugs has pushed the average age of the homeless downward.

It's no longer unusual to see young mothers and men and women in their 20s and 30s in need of homeless services.

RESCUING THE MISSION

As the organization gears up to celebrate its 60th birthday, a visit to the mission's nine-building "campus" in east Bakersfield reveals a facility that looks nothing like it did in the beginning.

Two huge buildings -- one named after mission founder Lonnie Heath -- are filled with beds, offering a safe place to sleep for some 230 homeless men. Privacy and any semblance of luxury are not part of the deal.

A storage pantry and kitchen operated almost exclusively by mission residents churn out breakfast, lunch and dinner every day, as many as 700 meals a day.

Again, nothing fancy, but it's considered something of a daily miracle.

"What restaurant do you know of that serves 700 meals a day?" asked Steve Peterson, the director of the men's Christian Life Discipleship Program, a yearlong program available to a limited number of men who are able to prove over time they are serious about transforming their lives.

The men's program maxes out at about 45, while a newer women's program serves about 25.

"The men attend about 20 hours of class a week and work five to seven hours a day," Peterson said.

And there's plenty of work to go around in the kitchen, facility maintenance, janitorial, library and the mission's "store," a building packed with donated items of clothing, all meticulously organized by unpaid residents and volunteers.

ANOTHER CHANCE

Unlike the old days, residents are offered GED classes in an effort to make them more marketable as potential employees. A computer room offers restricted online access to residents who can establish email addresses, send out resumes and communicate with family and potential employers.

Nick Biren, the mission's education coordinator, said more than 1,600 books in the library are searchable by title or author.

Searching for work is encouraged, Biren said, and those who take it seriously are often successful.

"It's like a fisherman throwing a line in the water again and again and again," he said. "Those who are diligent about it almost always catch something."

Biren recalled a man with a doctorate degree who recently found himself at the mission.

"He was down on his luck or just made some bad decisions," Biren said. Drug addiction often, though not always, plays a part in the downward spiral.

"It's an insidious problem," he said. "Drugs can steal your life away."

SIXTY YEARS AND COUNTING

Bakersfield Rescue Mission Executive Director Carlos Baldovinos thinks of the mission as a "beacon of light" for people who are walking in the darkness.

The staff of 32 isn't nearly large enough, he said, to operate such a huge undertaking.

"It takes hundreds of volunteers, churches and others coming here to join in our efforts," he said. "If it wasn't for our volunteers, we would be underwater."

The faith-based nonprofit enjoys 501(c)3 status, making it exempt from federal taxes. About 10 percent of its funding comes from government sources, mostly federal and county of Kern. That means the mission counts on individuals, businesses, foundations and fundraising for its very existence.

According to the organization's annual reports, the total annual budget for 2011 was just under $2.5 million.

Program expenses, including homeless clients, the discipleship programs for men and women, operations, food and utilities equaled $1.86 million, or nearly three-quarters of the total budget.

Fundraising, including direct mail, finding new donors, public relations and advertising accounted for about 15 percent of the budget, while administrative costs accounted for about 10 percent.

I want the community to celebrate what we are doing," he said. "I'm interested to see what the rescue mission will look like over the next 60 years."

DISCIPLES

While the mission's homeless services provide emergency meals and beds for thousands every year, it's the discipleship programs that offer real change for those willing to do the work, Peterson said.

The first 30 days is called Genesis. It's make-or-break time, a period of tough love, and not everybody who tries makes it through.

Even "psych meds" are prohibited in the limited programs. Total focus is required.

As far as Christopher Morrow is concerned, the program is responsible for turning his life around -- even more than that, for giving him a new life.

Even after years of cocaine and methamphetamine use, Morrow was able to hold down a job for much of his life. He had a live-in girlfriend, an apartment and a car.

But like so many, one unexpected blow led to another. Over a period of a single month, his mother, his favorite aunt and his girlfriend died.

He was devastated emotionally.

Then he was caught driving to work on a suspended license.

"I lost my vehicle and in losing my vehicle, I lost my job," he said. "In losing my job, I lost my apartment. It was a chain reaction."

But he still had one thing left: his drug addiction.

"My pride kept me from coming to a place like the rescue mission."

Instead he began shoplifting, first to feed himself, but later to make money for drugs. He "couch-surfed" at friends' homes, and continued to feed his habit.

"I was shoplifting for a living, every day, all day," he said. "I'm not proud of it, but I know I've been forgiven."

Short jail terms, probation and more jail time eventually left him facing a term in state prison, a place Morrow had never been and never wanted to go.

But he believed he was facing much worse punishment in the hereafter, an eternity in hell.

He hit bottom sleeping on a concrete slab one night as rain poured down upon him.

Finally he asked for help.

Morrow was baptized Jan. 9, 2011, and started the discipleship program at the mission five days later.

Mission employees call him a "superstar" in the program. He graduated last January and is now working in night security and other positions at the mission. He's a voting member of the Kern County Homeless Collaborative and works with a local organization that ministers to prostitutes.

"I still have family who don't believe I've truly changed," he said. "That's OK.

"I live a life that is totally transparent."

One of his greatest joys is realizing that he is an example for other men at the mission. He's living proof that every once in awhile, with love and support, a man can step back from the precipice and begin his life over again.

"Isn't life crazy?" he asked.

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