Once homeless, now helping others
Jennifer Ferrell figures she went through rough times for a reason.
“I was homeless and heroin-addicted,” she said. “I was in and out of jail. I made bad choices.”
But, eventually, she made some good choices — turning to God and entering a Thugz Off Drugz recovery shelter.
She got clean, got a job and got her children back. Now she helps others by telling her story and working with Helping Hands, the renamed and expanded Thugz program. In fact, she has been promoted to development director.
“I promised God I’d share my story,” Ferrell said. “It’s a gift from God to be able to take what’s painful in our lives and use it to help others.”
Ferrell will tell her story, and that of Thugz/Helping Hands, at the Newberg Rotary Auction set for Saturday, March 15. She has also addressed other service clubs and organizations like the Yamhill County Republican Women and the Christian Chamber of Commerce.
“I get nervous before speaking,” she said. “But when I start, the words just come, because this is what I believe in. I love knowing that something I said gave someone hope.”
In a way, Ferrell’s grandmother predicted it all.
“She would pray and pray for me,” Ferrell recalled. “She said, ‘Satan wouldn’t try so hard if God didn’t have a plan for you.’”
Ferrell was born in Newberg. She moved to Central Oregon during her high school years, then ended up just off 82nd Avenue in Portland.
“Drugs were always around,” she said, and she turned first to methamphetamine, then to heroin. They offered a temporary escape from problems and pain.
She was involved with a man who was abusive, she said. When the police were called to one of their fights, she was taken to jail for the first time.
Their split left her homeless, and she spent the next five or six years on the street, interspersed with brief stints in jail.
“Every now and then, someone took me in,” she said. But almost always, the gift of shelter came with a price.
She did get to live with a friend for a few months during her second pregnancy. But she usually turned down shelters run by charitable organizations, because they had strict rules about people getting high.
“I chose drugs over good shelter,” she said.
Mostly, she remained on the street. She slept in church doorways, or nestled into rolls of old carpet in a dumpster on Swan Island. If she had a vehicle, she slept in it.
In 2007, she returned to Yamhill County, where her aunt and uncle lived.
Her uncle had heard a presentation by Alan Evans, director of Thugz Off Drugz, and fallen in love with the program. So when Ferrell called them in search of help, they recommended the organization to her.
She let her uncle drive her to the Thugz office. But she said, “I had used heroin that day. I wasn’t ready.”
The director of the group’s women’s shelter spoke with Ferrell about her needs, then gave her a voucher for a motel room.
The next day, with the drugs wearing off, Ferrell moved into the shelter. But things got worse before they got better.
“I had to detox from heroin,” she said. “It was quite a week.”
After the fog began to lift, she said, “I felt safe. I felt cared about in a strong way.”
She said the structure of the program helped her.
For a while, Thugz personnel told her what she needed to do next at each step. They stressed that they were there to help, but that she needed to help herself as well.
“I had to do chores,” Ferrell said, remembering her household duties with pride. “I became part of something.”
For years, she said, she hadn’t felt like part of society. She didn’t fit in anywhere and wasn’t needed anywhere.
“With heroin, it’s all about ‘me,’” she said. “You have nothing to offer others.”
When a jail guard was kind to her, for example, she didn’t know how to react. She felt like nothing. She wondered, why would anyone be kind to me?
But at the shelter, she was off drugs and her basic needs were being met. Everyone was kind to her and she began making friends.
She also got to know her sons again. The younger is now a 17-year-old high school student and the older a 20-year-old Osprey maintenance tech in the Air Force.
As important as Thugz was to her, Ferrell said she felt support from another source as well.
“I had accepted Christ in jail,” she said, recalling how she opened a Bible and say Jeremiah 29:11, a verse strikingly similar to her grandmother’s prayer: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
Accepting Christ has made healing possible, she said. “It was God’s plan for me to be part of the group.”
God helped her find a job, as well.
On her way to anti-addiction meetings, she regularly passed Poseyland Florist.
She noticed the Christian messages on the reader board and stopped in to ask about a job. The owners offered her a part-time position cleaning flowers.
Ferrell said she was still taking things one day at a time then.
When her boss offered to write down her hours on the shop’s monthly schedule, she said, “I couldn’t conceive of that.” She told her boss, “Just tell me each day if you want me to come back tomorrow.”
She became a manager at Poseyland before leaving to take a different position.
Helping Hands received a three-year grant from the Murdock Trust to hire a development director.
