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Troubleshooters Remake 9 Salvation Army Thrift Stores, Hartford Rehab Center

JOSH KOVNER

April 12, 2009

If you shop in any of the nine Salvation Army thrift stores in northern Connecticut and think they're a little dingy or could have a better selection, you'll be happy with Steve and Kathy Arnold's renovation plans.

If you're a counselor, a probation officer or a court, shelter or jail worker who deals daily with the shortage of drug and alcohol treatment slots in this state, you'll be pleased to know that the Arnolds are aggressively courting referrals and have as many as 70 beds to fill.

And if you or someone you know is homeless or addicted or both, and in need of a hand up but not a handout, you may want to try to get to know the couple in the matching black uniforms.

They are Salvation Army troubleshooters, experienced urban missionaries known as "envoys" in the iconic, faith-based charity's military-like organization. They have come from the West to revive the moribund thrift stores in Bloomfield, Brooklyn, Bristol, Manchester, Mansfield, New Britain, Rockville, Torrington and West Hartford, and save the woefully underused drug and alcohol rehab center on Hartford's Homestead Avenue that the stores support.

The Arnolds are in the business of converting the unwanted contents of your closet into the currency that can save people like Kevin Byler, who chose crack cocaine and the streets over baseball, a job as a construction manager, a girlfriend and a young daughter. You'll meet Byler later. First, let's walk in the Arnolds' world, one that blends tragedy and hope, whimsy and stone-cold realism, as they try here in Connecticut to match the success they have had in reviving programs in California, Nevada and New Mexico. They are well-schooled in the economics of thrift.

Let's go beyond the kettle and the bell.

Sorters, Pricers and Taggers

On a recent Wednesday, every loading bay at the Homestead Avenue center has a white box truck in it with the red Salvation Army logo and the words, "DOING THE MOST GOOD ONE LIFE AT A TIME."

The trucks come in full, after collecting from the clothing drop-boxes that dot strip-mall parking lots and from home pickups. They leave full, heading to the thrift stores with clothes and household goods sorted and packed at the Homestead center. The sprawling, 90-year-old brick building houses an adult rehab center for men and women, timeworn but shipshape, which includes dorms, a small library and chapel for the Wednesday and Sunday services led by the Arnolds, both ordained ministers. The back half of the building is the clothing operation.

To step off the loading dock into the sorting area is to be whisked back in time to the bustle, screeches and hum of a post-war clothing mill.

The workers, including clients on work therapy and program graduates, prepare 32,000 pieces of clothing a day. The thrift shops, even in their desultory state, make several million dollars a year in sales.

Down from the sorting room is the "electronics lab," where donated TVs and stereos and CD players and computers are cleaned and plugged in. If they run all day and don't fizzle and spark, they're loaded on the trucks.

Waynette "Cookie" Gilbert, the sorting room supervisor, is riding herd this day. She walks, head cocked and alert, hair tied back in a bandanna, along the line of wide tables, piled with donated clothes, and rack after rack of hanging shirts, trousers, sweaters and jackets.

She's in charge of the sorters, the pricers and the taggers.

The sorters, who are expected to handle 300 pieces an hour, are looking for rips and stains.

The clothes that aren't worth reselling, or those that are returned unsold from the stores, are packed tight in wire-bound bundles by two large bailers. They'll end up in SeaPak trailers, bound for Mexico or Pakistan or Africa or the Philippines.

"In some of those areas, they'll rip open a bail and the clothes go right on a rack for sale," says Steve Arnold.

He's an orderly man, with a by-the-book air and a brisk, light step. But he has a quick smile, and he likes to jolt the men and women at chapel services. On a recent Wednesday evening, to illustrate a point about the power of a person's hands, he told the story of a Viking chief who sliced off his hand and threw it onto the Irish shore during a boat race just so he could be first to touch land and enable his clan to live there. This is why the flag of Ulster bears a red hand, Arnold, the son of a preacher, explains with a twinkle in his eyes.

In the chapel, he's the pastor. On the sorting room floor, he's the boss, and part of his business is tragedy: The Salvation Army has found a market for single, orphaned shoes in war-torn Africa, where so many people have lost legs stepping on land mines.

Here at home, he'll shift certain clothes among his stores, depending on the market. College nearby? He'll send that store all the Levi's 500s he's got.

From out of the loading docks, Cookie is approaching.

"This ready?" she says, flicking her chin at a clothing rack parked tight with shirts and pants.

There, in mid-rack, is a pair of avocado green slacks.

"Nothing goes out of style here," says Arnold. "We still get Nehru jackets and that's OK."

Reviving The Rehab Center

The Arnolds arrived last summer from New Mexico. They were officers for 13 years, then left to do international ministry work. They came back to the Salvation Army, Steve Arnold said, because they missed the directness of the mission. They came East because they wanted the opportunity to revive a rehab center that had sunk so far below the radar that some shelter operators and others in the local social-work community thought the Homestead Avenue building had closed.

