PHOENIX, Arizona – With the temperature expected to reach around 107 degrees today, the state of Arizona has tied its all-time August heat record, originally set in 2011. As a monsoonal dust storm engulfed the city of Phoenix, Vertava Health arrived at Sky Harbor International Airport after circling the area to avoid the storm that raged in the clouds below. What we would find on the ground, as our Dr. Jason Brooks is slated to speak today to the state’s Society of Human Resource Management Conference at the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort and Spa, is a community committed to battling addiction and spreading a message of hope for recovering addicts.
“The Phoenix Rescue Mission has had a drug and alcohol program since the 70s,” says spokesperson Nicole Pena. “Our drug and alcohol program sort of differentiates or sets us apart from other rescue missions.”
On the men’s side, the program operates 252 beds and 2 transitional homes with 10 beds each. Their women’s addiction recovery program, which also assists women with reunification of their families when separated in the system because of their disease, allows for mothers to attend the program with their children.
“Our program holds around 219 women and children,” says Pena.
But it was an inaugural partnership program, newly started this year, that brought attention to the work they’ve been doing so many years. The organization, which uses a teaching hospital model, formed a partnership with Grand Canyon University to offer a chance to win a scholarship to continue their education.
“The applicants had to write a full essay, rather lengthy, on why they feel like the scholarship would benefit them,” say Pena. “And how they would use the degree to their advantage.”
The very first winner, Jesse Della Riva, tells his story here:
“My name is Jesse Dalla Riva. The purpose of this essay is to apply for the Phoenix Rescue Mission scholarship at Grand Canyon University. At this point in my life, my desire is to acquire the education and training necessary for today’s 21st-century job market. Furthermore, I would like to use the tools Grand Canyon has to offer to climb higher vocationally and spiritually. A Christian worldview is the foundation upon which I can become a mature ethical leader and citizen, and I see no better place for me to challenge my academic capacity than a University that shares my values. My dream is to use a high-quality education to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all people in different walks of life. (Matthew 28:18-20).
Let me start with a testimony of God’s power to redeem and save in the most hopeless of circumstances. I was born in Belleville New Jersey in October of 1991. When I was about five, my parents and I moved to South Florida where my sister was born. The relationship between my mom and dad began to fall apart into anger, blame, and bitter resentment when I was eight years old. They divorced, and my sister and I stayed with my mom. My dad still saw us on weekends. When I was with my dad he would tell me how horrible my mother was and vice versa when I was with my mother.
Slowly, I started to believe both of them and jumped into the game of personal manipulation. I was well provided for, but material things can never deliver you. I grew up depressed, fearful, jealous, and angry.
This lifestyle continued with my mother trying to find meaning in life, my father seeking out younger women to satisfy him, and me seeking to consume and enjoy. In high school, I was adamantly opposed to drugs and alcohol, but that changed the first time I tried them.
Drugs and alcohol alleviated my pain and depression, and they gave me a sense of freedom and power. Everything in my life seemed to happen quickly as I began drown in addiction and the abuse of prescription painkillers. I began to lie, cheat and steal from anyone around me to satisfy my insatiable craving for false god’s (Romans 1:23). The very thing that seemed to bring me so much happiness and freedom had completely corrupted and enslaved my mind and body (Galatians 6:8). My post-high school time was spent in a horrible relationship bouncing back and forth between my girlfriend’s, friends, and parents’ house. Finally, everyone had decided they had had enough of me, and my parents dropped me off at rehab with the message not to come back. I was introduced to the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, in rehab, which was tough when I couldn’t get past the first two steps. First, I wouldn’t admit my powerlessness to overcome drugs with will power. Secondly, the pride inside me could not understand and grasp the concept of faith or believing in a power greater than myself. The simple fact was no matter how many times I said I was done, my heart said otherwise. Over and over again I kept going back to what I loved and hated (Proverbs 26:11). Blame was put on everyone but myself for my situation; my parents didn’t love me enough, my girlfriend was cheating on me, my friends were not loyal enough etc..etc… blame landed everywhere, except on me for using drugs.
