Forge fires and watered gardens
2019 Hope Awards Northwest winner Watered Gardens | At a gospel rescue mission, men have a chance to escape the spiral of drugs, homelessness, and joblessness. But it isn’t easy, and many do not make it to the end
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This story is part of our 2019 Hope Awards contest. To vote for your favorite regional winner, go to wng.org/compassion.
Logan Fields, 22, couldn’t make himself break into his dad’s vacant house, so he slept in the backyard. Freshly released from prison, Fields was alone in the small town of Joplin, Mo. His dad was attending a funeral in Texas, and his mom had moved while he was in jail. His girlfriend had picked him up only to leave him in a Walmart parking lot. He texted a former burglary partner for a ride, then wandered into the Joplin Public Library to feel the air conditioning and wait.
Fields grew up in Pittsburg, Kan. At 17, he’d been to juvenile detention five times and become addicted to Xanax. Before turning 22, he went to jail 18 times. But his mom was influential in the community: “I’d go sit 48 hours, a week, or a month, and I’d get out and the charges would be dropped to something minuscule like disturbing the peace,” he said. In 2017, a drunken Fields earned three felony warrants in one night. He started robbing houses and dodged the police for three months before landing back in county jail, where he said he knew every guard by name.
There his dad brought an application for a recovery program, the Forge Center for Virtue and Work. With no better options, Fields applied and met Forge Director Jamie Myers after his release. She said the program consisted of four three-month phases, and he could graduate with a good job and independent life. Instead, he called his girlfriend to pick him up. But when she left him in the parking lot again, another night in his dad’s backyard convinced Fields to join the Forge. He almost quit one month in. After two months he quit, then came back. Myers recognized real change when Fields apologized for speaking rudely to James Whitford, the ministry’s founder.
“That was a good, good exchange,” Whitford remembered. “I think I called Jamie right after that. I was like, ‘Logan just apologized! Man, that’s great progress.’”
Whitford started working with men like Logan Fields almost 20 years ago. He and his wife Marsha rented a room in a Red Cross building to offer necessities to Joplin’s homeless. They called their day center “Watered Gardens” after Isaiah 58:11, a verse blessing those who help the poor. A church helped pay rent, and Whitford worked as a physical therapist three days a week to pay the utilities and support his family.
“We had a lot of compassion and a lot of heart, but not a lot of thought behind what we were doing,” he said. The same people kept coming, and the Whitfords recognized their donations at rummage sales and thrift stores. They realized people took items only to sell them and get the same thing from another ministry. To address this, they started a local Charity Tracker network, using a program that logs who got what services where so local nonprofits can work together.
Another shift followed. Whitford read Toxic Charity by Robert Lupton and realized Watered Gardens should challenge people to escape poverty, not enable them to stay there. The shelter added a “Worth Shop,” where people can do simple tasks for a set time to earn what they need. Working 15 minutes buys four thrift shop items. An hour earns someone groceries for a week. Twelve hours a week will earn someone a bed in the shelter (they offer 30 beds for men and 10 for women).
Three years ago, Watered Gardens created the Forge Center for Virtue and Work, the program Logan Fields joined. Six men go through the program at a time, and they prove they’re ready to change by living at Watered Gardens’ shelter and working in the Worth Shop for three months before phase one. Fields started working in the kitchen 20 hours a week, but he could not get along with the volunteers, so he moved to maintenance. Fresh from a violent life, he became angry easily and almost didn’t last: “Everything went smoothly for about a month until I got back in my own head,” he said. “I thought, ‘Oh, I can handle this. I’ve been clean for two months now. I can rock and roll.’” He argued with Jamie Myers until she cried. But when he turned to leave, she asked to pray with him. “Immediately, as soon as she got done praying … I understood things differently,” he said. Fields finished his first three months in the shelter.
After three months, the staff let him move into the Forge dorms (a donated church building down the road from the shelter). Phase one was education. Fields began taking classes eight hours a day, covering topics from Bible study to health to legal living. The next phase focused on work readiness, and the staff connected him with MSW Restaurant Furnishings, a local employer willing to hire him. After that, the transition phase brought freedoms and responsibilities: Fields moved out of the dorms into a house with two classmates a mile and a half from the Forge dorms, but he must pay rent while managing a limited allowance.
The final phase is independence: He will use the money he’s saved to move into his own place (he’s hoping to find a two-bedroom place so his son can come stay sometimes). He will be responsible to pay all bills, keep track of his money, and meet with a mentor each week for accountability. To graduate, he must have his own home, a full-time job, and medical insurance with no government assistance.
Jamie Myers said the program’s graduation rate is around 5 percent (not bad for an intensive program like Forge). “I remember once … there were six guys who came to phase one. Not one of them graduated a year later,” she said. “There are a lot of guys who, 45 days sober, 45 days clean, they think, ‘Hey, I got this.’ Usually they end up back at the Garden, high, drunk, whatever, because nothing changed.” She tapped her chest. “If there’s not change here, you’re not going to change your thoughts and your behavior. And so I tell guys, ‘There’s a whole lot of Jesus in this program. So if He’s not your thing, this is probably not where you want to land.’”
