Magazine Features

The Safe House

remembering the forgotten

The Salvation Army’s Middletown (Citadel), Ohio, Corps was renowned in its early years for sending soldiers to the College for Officer Training.

Tara Koch and Jewell DeFrates host a Friday night FOA meeting at the Safe House.

Tara Koch and Jewell DeFrates host a Friday night FOA meeting at the Safe House.

Today, the corps is also known for its Safe House at Damon Park, where men and women in recovery from drug addiction strive to become what God created them to be and to eventually reconnect with their families.

In the mid 1980s, the Army erected the building only a few blocks from the corps to serve as an outpost. Under the leadership of Soldier Ruth Howard, it housed traditional Army ministries, such as worship and children’s programs, until a lack of funds caused the building to become a storage shed.

In 2015, the corps received a $50,000 grant from the Army to combat addiction. Majors Hollie and Sebastian Leonardi, corps officers, proposed a plan designed to address the town’s most pressing problem.

“Regarding heroin addiction, Middletown is one of the hardest hit areas in the state,” said Major Hollie Leonardi. “Butler County and the state of Ohio have some of the highest number of drug overdoses in the country.”

“When we looked at the city manager’s blog,” says Major Sebastian, “we saw a map showing the highest crime rates are directly connected to overdoses and addiction. This building is right in the middle of it. God confirmed to us we were literally where He wanted us to be.”

The Majors Leonardi decided to turn the storage building into the Safe House at Damon Park. The name came from Psalm 9:9–10, “God’s a safe house for the battered, a sanctuary during bad times.”

“The moment you arrive, you relax. You’re never sorry you knocked,” said Major Sebastian. “The Safe House prides itself in being a place where addiction can be discussed freely without reservation or shame. No matter where one might be on the path to recovery, he or she will feel safe from being judged.”

An uphill battle

The idea of the Safe House, which came from both Major Hollie and Captain Daryl Calhoun, was originally met with doubt, pushback, and anger from concerned residents.

“People thought this would be a place for addicts to live, or that we would bring them to the neighborhood,” recalls Major Sebastian. “They didn’t realize the addicts had already been here for a long time and we would help fix the problem.”

“Someone can come here before recovery, find information on how we can help them achieve recovery, and after they do so, still come back for support,” said Major Hollie.

For years, being on the outskirts of Butler County had kept Middletown a township where resources and funding for the area seemed to have been forgotten. Despite its addiction problems, Middletown does not have a recovery center, a detox clinic, or a residential rehab center. The Safe House provides services to take addicts to adult rehabilitation centers (ARCs) hours away in Dayton or Columbus. For people in recovery, the Safe House offers pro–sober recreational activities, coffeehouse ministries, and Bible studies.

The Safe House is also the Butler County Branch of Families of Addicts (FOA), which has been a blessing. The affiliation has given the Safe House credibility as a help center, and FOA has provided information and speakers such as pharmaceutical students and former addicts. FOA–sponsored gatherings are held on Friday nights, when addicts and their families enjoy board games, movies, and food pantries, and celebrate the holidays.

“When we hosted a sober New Year’s Eve party at the Safe House, everyone brought their children and their loved ones,” said Major Hollie. “Some folks told us this was their first New Year’s Eve with their children. Families of addicts are in a heartbreaking situation. Being around addiction is the norm for them.”

Jewell and Tara

Jewell DeFrates and Tara Koch, Safe House volunteers, have seen firsthand the pain addiction causes families. They also know recovery and redemption are possible. Jewell’s son and Tara’s mother are graduates of the ARC program in Columbus and in Dayton, respectively. The Majors Leonardi knew that in order for the Safe House to succeed, they needed Tara and Jewell.

“These women were born for this ministry,” Major Hollie says.

Jewell is a Salvation Army adherent and the recovery program coordinator for the Safe House. A registered nurse with a degree in mental health technology and chemical dependency counseling, she became familiar with the Army when she got custody of her grandchildren while her son struggled with his addiction.

“[Corps Sergeant Major] Cindy Howard lived across the street from me, and saw me playing with my grandkids,” remembers Jewell. “She told me about the day camp and children’s programs that the Middletown Corps offered. We went, I stayed for church, and I’ve been there ever since.”

Major Hollie remembers the first time Jewell spoke with a local pastor looking to help an addict from his congregation. After meeting with them both, Jewell identified the addict’s stage of addiction and explained the steps to begin recovery.

“While Jewell and the man spoke, the pastor was confused,” said Major Hollie. From that meeting on, the Safe House began a new ministry, reaching out to and educating Middletown pastors on drug addiction and recovery resources.

Tara Koch began as an assistant for the Middletown Citadel, but left to attend the University of Cincinnati full time. She returned to Middletown, where the Safe House ministry fulfilled a passion in her life. Along with her role as FOA Middletown co–director, she also teaches fitness and nutrition classes at the Safe House.

“Working with families and individuals who have had no choice but get clean or die has changed my mindset on addiction,” said Tara. “A rewarding part of the Safe House ministry is teaching compassion. I understand the anger and frustration. I’ve been there with my own mother.”

Tara wants to turn the field of Damon Park, which resides next to the Safe House, into a fruit and vegetable garden. “This park was once a haven for drug dealing. We were finding needles on the ground, and addicts passed out where children should be playing. We want the community to reconnect with this park. With the help of the Middletown Salvation Army and other churches in the area, this will become a place where families can grow their own food and kids can pick fruit on the way to school.”

God remembers You

“Every miracle starts with someone who has been forgotten,” said Major Hollie. “At times, Middletown has felt forgotten. This building and the park were forgotten. And people with addictions come to the Safe House feeling forgotten. That’s where the miracle begins, because God never forgets you. He loves those who feel forgotten.”

Less than a year after its creation, The Safe House at Damon Park receives dozens of people at weekly FOA meetings. The local clergy, the community, and law enforcement support the Army’s effort to get addiction out of Middletown. The city has even donated a vehicle to the Safe House to make it easier to drive people to the ARCs. “God has noticed the epidemic of addiction in Middletown, and instead of allowing it to destroy, He is using it to redeem lives,” said Major Hollie.

“The Safe House will outlive all of us,” says Major Sebastian. “This will not run for two years, peak, and then close. God birthed this, and He wants us here until we can get addiction out of Middletown. City officials are now trying to involve churches in curing the heroin epidemic. This is our part in the movement.”

by Hugo Bravo

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