In rehab, I met a man that had an insurance restoration (roofing) company in Ohio, and he offered to give me a job and to move me up there on one condition: I stay clean. So I moved to Ohio and stayed off the hard stuff for a while. Finally, I felt free and could live my life without constant parental supervision. Unfortunately, I couldn’t stay clean for long and was kicked out when my boss found out.
Five feet of snow covered the ground outside, and I had never been homeless before. I didn’t know what to do, so I did the only thing I could think of, which was to cry out to my mother for help. She told me that I couldn’t come back home, but she knew a halfway house in Phoenix that I could stay at for free. So I got on a plane and on January 1st of 2011 and arrived in Phoenix.
Phoenix wasn’t what I had expected; living in the city was different than where I had come. Soon after arriving I became enraptured with the drug scene and started injecting heroin at the halfway house.
After a drug test, I was asked to leave. Stuck again, I went from halfway house to halfway house for a while never lasting more than a couple weeks. Eventually, I exhausted my supply of halfway houses and was directed toward Central Arizona Shelter Services, otherwise known as CASS downtown. The place was filled with a wide assortment of mentally ill, drug addicted, violent criminals, and sex offenders.
Being only 19 at the time it was startling at first, but because of the numbing effect drugs had on me, I soon adapted. Drifting in the hot sun sick from heroin withdrawal, and dirty, I began to lose my mind. A restless wanderer on the Earth is what I had become; moving from place to place seeking some significance. Riding the city bus from destination to destination, plundering and pillaging any store that had anything of value that I could sell to buy more drugs. Soon enough, my problem became too big for even CASS to handle, so I left and took up residence under a bridge in southeast Phoenix.
For about a year, I lived under that bridge, sleeping in the chilling rain with nothing but a tattered tarp to cover me. My life was hopeless as I woke up soaking wet and cold with nothing to eat, I only had my next high to look forward. My friends became the dope fiends, and homeless, that had been on the streets for years. We were the worst of the worst, and there was some sick camaraderie in that. My life had no meaning and no purpose. Walking the streets until my feet bled, I scrambled my brains in the hot
Arizona sun like a cracked egg on hot black asphalt. A lifeless machine driven by nothing but desire would be an appropriate description of me. With dead eyes, I gazed at the star-filled night sky listening to the whirring and whizzing of passing cars, realizing what my life had amounted. Destined to do this forever, I couldn’t stop or get help…hopelessness was the tune of my life.
The first time I was arrested for shoplifting they gave me a ticket; next time I was arrested they took me to jail. Living on the streets was rough, but jail was much worse. The food was horrible, the people were crazy, and my claustrophobia was at an all-time high. In 5 days, I was released swearing never to return. After that, I was arrested at least eight times, and experienced the harsh realities of the jail multiple times. After a person is arrested for shoplifting (a misdemeanor), more than three times in 5 years in Arizona, every other arrest becomes a felony called organized retail theft. I received three felony charges against me for organized retail theft. Each time they let me out on supervised release with an expectation I would show up for court and each time I fled and failed to appear at court. The fourth time I was arrested on a felony charge was the last. This time all three warrants had hit, and now a new felony to boot. The prosecutor offered me a plea for 1-5 years in prison. It felt like my heart was tied tight to an anchor and thrown into the bottom of the sea as I realized just how long I would be in prison. Taking the plea, the judge granted me mercy. He only sentenced me to two years and six months and upon my release two years of probation. Thus began my dismal vacation from life down in San Luis, Arizona.
My false beliefs intensified while in prison, and I conformed to the image around me. It was power, violence, and respect that carried you in prison. Racism flourished, and prison policy mandated racial segregation to avoid inmate riots. Pride and arrogance became my master. In my twisted sense of self-righteousness, I thought I had become a man, I thought I was a tough guy because I was in prison.
Only now I realize how dishonorable I had become living for myself; a worthless drug addict hypnotized by delusions of grandeur, not willing to sacrifice for love, peace, faithfulness, and honor.