ONE MONDAY MORNING in April, 35 staff members and volunteers gathered in a long room in the Outreach Center for daily devotions. They sipped coffee from plastic foam cups and followed along from Bibles set on the small square tables. After the lesson, all bowed their heads and individuals took turns praying. One man prayed for a Forge student: “I don’t know what’s going on with Jay or the things he’s going through, but I’ve been down a similar path, Lord. I just ask that you’d be with him. Fill his heart with love, Lord, and show him there are people who care for him, and the road he’s going down is not a good one.”
After the prayer time, they opened for the day, and people wearing backpacks and frayed clothes shuffled inside to get coffee. Shelter residents and local people in need checked in at the Worth Shop, stated their needs, and received job assignments for the day. People gathered around tables to break down donated goods for recycling or to craft merchandise from old shopping bags. In the Outreach Center, people did odd jobs and tasks: mopping the floor, taking out the trash, sweeping the chapel upstairs, or—in at least one case—rolling cigarettes (voluntarily, for personal use). James Whitford noticed an unfamiliar face in the crowd and sat down to get to know the first-timer, a man named Seth.
That afternoon, Jocelyn Brisson, shelter director, greeted newcomers and shared the rules with them. At 61, she has wavy brown hair, rings on each hand, and a tattoo on her neck. She grew up on Skid Row in Los Angeles and raised her son on the streets, taking welfare checks and addicted to drugs. She moved to Missouri in 1996 and, after a couple of stints in prison, came to Watered Gardens for court-ordered community service. Over time, Whitford’s wife Marsha befriended her and convinced her to come to chapel.
That night, Marsha and James shared their testimonies. Brisson said she thought, “Holy cow, these people are just regular old people. They had issues too.” Even after her community service hours were done, she continued volunteering at Watered Gardens. Six months after hearing Marsha’s testimony, Brisson heard Whitford give a chapel sermon, and she realized, “There was a whore and there was the criminals that were in the Bible that were Jesus’ followers, you know? And I thought, ‘Well, if Jesus was hanging out with these people, surely He’d hang out with me too.’”
She became a Christian and got clean at age 50. She earned a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, and certification as a substance abuse counselor. Eventually, she gave up her welfare benefits and added her food stamps card to a wall in the Outreach Center with rows of other obsolete cards.
“It’s been my mission in life to let people know that me, the adult homeless person … works at a homeless shelter. Me, the addict strung out for 38 years, is now a substance abuse counselor. Me, the felon … has a master’s in criminal justice,” she said. “God has used all that stuff: Being a shelter manager here, I can give people hope.”
Whitford believes effective charities are work-oriented, outcome-driven, and privately funded. He created the True Charity Initiative program as “a coalescing of some of the hard knocks and the learning curves that we went through.” Individuals, churches, and nonprofits can learn through its seminars and online modules how to provide help that works. He envisions a network of nonprofits that are True Charity Certified.
Though effective, the model at Watered Gardens is not easy: Initially, Missouri law required the ministry to buy workers’ compensation insurance for every client who worked in the Worth Shop, even for as little as 30 minutes. Whitford worked with local politicians to change state law so nonprofits could do such “work exchange” with the poor. Besides logistical challenges, volunteers and staff must get to know residents to learn if they are unable or unwilling to meet standards. Some things will get people kicked out: failing to pass a urinary analysis, rudeness, and physical abuse, for example. Staff members feel heartbreak when people they worked to befriend slide back into their old lives and don’t come back.
But Logan Fields did come back. So far, James Whitford’s instincts are proving true: The apology marked a turning point. Now six months from graduation, he works full time at All Seasons Signs, sees his son once a month, and shares his testimony at homeless camps. His last arrest was May 25, 2018, and he is clean for the first time since he started using drugs at age 14. On April 1, Fields called his brother for the first time in more than a year to say happy birthday. He plans to stick around Watered Gardens after graduating because he’s seen too many classmates fall back into old habits: “It’s either stay connected or die for me, for real,” he said. His first week out of the dorms, he came back to the Forge every night to play cards with the students there.
A faded tattoo is visible on his left hand: an eight ball of meth. Fields said the six laser removal surgeries hurt worse than getting beat up or hit in the head with a baseball bat (and he would know). He said the pain is better than one day explaining his old life to his 3-year-old son. But Jamie Myers is optimistic: “He’s got decades now, statistically, to live a good life, to be a good man, instead of what he doesn’t want his son to know about.”
—This story has been updated to clarify that rolling cigarettes is not an official job assignment for program residents.
2017 income: $1,365,527 2017 expenses: $1,017,094 Paid staff: 20 Volunteers: 224 CEO’s salary: $80,166 Website: wateredgardens.org
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