The element of hope: Local faith-based organizations expand role in combating substance abuse

A group meeting at Oswego’s Victory Transformation Center, above, is one way local faith-based organizations are hoping to help combat the ongoing local and national drug abuse crisis.

OSWEGO — Local faith-based organizations are hoping to take a lead role in confronting the ongoing crisis of substance abuse.

According to the federal Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), opioid-related drug overdoses kill more than 130 people daily. A 2017 study by the American Addiction Center (AAC) found 1.7 million people over the age of 12 abusing prescription painkillers. More than 80 percent of heroin addicts report getting their start on pain pills, according to the same study.

Studies indicate alcohol abuse is also on the rise: The AAC reports 14.5 million Americans afflicted with alcoholism and estimates 88,000 alcohol-related deaths annually, making alcohol the third leading cause of preventable mortality.

After decades of proactive and educational efforts, there seems to be no easy answer but several local Christian organizations have rolled up their sleeves and gotten to work to offer “hope” in the form of what leaders say are Christ, community and compassion.

The Victory Transformation Center, located at 225 W. 2nd St. in Oswego, is a forerunner of such local faith-based facilities.

Daun Whittaker, 53, established the center in 2012 as an extensively credentialed veteran of the counseling and substance abuse fields and who formerly served as executive director of the Mental Health Association of Jefferson County. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, Whittaker and husband Bill say after moving to Oswego, they felt a call to full-time ministry.

With a team of supporters and a lot of prayer, the Whittakers’ vision moved swiftly forward and grew from a small house group to the epicenter of Christian recovery services in Oswego County in a few short years.

Despite a small staff and budget, Victory provides a wide array of offerings including critical needs services, counseling, drug rehabilitation program facilitation, discipleship and prayer ministry, independent housing assistance, financial aid and an employment placement program which also assists patrons to obtain a driver’s license.

The ‘Victory Houses’ (separate dwellings for men and women) offer accountability and support for individuals who need a place to stay while in recovery, Whittaker said. In addition, Victory offers bible studies and fellowship groups, Christian life skills training, regular clothing give-aways and meals at the Victory Roadhouse Café.

Victory works closely with another local Christian recovery program: a transitional housing ministry operated by Pastor Wade Smith. Smith, 49, and his wife, Wendy, 47. The Smiths have nine children, four of whom were adopted through the foster care system and the couple has spent 15 years serving the congregation of the Oswego Alliance Church.

Wade Smith says his ministry to impoverished communities overseas opened his eyes to the needs of his local community and he eventually decided to dedicate his life to meeting those needs full-time. In April of 2019, the couple bid their congregation a bittersweet good-bye to commit to assisting recovering addicts through their budding non-for-profit ministry, Bridge To Hope.

Bridge To Hope (BTH) provides transitional housing for those seeking recovery and work closely with each individual, facilitating programs, transportation, weekly Bible studies and employment opportunities.

“Our goal is to provide hope to these individuals, helping them take steps toward becoming who they want to be,” says Smith. “There is a great need in (Oswego) for people to build relationships with those who are down-trodden. It isn’t enough to give money, or put them in a program; they need someone to walk with them through the ups and downs.”

BTH works with many organizations to assist clients including the county Department of Social Services, Catholic Charities and Farnham Family Services as well as local doctors, churches, businesses and counselors to provide holistic assistance.  

Pastor Smith says that they are making progress but needs often exceed resources.

“We need volunteers to mentor these men, to meet with them once a week to check in on them. One of the challenges for the men is finding employment,” he said. “Many of them have difficult backgrounds… (and attend) almost daily meetings if they are involved in out-patient rehabilitation.  This puts limitations on their schedule.”

Smith is now going the extra mile to overcome that obstacle, launching a landscaping company dubbed ‘New Creation Services’ to provide part-time work for program participants.

“I work side-by-side with the men, giving them the flexibility to go to their appointments without repercussions,’ says Smith. His hope is to  “(eventually) turn the business over to the men (who have completed) the program, as managers and employees.”

Skirting the edges of Oswego County, Patrick Braun, 44, oversees the Reformer’s Unanimous (RU) group in Martville. According to Braun, RU is “a biblically based, Christ-centered recovery program designed to rescue, recover, and restore those with addictive behaviors by the power of the victorious, hidden life found only in Jesus Christ.”

His ministry serves both Oswego and Cayuga counties, meeting at the Emmanuel Bible Baptist Church in Martville on Friday evenings. RU meetings have an element of inclusion for the families of addicts that is uncommon to many recovery programs.

“We offer nursery, kids club, youth group, men, and ladies’ group to make sure the whole family can be involved in the recovery (process). All of our leaders are volunteers who have graduated from the program,” says Braun, highlighting an “84 percent success rate of people (remaining sober) after graduation.”

Christian groups in Oswego say they’re standing on the front lines, ready to meet the practical, physical and spiritual needs for addicts in search of hope.

“If you take time to hear their stories, you’ll find that there is a reason they are (where they are),” says Wendy Smith. “With lots of help, support and prayer, we hope to introduce people to Jesus and give them the tools to change their situations… and encourage them as they make progress.”

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