In prison, I began to rebuild a relationship with my mother through letters. She had become a Christian and started sending me Bible verses, inspiring me to read the Bible occasionally. Jesus was a person I respected and admired most of all. Jesus was a hero in my eyes. Anyone who could beg for the forgiveness of those who were brutally killing him was worthy of ultimate respect. Never have I heard of another that has ever done something like that. If a man were to sacrifice his life for another human being, he would be elevated over every other person, over athletes, superstars, celebrities, and even world leaders. Later in life while reading the Bible, I realized my hypothesis had been correct, as John expressed
“Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends”(John 15:13). Not only did Christ die for his friends, but for his enemies as well. Unfortunately, even a hero couldn’t change me; I would need something much more powerful. My newfound sense of manhood and confidence would lead me to success and prosperity. Drugs weren’t a problem for me anymore, or so I thought. (Matthew 22:13)
After my prison release, I was commissioned to the very same halfway house I lived in when I had first arrived in Phoenix, and the vicious cycle of addiction continued. A month and a half later I was back on the street, addicted to methamphetamine. I worked dead-end jobs, torn, penniless, and miserable, to support my habit. What changed my heart and finally made me realize that I needed help was my family, specifically my mother. My whole family was worried about me, constantly calling me, and showing me a love that I didn’t deserve. No longer could I put the blame on them for my situation. Not having any place to sleep, I traveled to a detox center in east Phoenix and checked in for the night. Right before I was getting ready to leave, a woman who worked there pulled me into the office and shared her story with me. She told me how she had been an addict and the brokenness she had experienced. It freaked me out to hear how similar our stories seemed and how her words seemed to describe the pain and longing in my heart perfectly. She had been through the women’s program of the Phoenix Rescue Mission called the Changing Lives Center, and God had changed her life through the saving grace of his Son. After being released that night, I slept behind a McDonald’s dumpster in the freezing cold waiting for morning to come. Something that woman said must have touched my heart because the next day I surrendered and went to see my probation officer. I asked her for help, and she agreed to send me to the Phoenix Rescue Mission. She told me that if I hadn’t showed up that day I would have been violated and sent back to prison.
Being homeless for a while, it surprised me that I had never heard about the Phoenix Rescue Mission. At first glance, it didn’t seem like a place I wanted to be, but I’m sure the Disciples felt the same way as they traveled through the slums of ancient Palestine with Jesus. I spent four days sleeping face down in the dirt of the mission’s smoke pit coming down from drugs and waiting to get into the program.
In the past, I had always thought a long-term program would be the worst possible option for me. A waste of life and time; I couldn’t give up a year of my youth to go to rehab! Now three years later after homelessness, overdoses, violence, jail, prison, and insanity I was finally ready to commit.
Turns out it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. There was friendship and fellowship here that I had never experienced before. A fellowship motivated by love instead of manipulation. A bunch of broken people pushing and relying on each other for support while trying to change their lives: I belonged here. Two weeks went by, and I found myself sitting in chapel one night listening to a speaker from Scottsdale Bible Church give a message. My mind kept flashing and racing, I imagined myself hanging from the rafters of the dorm. As I was pondering on how horribly I had given up on life, I started to catch some of the speaker’s message. He spoke of a hole that he had inside his heart, a God-shaped vacuum that nothing could fill. Not money, prestige, power, sex, or drugs but a hole that could only be filled by the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end, the Lord of Glory (Revelation 22:13). He said that because of the cross there was hope for me, that God loved me so much he died in my place. He took my sins and bore my burden, and I could be saved if only I believed. That the only innocent man to ever walk this planet was betrayed, tortured, and murdered for my crimes (Romans 5:8). His words rang true in my mind and my soul, I felt a presence upon me; something I had never felt before. The last thing he said was, that he had changed his message in the middle of the sermon because he felt that one person in the audience needed to hear it, one person, that was broken and thinking of ending his life. He invited that person to come up and receive Christ. Now the presence I was feeling grew much stronger almost pushing me out of my chair to go up to the stage (John 6:44). All my life, I have always been a person that was extremely afraid of rejection and crowds, and every thought in my mind told me to stay, put, except a quiet voice whispering in the back of my mind “Go, it is time”. Scared and afflicted, I wrestled hard within myself, but I eventually got up, everyone but the speaker and I had left, and I went and asked him for help. He told me that I needed to pray and confess my sins and asked Christ to help me (Romans 10:9).