They've garnered the blessings and support of Salvation Army headquarters to either renovate or find new quarters for the nine northern Connecticut thrift stores and build two 35,000-square-foot "super" thrift stores. They're eyeing sites east and west of I-91.

They plan to gradually reduce the number of white Salvation Army drop boxes, which tend to be magnets for thieves and vandals. They will introduce staffed collection centers that can give out receipts. Out West, these centers are usually set up in vacant gas stations, and they have totally replaced the drop boxes.

There are temporary collection centers at the West Hartford, Bloomfield, Bristol and Brooklyn stores, and at the Homestead Avenue center.

The adult rehab center receives 95 percent of its operating money from a combination of store revenue and funding from Salvation Army headquarters. The remaining 5 percent is from the state, in the form of daily stipends for clients on state support. Arnold doesn't expect those stipends to last much longer.

He said his goal is that the stores, once renovated or repositioned, should produce more than $5 million a year in sales, a figure that would fully support the center and allow headquarters to use the supplemental funding for some other program.

While Steve Arnold oversees the clothing operation and the stores, Kathy Arnold directs the rehab center (and the hymns and gospel songs at chapel). The center has a capacity of 110 people, but there were only 45 clients there when the Arnolds arrived. The couple let the census dip as low as 23 while they reviewed the program.

The live-in center offers a recovery program that is at least six months long, during which the "beneficiaries" work various jobs at the center and attend chapel services and counseling sessions. The program is longer and far more structured than what is offered at a typical 28-day detox center.

The couple have expanded the admission criteria and are planning luncheons and other forums at the center to introduce probation and parole officers, and judges and other court officials, to the services. Staff members also are spreading the word at shelters and on the street. Probation officers are already meeting clients at the center, where the census has risen to 40.

The couple expect to be operating at full capacity by the fall, and Steve Arnold said he'd be surprised if there wasn't a waiting list by next year.

"We're trying to make ourselves more open to the community," said Kathy Arnold. "We're looking for the referrals, and we pray we can get this information out effectively about our availability."

'I Figured I Could Fake It'

The men and women come into the center at wit's end, adrift, sick from withdrawal. Often they hold all they own in garbage bags.

The first thing the Arnolds do is bring some order to their lives. When the clients are settled, they are shown "the closet."

"It's a template," Steve Arnold explains, opening the demonstration closet and exposing its neat rack of work, casual and dress clothes. Shoes at the bottom, accessories on top arranged with near-military precision.

"When people come to us, they have been living out of a duffel bag or a plastic bag. We help remind them how to conduct themselves. They learn what's expected of them," Arnold said.

Kevin Byler, 38, needed a lot more than a neat closet when he came to the center 10 months ago.

Abandoned in a Dumpster as an infant, abused by his adoptive father, he fashioned a life despite his beginnings. He was intellectually sharp, a superb baseball shortstop, and had an aptitude for construction. At 19, he tried crack and liked it way too much.

"I discovered I had an addictive personality," he said.

But he suppressed it. He rode motorcycles too fast, bungee-jumped off 400-foot-high bridges, became a workaholic. But when the relationship with the mother of his daughter began to sour, he fell hard. Almost instantly, he was a crack addict.

"She was an incredible woman and we have a beautiful daughter. I was a terrible father for squandering that. But a lot of things I had never addressed the abandonment issues, self-worth. I went right into the street life."

He was desperate and raging and conniving when he landed at 333 Homestead Ave.

"When I came through the door, I figured I could fake it for a couple of months and then get my daughter back. But Mr. and Mrs. Arnold tightened down on the rules. I hated that, fought them tooth and nail."

A couple of months in, he began to see that the way he was living was tantamount to smashing his head against a concrete wall, and that a little honesty and humility made things a whole lot easier.

"It wasn't a magic light bulb. There was no breakthrough in chapel one day. I just decided that I don't need this anymore, don't need the rage, the addiction," Byler said.

He rebelled against the work therapy at first, but found peace when he opened his heart to the idea.

"I thought I didn't need it; I'd worked as a project manager. But it creates an atmosphere of structure, of self-worth. You know, we've had former lawyers in here, people who society says are somebody. Here, you're cooking for someone. That creates humility. That's humbling. Now you can begin to take what the program can give you."

He graduated from the program four months ago. He stayed on, as some alumni do, working full time as the second cook, living in a room at the center and paying rent. Through old contacts, he was offered a job as a construction-site manager for three times what he was earning at the center. He turned it down.

"I need to be here, to continue to re-establish my connection to faith. When I'm not working, I'm volunteering here, trying to give back."

And that's just fine with the Arnolds. In fact, Steve Arnold said it's common for graduates to stay on as they plan how to re-enter their lives and not make the same mistakes.

"They want to remain in a supportive environment; they've changed, so they want to be mentors to others. Kevin is in that place and I told him, 'Let's not rush it.'

"I remind all our graduates commencement isn't an ending, it's a beginning."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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