Rockford Rescue Mission is known for serving warm, hearty meals to the homeless, but this west-side staple offers so much more to those who are ready and willing to change their lives for the better.
Matthew Haag knew he had to make some major changes in his life.
“I was a typical addict, just looking for a reason where no one could judge me and I could crawl into the bottom of a bottle for years. As much as I thought I was there for my kids, I really wasn’t there for them and it all had to change,” says Haag, a graduate of Rockford Rescue Mission’s Life Recovery Program.
Haag, 42, says his struggles with alcohol addiction started early on in his life. At one point, he ended up in a coma for five days after a suicide attempt. That’s when he met a social worker in Madison, Wis., who told him about Rockford Rescue Mission.
He’s been at the Mission for about 16 months, and says his experience has been “amazing.”
“The recovery house I was staying at paid for a bus ticket and I came here,” he says. “There were more than a few guys who had been here for a while and they took me in the day I got here. The brotherhood that we have here is unbelievable.”
Helping People in the Name of Christ
Rockford Rescue Mission has been helping people transform their lives for 55 years. The organization gives residents the guidance they need to become better people once they leave the Mission. For some people, they’re also introduced to Jesus Christ for the first time.
“As a faith-based organization, we believe when God gets ahold of a heart and someone decides to follow him, good things come into place after that,” says Sherry Pitney, executive director. “The real restoration can take place when Jesus is at the center of it, and we’ve never shied away from that after 55 years.”
With a large, 105,000-square-foot building on the site of a former Buick car dealership, Rockford Rescue Mission has all the space it needs to provide care for people who’ve been beaten down by life, perhaps burned bridges and made poor choices.
“If I would’ve came here in my 20s, it would’ve been another story because I didn’t want to quit because it was fresh and fun,” Haag says. “But, I got so broken and so far down that I had nowhere else to go but up. Before I got here, I was in the bottom of a hole and I couldn’t see to the top, and now, I have people sticking their hands down to help me up. I keep telling myself I never want to go down that path again because of all the people I hurt.”
Crystal Savage, director of development, says the three main reasons for homelessness at the Mission last year were eviction, addiction and domestic violence/relationship conflicts. Last year, more than 2,000 people came to the Mission’s men’s and women’s programs, which offer safe shelter, food and clothing, community resources, educational opportunities and medical services.
Pitney says there’s a misconception that the Mission only helps people who believe in Christ.
“That’s not true,” she says. “We’ve worked really hard over the years to be a community partner. It’s who we are, but we embrace everyone, faith based or not.”
More than 70 percent of people who visit the Mission are from Rockford. People come to the shelter from surrounding areas as well, including Beloit, Freeport and Ogle County.
“People know us for the meals, shelter and clothing, but we really believe in the changes that can be made in a person’s life,” Pitney says. “We want to help people rebuild their lives from the inside out. Everything is here and available for them to do that if they want to take advantage of the opportunities.”
The Mission provides all of its services without any money from the state or federal government. It gets all its funding from the generosity of about 15,000 active donors, 150 area churches and many businesses and organizations. The Mission operates an annual budget of roughly $7.5 million.
“We don’t want to do anything that would compromise our ability to do things in Jesus’ name,” Pitney says. “It’s a testament to the community, but mostly God because this is his work. We just keep trying to do what he asks us to do.”
Remaking Lives Through Life Recovery
A big component of the Mission is the Men’s and Women’s Life Recovery Program, which helps residents through a nine to 12 month program that offers substance abuse services, spiritual guidance, education and vocational training and health and dental care. Residents are challenged to identify and face their destructive behaviors head on as they transform their life through Jesus Christ. Last year, 112 men and women participated in the program. Residents spend a year in the program and a year in after-care.
The program utilizes the Genesis Process, a Bible-based recovery model designed to help residents address addictive and compulsive behaviors. During the process, residents are taught to look at themselves in the mirror and replace any false beliefs with truths from the word of God.
“The program is based around a 26-week relapse prevention workbook, so they don’t even start that until they’ve been here for six months because they need time to detox,” Savage says. “Genesis looks full circle at your life, and it can be an emotional process, so we want to make sure they’re in a healthy spot to do this.”
The program is divided into stages. The first is social detox, which lasts 30 to 45 days. Residents participate in church and stay in-house with limited outside contact.
“This takes out stresses. They work through how to maintain family relationships and attend a variety of classes during the process,” Savage says.
One of the classes exposes residents to the world of performing arts, which allows them to explore music as a way to grow and heal. When Haag was a teenager, he started playing the bass guitar, but lost interest after three weeks. Through the Life Recovery Program, he’s been taking lessons and he’s spent the past few months performing on stage.
“I don’t usually play well in front of crowds, so it’s strange for me to step out of my comfort zone,” Haag says. “The things that are the hardest to do are worth doing.”
Haag has also dabbled in stand-up comedy. He says his material and his mindset are not the same as they used to be.
“I always believed I needed liquid courage to be good at comedy,” he says. “I enjoyed stand-up, but if I did it, I wouldn’t get up there sober because I was afraid of bombing. I’m more comfortable in front of people today, so there’s a vast difference in the material I have now. It’s cleaner now that I’m sober.”