Praying to God, I admitted I was a sinner, and I desperately needed to be saved. It might not sound like much, but I felt the presence of the Holy Spirit dramatically come into my life and begin to work on me. Thanking the speaker, I walked outside and gazed into the night sky and behold, I saw the glory of the Lord (Psalm 19:1). Looking at the moon and the stars, I saw them for what they really were, the creation of God. Everything I looked upon had different meaning as I observed the intricate design of the Master Architect. How had I not see this before? Dazed with wonder and smitten with love, I could finally feel hope for the future. That night and the next couple of months can only be accurately described as the salvation of my soul. Full of hope, I began reading God’s word and submitting to his will. His word pierced my heart like a double edged sword (Hebrews 4:12); my eyes were opened the veil was lifted, and I began to understand what the Bible was saying.
Reading the Bible before had never made much sense to me, but now it was perfectly describing what was happening in my life (1 Corinthians 2:14). My heart and mind were being renewed as I was convicted of sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:8). I recognized that my shortcomings and my evil deeds were a sin against God and him alone (Psalm 51:4). Sorrow grieved my heart over how helpless I was to follow the commands of God and how often I would turn away from him (Romans 7:22-24). But I recognized his power and saw that the grace and mercy of God far outweighed any wicked act of man. I had been justified before God by his sovereignty alone (Romans 8:33). If he was for me who could be against me? I had been saved by grace through faith and not that of my own doing but as a gift from God.
Not of my deeds so I might self-righteously boast before him. For I was now his workmanship created in Christ Jesus to do good works that were prepared for me to walk in (Ephesians 2:8-10). Forgiveness had come into my life that only God could give. As I continued in the program, I disclosed my secrets and the shameful acts I had committed during my life and found healing for my soul. I found courage through Christ to pray for the brokenhearted, to lift my hands in submission to God, to speak and minister the word of God in services, and to admit my mistakes (James 5:16). Amends with my friends and family have been made and continue to happen. My relationships with all my family members have been renewed and restored.
Recently, I found out that the CEO of the Phoenix Rescue Mission, Jay Cory, graduated a Florida long-term rehabilitation program called Dunklin Memorial. When I was going through my addiction, my mother had people from Dunklin come speak to me at my house, and she continued to try and get me in that program, but I was not willing. Years later I’m in a program in Phoenix, 1500 miles away, going through a program operated by a graduate of that program and built on its foundational material.
After completing the first 7 months of the program, I was given and the option of seeking employment or to participate in a five-month leadership training program Using my experience and testimony to help other men and women change their lives, I decided I wanted to become involved in the addiction recovery ministry. After some thoughtful prayer, God revealed to me that I needed to step up and become what I had so begrudgingly resisted in the past.
Growing up I hated authority and never wanted to be put in that position. While praying about whether I should make a commitment to leadership training or not I came across Philippians 4:13 “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” I knew then I was called to commit. God would use my weakness for his glory, and his power would be perfected in it. Taking on the position of SLT (Servant Leader in Training) was a character building experience. It was easy to criticize others in authority when you weren’t walking in their shoes. My opinions changed when I realized what a difficult calling it was to care for and help men having severe struggles in their lives. Everyone’s eyes were fixated on the leaders, and you had to hold yourself more accountable to live as an example for the other men in the program. As the Apostle Paul put it “all leaders must be above reproach” (1 Timothy 3:2). Learning how to work in a team and under authority with other staff members and SLT’s has been an eye-opening educational experience for me. While in the position of leadership, I worked as the mission’s gate security at first, then moved up to shelter and overnight security, began driving mission vehicles; transporting program men to and from events and appointments while making deliveries; became forklift certified and started to operate the forklift to assist in the mission’s food deliveries; helped facilitate and teach the Foundations class (first two months of the program), and Inner Healing courses (12 week intensive discipleship). Most importantly I began a personal ministry of discipleship and evangelism as a leader, brother, and testimony of God’s transforming power. The necessity and importance of responsibility, discipline, and integrity were integrated into my life in a powerful way. It was a difficult and stressful thing for me, but through Christ’s empowerment to persevere, I completed Servant Leader Training.
