35,000 came in search of salvation
By Christina Toth, The Times July 16, 2010
With the summer sun dappling through dark evergreens beyond the open windows, the chorus of voices rose and spilled out of the Chapel in the Woods with the fervor and assurance of true believers. But among the rich resonance of the final hymn of How Great Thou Art, there was entwined a chord of sorrow.
For many of the men who stood and sang among the pews of the cedar sanctuary they had built, and for so many others who had literally come to the end of their road in the backwoods of Mission, they had found a new life in this Valley of Miracles.
But now, after 50 years of righting men who had fallen into the black abyss of addiction, the Salvation Army’s treatment and rehabilitation centre was closing.
The chapel fell silent on Wednesday at the end of the service, as Salvation Army leaders soberly folded the camp’s scarlet Blood and Fire flag, retiring it to history.
The centre has seen an estimated 35,000 men come into its healing heart since Capt. “Banjo” Bill Leslie founded the place in 1961.
The last group of men graduated Wednesday morning, and all that was left was a final farewell to the place, officially [named Paëtzold Centre] in recent years.
As they met with old friends and swapped memories, alumni and workers were happy to share their experiences with visitors. Story after story after story, they said the retreat had changed their lives.
Sean Russell was a young man with a lot of problems when he first arrived at the camp at the end of Stave Lake Road in 2001.
“I waited at the gate for seven hours before they let me in,” he recalled. “None of the other places would take me. I created so much havoc in Mission, none of the other places would take me.”
He slipped a couple of times. His last stay was in 2007, when he was using 12 different substances.
“I was just a mess. This place saved my life – I couldn’t do it on my own,” he said. Russell dug deep, completed 90-day recovery program, earned a counselling degree and is now an addictions counsellor at the Mission Indian Friendship Centre. Even his mom got to see him clean before she died.
Eric Stewart will celebrate 15 years of sobriety on Oct. 21.
He said he owes his life to the Army’s staff and to the camp.
“I was hooked on coke and heroin when they picked me up at Main and Hastings and brought me here,” he said. He feared it was going to be like an institution at first, but friends working in the camp kitchen told him to give it a week. Weeks turned into months and now many years of sobriety.
“So when they say miracles happen, they really do happen,” said Stewart, who is a board member at the Indian Friendship Centre.
The site was also supported by outsiders, such as Mission RCMP Insp. Pat Walsh, a community council member for the site for several years.
“I believe in the work of this facility, I have seen the miracles with my own eyes,” he said, referring to an acquaintance who received help at Miracle Valley.
The centre was part of the solution in addressing addictions, “so it will be with bit of sadness, and foreboding, that we accept the closing of this facility,” he said.
Earlier this year, Salvation Army headquarters in B.C. made the tough decision to close the treatment camp, which sits on a 77-acre parcel in rural Mission. It had grown from a rough hewn retreat where men could get sober and find Christ, to a cutting edge facility offering a 12-step, clinical therapy, art therapy and education.
But numbers fell from a peak of 200 to just 80 men in recent years, as interest has dropped in remote retreats.
The Salvation Army will continue to offer treatment services at its Belkin House and Harbour Light in Vancouver.
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