Saved to serve others

Thurston Johnson’s journey from drug dealer and homeless heroin addict to happily married homeowner isn’t necessarily unique—and that’s the whole point, he says.

“My mission is to help people turn their lives around,” says Thurston, who is the intake coordinator for the Adult Rehabilitation Center (ARC) in Rochester, N.Y. “The Salvation Army did that for me and I’m here to do the same for others.”

Thurston, 55, grew up in a housing project in Newark, N.J., and enjoyed playing basketball, baseball, and football. But street life—drugs and crime—became a normal way of life for him at an early age.

“I came from a great home with a great mother, but in high school, I gravitated towards a certain crowd and a certain way of life,” he said. “I always had a strong work ethic and turned that work ethic into becoming a big–time drug dealer with an even bigger reputation.”

That reputation came at a high price though. Thurston found himself in prison after being stabbed, shot five times, and becoming addicted to both alcohol and heroin. “I watched my family and friends suffer because of the life I chose,” he said. “My attitude and actions became reckless and my life went downhill very quickly.”

At this point, both his mother and brother were doing everything they could to try and help him. After Thurston spent three years in prison, his brother picked him up and drove him from New Jersey to Rochester—far away from the life that was destroying him.

“I didn’t know a way out of that life and I give credit to my mother and brother for helping to change my life,” Thurston said. “That trip saved my life and I’ve never looked back.”

Thurston’s brother dropped him off at The Salvation Army’s ARC in Rochester. The ARC program provides spiritual, social, and emotional assistance for men and women who have lost the ability to cope with their problems and provide for themselves. Centers offer residential housing, work, and group and individual therapy, all in a clean, wholesome environment.

“I came here sick and crawling from the pain of addiction, but I was desperate to get my life back,” Thurston said. “After some resistance, I accepted help and I accepted Christ into my life because of The Salvation Army—and my life began to change. I had left God for a while, but God did not leave me.”

That change was evident, according to ARC Warehouse Operations Manager Douglas Dillon, who saw Thurston’s attitude turn into gratitude as he worked his way up from the warehouse sorting room to intake coordinator.

“I saw leadership in Thurston before he saw it in himself,” Douglas said. “He soon realized that his life had meaning and that others cared about him—and when I think about when he first came here, I am so happy to see how far he has come.”

Thurston will soon celebrate eight years of sobriety and, in his new role as intake coordinator, he is the first point of contact for others seeking help.

“The people in this building saved my life,” Thurston said. “I am humbled that I now get the chance to do the same for someone in pain who may not see that there are second, third, and even fourth chances at life.”

by Salvation Army Rochester Frontline