After my completion of Servant Leader Training, I was offered part-time employment at the mission in their Ministry Training program. Coming into the mission with nothing but the clothes on my back, and now being given the opportunity to join their staff team and impact the lives of the men around me has truly been an immeasurable blessing. God had proven Himself faithful again and again while showing me he had me right where he wanted me. Currently, I work as the assistant to the Vocational Development Director in the Vocational/Educational development branch of the Phoenix Rescue Mission.
We help the shelter clients and graduating program clients learn employability skills such as job search, interview preparation, resume techniques/formats, computer skills, budgeting, and financial coaching. We also provide High School Diploma and GED, workforce grants, resume creation, help with transportation, job attainment, interview clothes and ironing, certifications, references, and any other special request related to the acquisition of employment/education that would lead poverty level individuals to financial stability and permanent housing. In high school, I became adept in computer use and proficient in
Microsoft Word and Excel. Most of the men at the shelter are technologically ill-informed, so I’m a big help to them with online job search and resume creation. Working in the learning center has helped to re-sharpen my attention and academic skills. My development of effective communicating and coaching techniques to motivate men and women to obtain employment has sharply increased. To better assist clients, I completed Maricopa Workforces Employability skills course and became certified as a financial coach through Valley of the Sun United Way. God says in his word that he has chosen the weak and foolish things of this world to confound the wise and strong; my life has made this evident. Throughout my life, addiction has prevented me from holding a job consistently, but now I am helping people become employed every day.
Since starting my employment at the mission and moving into their transitional housing, I have been considering my goals for the future. My main goal is staying committed to spiritual growth and remaining well connected to the body of Christ. It’s this top priority that enables other goals to flow in a healthy way (John 15:4). The main problem with mankind that government, education, and medicine cannot solve is the condition of the human heart with its utter rebellion towards God in its proclivity towards self-autonomy (Jeremiah 17:9). The human heart and morality must shift towards God before real good can be achieved with lasting success. Currently, I’m a committed member of Scottsdale Bible Church and attend their Sunday services and Tuesday night men’s group (Men Coaching Men) and Bible study weekly. Every Thursday I meet with my mentor Carey Lavender, an employee for Campus Crusade for Christ and a member of my church, for accountability, Bible study, and evangelism. On a regular basis I meet with John Nee, the lead counselor of the mission, and we’ve grown to be good friends. He is a faithful servant of the Lord and his similar testimony has inspired me and made a major impact on my life at the mission; along with the other staff members: Chaplain Gabe, Sergio Solorzano, Nathan Smith, Rhonda Blake, Roland Rodriguez, and Chaplain Mike (Proverbs 11:14). Through my Tuesday night small group I plan to begin to actively disciple two men from the Mission and attend monthly alumni meetings, aftercare and ACROSS programs upon absolute discharge of Ministry Training. The past 4 years I have been on my own; my family is 1500 miles away on the other side of the country. When I arrived at the mission, I received a new family in Arizona. Though healing and the gospel needs to be administered everywhere and to all people I see no better place to start then the Phoenix Rescue Mission.
My next goal would be to further my academic education. As I stated earlier, I desire to be a student of Grand Canyon University and I’m writing this essay for a chance at being accepted on a scholarship admission. The undergraduate admission criteria of Grand Canyon requires at least a 3.0 GPA and at least a 900 on the SAT. I meet that criterion with a 3.2 GPA in high school and 1730 on my SAT. I seek to obtain an undergraduate degree in counseling or theology and then pursue my master. Captivated with theology, I have spent 100’s of hours watching sermons, debates, and reading the Bible and other Christian literature to educate me on the doctrines of Christianity and the conflicting worldviews of others (1 Peter 3:15). Combining my knowledge of theology and counseling I will work in a Christ-based ministry perhaps even the Phoenix Rescue Mission or as a pastor. Scottsdale Bible Church has even shown interest in sponsoring me for a seminary education, but I would need to receive an undergraduate degree first. College would be a great opportunity to engage with a wide variety of cultures and people to learn more about the world, and avoid ethnocentrism. God has given me a beautiful mind, and I intend to love him with it as well as with my strength, heart, and soul (Matthew 22:37). Using a college education I will grow in confidence and life experience, to further God’s kingdom and help more people on a grander scale by engaging with individuals in a professionally stimulating manner.
