The Altoona Rescue Mission, which provides help to the homeless and to men down on their luck, has been a staple in Altoona since 1927, but a devastating fire a decade ago and an ensuing struggle with debt closed its doors in late 2012.
Now its board of directors is turning to a 29-year-old native of San Diego for help. Jared Bowling arrived in Altoona with his wife, Rachel, and their 5-month-old daughter a month ago, during a period of heavy snow and subzero temperatures.
"We love it," said Bowling, noting the obvious difference between the weather in San Diego and Altoona.
Mirror file photo by Gary M. Baranec
These volunteers were among more than 20 who participated in a cleanup of the rescue mission on Lexington Avenue. The group put in approximately 120 hours getting the shelter into a condition that it can reopen.
Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec
When the Altoona Rescue Mission opens, Jared Bowling will be the new director. The mission is located on Lexington Avenue.
He called his new town literally "a breath of fresh air."
But Bowling is under no illusion about the task ahead.
"I have a lot of learning to do. This is a big job here," he said.
He is aiming to reopen the mission at 815 Lexington Ave., a new building, by early July.
The mission is already raising funds through a thrift shop at 2809 Seventh Ave.
His task initially will be to re-establish the mission's roots in the community by contacting area church leaders, social agencies, other leading organizations and business leaders.
He said that while the mission is not taking in residents yet, a man knocked on the door the other day and said he needed a place to stay. The Rescue Mission has traditionally offered an emergency bed to those without a place to stay.
Bowling, the son of a retired Marine, noticed the man was wearing a military-style hat. He said he is eager to make contact with the Van Zandt VA Medical Center in Altoona, which has as one of its goals to eliminate homelessness among veterans in its 16-county region.
He has already attended a Friday evening session of Reformers Unanimous, a faith-based program for those struggling with drugs and alcohol.
Those Friday evening meetings are held at the Dry Run Independent Baptist Church near Duncansville.
In the past couple of years, the organization led by Kent Fluke of Hollidaysburg has offered its services to men and women in the Blair County Prison, and the program is among the most popular for those who are incarcerated.
The word that Bowling uses constantly is "hope."
That is what he wants his mission to provide to those who come.
"They come with no jobs, no clothes, no hope. ... They leave with jobs, friends and hope," he said, outlining his goals.
Reintegration is goal
The Altoona center will have five beds for emergency shelter and 15 beds for those who decide to remain there to go through three phases of the program: renew, recovery and reform.
The first 30 days will include chapel, meals and some work around the mission and the thrift shop.
The mission will have a 90-day program that will include part-time work, possibly 20 hours a week at a job.
The six-month program will fully reintegrate the resident back into the community, hopefully with a full-time job and a dramatically altered attitude toward life.
In the process, the residents will examine how they got to the point where they are and consider a different path from their past lives of "self-inflicted pain and self-medication," Bowling said.
He said he will share his story, and he hopes mission residents will share their stories with him.
Although Bowling is very young, he knows about what he speaks, for his life has at times traveled along a very bumpy road.
Bowling said not everybody will buy into the mission program. He said he expects that some of the residents will even end up cursing him out.
He said that with a faint smile because he remembers his struggle with addiction, and he said a person trying to shake a habit is "upset" and in "turmoil."
"I cussed people out," he said, noting he did it for no particular reason, other than what he was going through was "intense."
But he hopes even those who reject the mission's efforts will know that when they leave, that for that brief period of time, they were loved.
When Bowling was 18, he said he rebelled from his upbringing, which included a strong church background.
He believes the separation of his parents was the seed of his rebellion, but life became one of "sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll."
He became the lead singer of a rock band and recorded with Mark "Traa" Daniels whose San Diego-based rock band is known as P.O.D.
"All I wanted to do was go out, party and drink," he explained.
He said Daniels is still putting out albums, but Bowling said his life in music had hit a dead end because "you can't be successful like that [partying all the time]."
"Even the band was frustrated with me," he said.
He found a mentor who had been down the same road and who redirected his life. Bowling began attending Southern California Seminary school in El Cajon, Calif., and attended what he called a megachurch, the Shadow Mountain Community Church, whose pastor was David Jeremiah, well-know for his television and radio broadcasts.
Jeremiah gave Bowling an assignment to work with troubled teens from the inner city. His work carried him into juvenile hall.
Later, when he worked for a bank, he helped start a church.
Learning about Altoona
Bowling said he learned of the director's position in Altoona from a website for Christians. He never heard of the city, but after a time he decided to inquire about the job.
During the Rescue Mission's troubled times of recent years, the person Bowling credits with holding things together is Clair Chappell, a retired PennDOT manager who has been volunteering his efforts for the past couple of years.
Chappell's son, Edwin, is the chairman of the board, and Chappell has put his heart and soul into the effort.
The bottom line, Chappell said, "I really think that this [the Rescue Mission] is a great need here in the city. There's a desperate need for this operation."
He said Bowling will have help as he begins his work.
The Altoona Rescue Mission is among 300 across the nation that are part of the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions.
The York County Rescue Mission is helping Altoona get restarted.
It is led by the Rev. Paul Gorog who said the AGRM missions "are Bible-based." They teach people "to trust God."
The York Rescue Mission has been in operation since 1952 but has been highly successful, providing services to more than 7,000 men, women and children annually. It has a budget of nearly $3 million.
Gorog offers hope for Altoona, stating he doesn't believe it will be extremely difficult for the local operation to get moving once again.
The major step, he said, was getting a director who can then get the community behind the effort.
He said in his experience the churches are very open to the mission's work. The York program has between 2,000 and 3000 volunteers at its mission and various thrift shops.
"People in churches want to have hands-on," said Gorog, explaining why there are so many volunteers.
Gorog makes the same point at Chappell.
"Problems are so great [in the cities]. ... Get behind it because it is something you need," he spoke in talking generally about the Altoona area.
He said it is important for local agencies to work together.
"There is no way you can win unless you pull together," said Gorog.
Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.