Carol Burgess remembers the Sunday in 1981 when A.B. Short, an ordained minister and member of Oakhurst Baptist Church in Decatur, Ga., “sounded a call” for a compassionate response to Atlanta’s homeless. She volunteered.
“I thought it sounded too much like work at first,” she confessed.
At the time Carol worked in adult protective services at the Fulton County Department of Family and Children Services in the downtown area where many homeless men gathered. She thought, “I could be a liaison.”
However, her involvement in the ministry to homeless men has grown along with program. She remains an active volunteer and a member of the Oakhurst Recovery Program’s board of directors.
“I went to the first meeting and ended up being a cook,” she recalled.
The earliest days had little strategy. Just take a church van downtown and pick up homeless men looking for a place to eat and sleep.
“We turned the Sunday school rooms on the third floor (of the church’s education building) into individual rooms,” she recalled.
The more Oakhurst members interacted with these men, the better they understood the causes of homelessness.
“Addiction is a big reason for homelessness,” said Carol, noting that mental illness is another.
Over the years the Oakhurst program evolved from a night shelter — going through various partnerships with other organizations — into a residential recovery program for men.
“It was first called Hospitality House,” said pastor Lanny Peters who has been at Oakhurst since 1989 and was heavily involved in the program’s transition to its current form. He admits many challenges have been met — including changes in leadership and limited financial resources — over the years.
“Each time the church has said, ‘This is an important ministry and we are not going to let it die,’” said Lanny. “It’s a vital part of our identity.”
Oakhurst is widely known for it compassion, inclusiveness and a willingness to adjust its ministry attention to a changing community. As many as 70 volunteers have been engaged at any one time in this service to homeless men.
Today the program is directed by David Reeves, an experienced and certified specialist, who came to Decatur from working in recovery programs in New York City.
His motivation comes from “knowing I may have helped affect change in one person.”
The church purchased a home next door to better serve as a residence for the men. Church facilities are still used for group meetings, meals and other activities.
David said the Oakhurst program is unique in that each man has his own bedroom — something he saves as a pleasant surprise when a guy arrives expecting to live in a dorm. Also, David encourages those entering the program to give full attention to the needed personal changes in their lives — for about six months — before seeking employment.
Referrals often come from detoxification centers — and represent a diverse population in terms of race, education, age and experience. Former Georgia Tech and Green Bay Packers running back Eddie Lee Ivery credits Oakhurst with his successful recovery after a failed attempt through an NFL-sponsored program, said Lanny.
Having worked in chemical dependency for 18 years, David said the Oakhurst program —while not fail-proof — provides men with the “time to focus on 12-step work.” The “re-entry phase” — job training and search, family reconnection — comes after the hard work of dealing with addiction.
“Graduates come back as volunteers,” he said. “We try to keep guys linked in that way to a program that was good to them.”
There is special motivation, he said, when someone who has successfully completed the program looks another man in the eyes and says, “You can too.”
Carol is among the volunteers who lead spirituality groups for the men. She has been doing so since 2001.
“They are all phony when they come in, though they don’t mean to be,” she said. “You get to see them grow spiritually and to see them get to know themselves and have a spiritual life with daily practices.”
Some men choose to worship with the Oakhurst congregation but attendance is always a choice.
While funding is a constant challenge and the process of recovery is never fully predictable, David said he and others carry out their daily work with the reminder: “We’re dealing with human beings.”
In one way or another, and having touched many lives, the Oakhurst congregation has stayed true to the call that was sounded nearly three decades ago.
[PHOTOS: One of the ten individual bedrooms in the Oakhurst Recovery home. Longtime volunteer Carol Burgess and program director David Reeves.]
-For information on the Oakhurst Recovery Program or to discover ways to support his effort, visit www.oakhurstrecovery.org.
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