Writing this has again reminded me of all that God has done for me. Even after the prophet Jeremiah had been beaten and torn down by the world to the point of death, he was still able to cry out to the Lord “Your mercies are new every day, great is your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:22-23). A faith like that is what I look forward to. To be committed to his way, instructed in his truth, and to walk his narrow path of life (John 14:6). To let people know that his arm is not too short to deliver them and when he acts none can reverse it. At the beginning of the program, I would talk about how going to a Christian University would be such a blessing to me, but I was always discouraged by the fact that there would be no way for me to afford it. I have learned so much about life in the past year and a half; everything from financial stewardship to conflict resolution and peer accountability. With this scholarship I will build upon my experience to become a more effective leader and follower of Christ. It encourages me to know that so many opportunities can still happen for someone who has thrown so many away. No One is beyond saving and redemption (Romans 10:13). Thank you very much for the opportunity.”
Jesse Dalla Riva
There are no words to express how proud we are of Jesse, and cannot wait to see the great things he is going to do with his sobriety.
“We have a 12 month recovery program,” says Pena. “24 months or longer if need be. You can’t get someone well in 30 days.”
The Rescue Mission has the same philosophy on recovery that Vertava Health adopts: to truly fight the disease of addiction, healthcare providers must treat the person as a whole, and not just the addiction. This type of care goes far beyond a “standard” 30 days of care. I highlight the word “standard”, because to this day, as a writer for Vertava Health, I have not been able to find the origin of 30 days being a model of care. It is apparently a random number that someone came up with many years ago, and in some cases not nearly enough time to help a person heal from the trauma and havoc addiction wreaks on their entire life. The Rescue Mission, like Vertava Health, treats someone until it’s time for them to leave and return to being productive members of society.
Not only does the Mission help break the cycle of addiction by treating the patients, they also provide an outlet for them to work at the facility and find job placement. We are proud of this program at our own company as well, and it has proven to be beneficial to us. Around 75-80% of our employees are in recovery.
When asked about Arizona’s drug of choice:
“6 months ago I probably would’ve said meth,” says Pena. “But we’re really seeing opioids surpass that, especially at our women’s campus.”
Pena says the addiction is hitting people a lot younger than a couple of years ago. A lot of the men and women in the program were given pain killers because of something that happened in their teens, then when the pills were no longer available, they turn to street drugs like heroin. This falls in line with what we’ve seen throughout our entire country, where heroin overdose deaths have quadrupled in the past decade.
What they see more and more of with people who come through their doors is that it’s whatever they can get hold of.
“People will come in and say they have a problem with alcohol,” says Pena. “Then when you start digging deeper, you find they have other addictions.”
Phoenix Police have worked out a program with the Rescue Mission for homeless people that is similar to the partnership Vertava Health has with the Gloucester Police Department in regards to addiction. Instead of arresting homeless people in parks, police will take them to the mission, so there’s not a constant cycle of arrests.
One thing is certain: Arizona needs our help, and we’re committed to doing what we can to help the Phoenix Rescue Mission and other organizations like it. Stories like Jesse’s are what we live for, and why we do what we do. We see them every day, and it fuels our passion to be a part of giving people their life back. If you or someone you know needs help, you can call our 24 hour hotline at 1.888.614.2251.
Nicole Peña is the Director of Marketing and PR for the Phoenix Rescue Mission and has served in the ministry for over eight years. A graduate of University of Arizona with a bachelor’s degree in journalism, Nicole had big plans to travel the world in search of a scoop. When her younger brother began battling addiction, Nicole started volunteering at the Rescue Mission as a way to help in a helpless situation. There she saw real, life-change in the people she served and felt called to do more. For the past eight years, she has used her passion for storytelling to communicate stories of transformation happening every day at the Mission. She and her husband Dan have been married for 15 years and have two young boys.