Residents can also use their hands by making products for Remade, a store with vintage goods, unique pieces of art, furniture and home décor. Remade, located mere feet from the Mission at 611 W. State St., opened in 2017.
Local artists, volunteers and Life Recovery residents come together to refurbish donated goods into repurposed items. Men often build products while women decorate them, and the results fill the store with popular, in-demand items. All the proceeds go back to the Mission.
“It’s a good, creative outlet for them,” says Mary DeHaan, Remade Coordinator. “We’re taking old things and making them new, which is a metaphor for these people’s lives.”
The beauty about Remade, DeHaan says, is it serves as an outlet for the residents, especially women.
“The women know they can make gifts for their family, and they can make a living for themselves,” DeHaan says. “One girl in the program says she wants to be a painter.”
Haag also has products in the store that he’s made, including a multi-colored cutting board.
“It’s cool going over there and saying I made that,” he says.
In the second component of the Life Recovery Program, residents are introduced to Works! Center, which is also open to the community.
Works! Center helps people prepare for the workforce. It provides education and job training for people who want to improve their chances of getting a job.
With the help of local organizations, educators and employers, residents can receive soft-skills training, adult literacy courses, career-readiness and advocacy assistance.
“We’re also a GED testing center,” Savage says. “People can study for the GED, take a practice test and we can also administer the official GED test.”
Residents in Works! Center can also receive real-world experience at Restoration Café, 625 W. State St., just footsteps from the Mission. They learn culinary and customer service skills while earning their Food Handler’s Certificate. They also interact with the community by
serving up coffee along with delicious breakfast and lunch items.
“We have two staff members over there, but everyone else is from the Life Recovery Program,” Savage says. “That gives residents an outlet to work and contribute to society. At the same time, they’ll have something that goes on their resume and for a lot of people, they haven’t had anything on their resume for a long time.”
Stage three is when residents finally get involved with the Genesis Process. All throughout the process, they’re taking classes and meeting with an assigned advocate, who works with them one-on-one each week.
“We always tell them drugs and alcohol are not the problem,” Savage says. “They’re the solution, so we have to figure out what they’re trying to cope with. Until you solve that, it’ll continue to be a problem.”
Resident advocates use the tools in the workbook to dig deep into the resident’s lives and help them process where their addiction is coming from.
“We’re finding the source of their addiction, and when you can identify those issues, you figure out how you can prevent yourself from relapsing,” Savage says. “We empower them with tools that they can look at and revisit.”
Once residents complete Genesis, they’ve completed the Life Recovery Program. Then, they can look at what they want to do for after-care. One option is to move into a transition room, where they’re still living onsite, but they can go out and work. People have worked at Mercyhealth, Bergstrom Inc., Advanced Chimney Systems and plenty of other companies.
“When their day is done, if they’re staying here, they can have the safety and accountability of the Mission,” Savage says. “We also work on saving money, and we create saving goals for them so when they are ready to leave here, they have some money to put down a first month’s rent with a deposit.”
If someone decides to move out, they still have the comfort of knowing the Mission will spend another year working with them.
“We have a staff person who’s always connected with them, asking each month if they’re staying in church or if their relationship with their family is improving,” Pitney says. “We find that the ones who stay connected to the church are the ones who are the most successful.
The ones who stop their church are the ones who struggle when they leave here.”
Haag says if you decide to participate in the Mission’s Life Recovery Program, you have to be fully committed in order to change your life. “It’s called Life Recovery because it makes you change everything about yourself,” he says. “Your thinking has to change, and not just what you do. If you do what they teach you, it works. Plain and simple.”
As she looks ahead to the next 55 years, Pitney wants the Mission to do a better job at helping residents mend the broken relationships with their families. Helping a resident is one thing, but working within their broken families is another challenge. But it’s one Pitney and her staff are ready to accept.
“We want to continue helping family members understand what we do because so many bridges have been burned, so trust is a big deal,” Pitney says. “We want to help the whole family get restored because sometimes, a family has to be rebuilt. Sometimes, a family is ready and wanting to love again but they don’t know how to trust again.”
Along with that, Pitney wants to continue informing the community about what the Mission offers. Help is always available to whomever needs it.
“No one ever wants to come here, but once they’re here, people are thankful they’re here, so we want to continue being good stewards to our community,” Pitney says. “We have a voice here, so we have the opportunity and the resources to better educate them.”
Tours are available, so if you’re a community member who’s interested in volunteering, you can see firsthand what the Mission is like. “Taking a tour is an awesome away to open our doors to the community,” Savage says. “People can see their gifts and donations at work. When people come here, they always say they didn’t know all this was here.”
A Changed Life
Haag says he owes everything to Rockford Rescue Mission. For him, the Mission has been lifesaving.
“A majority of the guys in here will say if they weren’t here, they’d be dead,” he says. “This place won’t just save your life, but it’ll change your life and I can attest to that. If you believe and you’re here learning what they teach you, you won’t go back to the way you were. Today, I can stick my hand down in that hole and help other people.”
Savage says she can see God in Haag. After reflecting on the progress he’s made during his time at the Mission, she calls him a walking miracle.
“You’re a walking testament to the power of God,” Savage says to Haag as she chokes back tears. “I see him at work and I shed happy tears every day. It’s a beautiful thing.”