When Evans advertised the position, he knew what he was looking for first and foremost — empathy.
“Many of the applicants didn’t have the experience of brokenness, of addiction,” he said. “It would be hard for them to sell this program if they didn’t have the experience.”
He kept thinking about Ferrell. He knew her as someone who had successfully competed the Thugz program, and he’d heard her speak at her church, Northside Community.
She was in a unique position to be able to handle not only the duties of the position, but to explain the program to potential partners, supporters and donors, Evans said.
“Jenny’s story is one of purpose,” he said. “It’s so compelling. I thought she’d be a perfect fit for us, showing that change is possible and we believe people deserve a chance.”
As it happened, Ferrell was available.
“A year ago, someone asked me, if you could have any job you wanted, what would it be,” she recalled. “I said I wanted to help people get their lives back together.”
And now she has that opportunity.
Starla Pointer, who is convinced everyone has an interesting story to tell, has been writing the weekly “Stopping By” column since 1996. She’s always looking for suggestions. Contact her at 503-687-1263 or email@example.com.
THUGZ BROADENS FOCUS, BECOMES HELPING HANDS
Thugz Off Drugz, a program that helps people turn their lives around and reintegrate into the community, is expanding its focus under a new name — Helping Hands Re-entry Outreach Centers.
Under the name Thugz Off Drugs, the program has been operating in Yamhill County for almost a decade.
Executive Director Alan Evans said it is currently offering housing and other services at four shelters in McMinnville and Newberg. He said its women’s shelter in McMinnville is a particular standout, becoming a model for other programs, thanks to its high degree of accountability and assistance for its female clients.
The organization also operates in Clatsop and Lincoln counties.
A couple of years ago, funding waned for the Clatsop County facility, forcing Thugz to close a shelter housing about 40 people. But the program was saved by a group of Thugz graduates, he said.
With the help of others from the community, they opened a thrift store to support the shelter. Within six months, it was self-supporting, he said.
As a result, the group shifted its focus somewhat, striving to encompass everything a client would need to successfully re-enter society. He said the new model was given a new name, Helping Hands, and instituted in Lincoln and Yamhill counties as well.
“We’ve had tremendous success in Yamhill County, partnering with the Department of Human Services and Yamhill County Corrections,” Evans said. “Now we want to build more collaboration, with even more structure and accountability, and give people more tools as they re-enter society.”
He said the new name better reflects its overall mission of aiding people not only in getting clean, but also in becoming productive citizens. He said graduates remain proud of the program’s original name, though.
“This program is not about bad people being good, but about broken people being better,” said Evans, himself a survivor of drug addiction and homelessness. “We believe people deserve a chance.”
One thing that prompted the shift in focus was the effort to keep Thugz graduates from falling back into the cycle of negative behavior.
At one point, Evans surveyed enrollment at the Seaside shelter and found that 18 of 19 men staying there at the time were returnees. He felt recidivism could be reduced if the program looked farther into the future, providing clients with skills and services that would help them long-term.
To accomplish that, he said, Thugz/Helping Hands needed to reach out to other helping agencies and organizations, embracing a “takes a village” approach. “We needed to wrap services around the person, bring the services to them,” he said.
Instead of sending a Helping Hands client to several different agencies to get help, those agencies and others would send someone to the Helping Hands shelter to work with clients in their own setting.
That would remove a number of obstacles that could stand in the way of success, Evans said. For instance, a recovering alcoholic wouldn’t have to walk past a bar to get to the employment office, or several clients who need basic education wouldn’t have to take a bus across town for a GED class.
The new structure was an immediate success in Clatsop County, where it was embraced by the community, Evans said. In an initial group of six clients, he had hoped two would successfully complete the program, but all six did.
Three are now full-time students and three have jobs, he said. Two were able to re-establish custody of their children as well.
Now, Evans said, Helping Hands develops an individual re-entry plan for each client, just as schools use individual education plans for students. The plan is different for each person, depending on their needs for services in areas of health, education, parenting, anger management, job needs, etc.
“We listen to you, then set up a one-year plan to help you take all the little steps you need,” he said.
With new development director Jenny Ferrell on board, the Helping Hands program now is seeking collaborators and tax-deductible donations for its long-term re-entry program. One of it’s fundraisers is an Adopt-a-Bed program, which seeks pledges of $120 a month — the cost of housing and providing services for one client for a month.
For more information, call 503-738-4321 or visit www.helpinghanddsreentry.org.