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100 Years of Rescuing One Day At A Time

By Anne Levin

Illustrations by Jorge Naranjo

Lanky and energetic with an engaging smile, Rodney Hargis exudes confidence. The pony-tailed North Carolina native is an analyst with MercerOnline at his alma mater, Mercer County Community College. At his graduation in 2009, he delivered the commencement speech. In his free time, he sings and plays guitar, mostly at gigs with his wife, a drummer and bass player, at a Grovers Mill coffeehouse. Life is good. But a decade ago, it was a different story. Hargis was addicted to drugs and alcohol. “I had been in and out of jail and had really reached bottom,” he says. “I was on the streets. I had a beat-up guitar and the clothes on my back, and that was it.” Now 43, Hargis is sitting in an office at The Rescue Mission in Trenton, the place he credits with saving his life. Between 2004 and 2006, he lived at the brick complex on gritty Carroll Street, getting himself clean and learning how to make the most of his young life. “I came here looking for a roof over my head,” he recalls. “I’d given up everything to my addiction. They took me in, and I lived in the shelter. I did work therapy—computer stuff, scheduling the trucks, taking calls, whatever they needed—and that gave me the foundation to move ahead.”

Hargis’s story is inspiring, but it is hardly unique. For nearly 100 years, the Rescue Mission, located in a former pottery and cracker factory, has been helping those caught in a downward spiral try to reclaim and rebuild their lives. There are countless clients with similar tales of redemption. For many, success has come only after two or three attempts, spaced out over years. Recovering from addiction and homelessness is hard work.

But work has been the key, almost since the Mission’s beginnings. As part of a policy that has evolved into the Work Therapy/Life Skills program, clients are given tasks that benefit the Mission while keeping them busy and helping them gain confidence. Today, about 30 percent of the Mission’s annual operating budget comes from the jobs clients do around the complex.

“The fact that we have the ability to give them the chance to contribute to the organization in a way that makes them responsible people is really important,” says Mary Gay Abbott-Young, since 1986 the Mission’s chief executive officer and director. “If our residents don’t participate in that willingly, we’ve got a real problem. We need them, they need us. Sometimes we teach each other. How great is that?”

One afternoon last month, Abbott-Young took a visitor on a tour through the Mission’s string of buildings. Everywhere she went—the Rescue Mission Store filled with donated furniture, clothing, and housewares; the sitting and dining area of the emergency homeless shelter, hallways between the buildings; classrooms where clients were being counseled—she was greeted with the same question: “How was your trip? Are you back?”

Abbott-Young had been in Pittsburgh to visit relatives, away from the Mission for barely three days. But her presence had clearly been missed. She is unquestionably the heart of the organization, though she protests. “It has nothing to do with Mary Gay Abbott-Young,” she says. “I’m just the bridge. I tell the residents, it’s all about the opportunity. Take it or leave it. All of our counselors go to them with one goal: What do you need and are you willing to do the hard work to rebuild your life?”

The Rescue Mission will celebrate its centennial throughout 2015 with various events including a mega-miniature golf tournament held inside the facility; a talk by Eric LeGrand, the Rutgers University football player who was paralyzed during a game and will speak on the importance of hope; and the induction of the first honorees into the Mission’s Hall of Fame. Next fall, a special collection event will be launched; the aim is to break the world record of the number of clothing items collected. “What I really love to celebrate is how dramatically some lives are impacted,” says Abbott- Young. “Some people might leave after being here doesn’t work for them. They might go elsewhere, to different programs. But then if they don’t work, they ask if they can come back. I think it’s wonderful that these people who have been through so many different systems and institutions say, ‘There’s a place I know I can go back to and restart my life.”

Equally worth celebrating is the way the Mission is a part of the community. “That’s the fun part,” says Abbott-Young. “Literally thousands of people of greater economic resources will make the effort to give to the Mission. That’s the ultimate community outreach. So the guy who puts his clothes in a box and donates them is just as important as anyone else to our success.”

The Rescue Mission was founded in 1915 by Mr. and Mrs. William Anderson, at a time when similar institutions were springing up in urban areas across the country. As early as 1918, the Mission was putting up more than 100 men a night. Factor in the Depression a decade later, and the facility was being taxed to its limits. During the first nine months of 1931, 12,483 men slept under its roof. Around that time, the Mission started putting clients to work to help offset the costs of food and shelter. By 1953, private and group counseling was initiated and several new programs got underway. There were five operating thrift stores at one time, and a thriving industrial salvage operation. Female clients and drugs began to figure into the picture during the years that James N. Brimmer was executive director, from 1959 to 1985. Previously, the clientele was male and their addictions were only to alcohol.

