Claudia Boyd-Barrett, Special to Ventura County Star – February 4, 2019
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Less than a year ago, Joe Hernandez was a heartsick young man living on the streets of Oxnard, a slave to drugs and alcohol.
What started as a desperate attempt to drown out grief over the death of his beloved father had become a monster he couldn’t control. He’d lost custody of his children, alienated family and friends, and given up all sense of pride.
“I was adrift with nowhere to go,” he said. “I was a broken, homeless man who felt ashamed and had no place to turn.”
On Jan 29, Hernandez stood before an audience at Faith Community Church in Oxnard, transformed. He was clean and sober. He wore a suit and a big smile. His wife, Sarai Hernandez, and two young children, Amri and Roman, were there to cheer him on.
Hernandez was one of four men graduating from the Ventura County Rescue Mission’s 10-month Life Recovery program.
The program, funded solely by donations, every year helps dozens of homeless and addicted men and women take back control of their lives, providing recovery services, shelter, food, education and job training. Those who graduate from the program can move into transitional housing provided by the mission for an additional two years, where they continue to receive support.
It marked the rescue mission’s first graduation ceremony of 2019 for the mission in Oxnard.
“We call it our payday,” Rescue Mission Executive Director John Saltee said. “We have seen these men when they come in and they’re thin and dirty and hopeless and confused and they feel guilty. And now you see them they are all in suits and they feel a sense of accomplishment.”
Other men graduating from the program that day were Casey Finn, Anthony Serres and JR Gutierrez. All told tales of heartbreak and struggle.
Finn said he turned to alcohol after his 13-year-old daughter and only child was hospitalized and diagnosed with a lifelong, life-threatening illness.
“This place has truly saved my life,” he said. “From this point on, I will put Christ first in everything I do. As long as I stay faithful, I know that I will be successful.”
Gutierrez’s mom, Deborah Balkcom, could barely hold back her tears as she embraced her son following the graduation ceremony. She was among about a dozen family members who came to show their support.
Balkcom said she had tried to help her son but had eventually called the police on him when she realized he was committing crimes to feed his addiction. Through the courts, he got connected with the rescue mission.
“I got tough and I said no more,” she said. “I said I don’t want to watch you killing yourself.”
Her plan took a lot of courage, she said, but it worked. Balkcom cupped both hands over her heart.
“It’s started to mend,” she said, smiling. “God’s grace has been mindblowing.”