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Saving Lives On Skid Row

 LA Watts Times, News Report, Shirley Hawkins

LOS ANGELES -- For many who survive on the gritty streets of the Skid Row district of Downtown Los Angeles, the 75-year-old Los Angeles Mission serves as a beacon of hope that continues to transform countless broken lives.

South Los Angeles resident David Thomas, 49, is all too familiar with the needs that the Los Angeles Mission serves. Ten years ago, Thomas was barely surviving amid the grit and grime on the streets of Skid Row, homeless, drug addicted and illiterate.

"I saw a lot of things happen in the streets," says Thomas, who was addicted to crack cocaine at the time. "I saw people getting robbed, people getting jumped on and beat up — I even saw dead bodies."

Acutely aware that his life was spiraling out of control, Thomas sought a change.

"I started talking to God," he recalls. "I said, 'God, if you heal me from these addictions, I'll do whatever you want.'"

Life didn't change all at once, Thomas says, but during one drug-induced high he paused in front of the Los Angeles Mission.

"For some reason, I don't know why, I reached out and clutched the gates," he says. "I know it sounds strange, but after I touched those gates, I became sober. A man came out of the mission and asked, 'Hey, are you alright?' " Then he went back inside of the mission and returned with some food. I asked him, 'What's the name of this place?' He said, 'This is the Los Angeles Mission and we run a rehabilitation program.'"

A light went on, according to Thomas.

"I made up my mind right then that I needed to be there," he says. "I came back at 5 a.m. and never left."

Thomas enrolled in the mission's 18-month Urban Training Institute (UTI) rehabilitation program, where he received counseling, training and religious support.

Ana Ceravolo, director of the UTI program, says she vividly remembers Thomas when he first enrolled in the program.

"He was very determined," she recalls. "He believed in himself and he had other people believing in him, as well."

Ceravolo says that men who enroll in the UTI's rehabilitation and recovery program live on site where they receive life skills classes.

"We offer parenting, anger management and domestic violence classes," she says. "We also help the client with resumes, job skills, interviewing techniques and job leads."

The UTI is a court-approved program and their services are free to the public, Ceravolo says.

The mission helped Thomas in other ways, as well. He was unable to read because of a lifelong struggle with dyslexia, but the mission hired volunteer tutor, Julie Bork, to work with him for two hours a day.

"We started with Hooked on Phonics," Thomas recalls, chuckling.

After completing the reading program, the mission referred Thomas to Los Angeles Trade Technical College for training in its culinary program. Thomas completed the two-year course, and was hired as assistant director of Food Service at the mission. Along with Food Service Director Chris Cormier, the two men fix meals for up to 1,500 individuals a day.

Thomas is also responsible for training other UTI enrollees in food service.

"Some of the guys come into the kitchen with a chip on their shoulder until they feel they can trust you," he says. "We train them to run a dish machine and meat slicer, how to properly use a knife and to know the proper temperature for food. After they complete the UTI program, the mission helps them with job placement."

Thomas' life has improved in other ways, as well.

He met his future wife, Gwen, at the Los Angeles Mission. The two are now happily married. Through the mission, he began attending the First Church of God in Inglewood, where Gregory Dixon is the pastor. Each Sunday, Thomas, who has since become a minister, climbs into the driver's seat of the mission's van and escorts men from the mission to church.

Dixon said that Thomas, who works in the evangelism and outreach ministries, has been a welcome addition to the church.

"He's an avid supporter of the ministry and he's got a real heart for service," Dixon says. "He's a people person. Dave will give the shirt off his back if someone needs it."

Thomas says he is grateful to have found the Los Angeles Mission.

"If I hadn't found the mission, I would still be running around on Skid Row hooked on drugs and alcohol," he says. "The Los Angeles Mission saved me and helped me to get my life back together."



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