Brimmer’s son Jim Brimmer, who is 66, grew up at the Mission. “I’ve been here my whole life in one way or another,” he says. “We had an apartment on the second floor for a while. Before that, we lived on the Mission farm in Chesterfield, which doesn’t exist anymore.” Brimmer and his two brothers were never discouraged from mingling with the men at the Mission, save for one convicted pedophile from whom they kept their distance. “These men were always my friends,” he says. “It was like having a lot of grandfathers. I was on the bowling team with them and my dad. My brothers and I handed out bibles when my father preached on Sundays. We were servers at holiday dinners. I still come and visit when I can. I love this place.”

Fresh from working in a detox unit in Philadelphia, Abbott-Young was hired by the Mission in 1978 as a program coordinator for the housing unit known as Vince’s Place. It wasn’t long before Brimmer Sr. saw that she was the one to take over when he was ready to leave. “He wanted Mary Gay to be the director,” says his son. “He recognized that she had the right stuff. He knew you had to be both tough and compassionate. You can’t be too tough to cry. But you have to be tough enough to take them by the nape of the neck and throw them out the door if you have to.” Abbott-Young has friendly blue eyes and a winning smile. A mother of two (her son Barrett is the Mission’s Operating Officer; her daughter is a lawyer) and proud grandmother of one, she can be soft-hearted. But she isn’t afraid to raise her voice. When she notices a group of people loitering where they shouldn’t, in front of the ARC Mercer building across Carroll Street, she shoves open the door and yells, loudly and clearly: “Would you please get away from the front of the building? Move away, please.” The group immediately disperses.

“I love Mary Gay. She’s like a sister, a mother, a friend. But she’s tough,” says Wayne Frascella, a former client who is now a residential services associate and has worked with the Mission for a decade. “She expects a lot, but she has another part of her that a lot of people don’t know. She’s tough for a reason. She wants the Rescue Mission to be here in 25 years.”

“It’s my greatest strength and my greatest weakness,” Abbott-Young says of her demanding side. “I get so much pleasure out of what I do that I get frustrated when people don’t get it. I know I’m difficult to have as a boss. But someone comes here with everything they own in a plastic bag. How can I not work my hardest to help them?”

Of Brimmer, her former boss, Abbott-Young says, “If I have a drop of the humanity and love that he had, I would consider myself a great success.”

The Mission was in dire financial shape when Abbott-Young arrived, and Brimmer was reluctant to ask for government money. “He was a World War II guy and he believed you bleed and you work, you bleed and you work,” she recalls. “So we fought about it. I told him you can’t let a great organization go down because you won’t take government money.”

Brimmer finally relented, and Abbott- Young began applying for grants. “I went around to talk to government officials and other people and said, ‘Tell me how to save the Rescue Mission.’ We carried that little flag around town and people started to help us,” she says. “We learned how to apply to foundations and develop money. Things kept growing and changing. We began to formalize programs. We had an addictions unit that specialized in treating homeless addicts, and then we made the leap to treating the criminal justice client.”

The statistics speak for themselves. In the last fiscal year, there were 127,978 meals served in the Mission’s emergency shelter, while 57,277 people slept in the shelter’s beds. A total of 25,756 days were spent in the residential addiction treatment program, and 4,531 days were spent in the rooming/boarding house known as the Robinson Program. Forty-seven clients secured employment.

The Mission has grown over the years. Abbott-Young and her staff are especially proud of the $3.7 million Perry Street Permanent Housing Complex, a gleaming, four-story building with studio apartments occupied by 15 previously homeless individuals. The apartments were funded by grants and private donations, as well as the state Housing and Mortgage Financing Agency, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the city of Trenton and Federal Home Loan Bank. Tenants are expected to put 30 percent of their income to rent, but there is no set rental fee.

“I love the direction the Mission has taken in permanent and transitional housing,” says Joyce Williams, who has been the night manager in one of the shelters for 23 years. “Before, there was the shelter, the residential treatment program, and room and board. Now we have the shelter, the residential drug and alcohol program, transitional housing, and permanent housing.”

The Mission has an extensive roster of treatment activities. Addiction education sessions, in-house 12-step program meetings, discussion groups with the organization People & Stories (Gente Y Cuentos), sewing, painting, computer classes, and even a Latin class are among the offerings. The idea is to keep clients busy and inspire them to move forward. “It’s all about the people we serve,” says Williams. “People always say I have a thankless job. And yes, there are people who curse me out on a regular basis. In the beginning, it was hard to accept. But I understand now that it’s not you they’re angry at.” Larry Lotts came to the Mission five years ago while struggling with a cocaine problem after a divorce. Today, he works at ARC Mercer, across the street. “The whole staff would say stuff to me. Everyone would tell me stuff,” he says. “And then at night, I’d lie in bed and try to put it together. But it was something Mary Gay said to me: ‘Do me a favor while you’re here—just get to know you. Don’t worry about anything else. So you can get better and be a productive member of society.’

“She was right. I worked on me and didn’t worry about anything else. This is a hell of a place for someone who wants to change their life. They pointed me in the right direction, but I had to do the work.”