MIAMI — Earl Johnson spent half of his 47 years of life in prison and homeless. The third oldest in a family of 14 children, Johnson lived a life filled with drugs, alcohol, theft and guns until he hit rock bottom.
With nowhere else to go, he entered Miami Rescue Mission’s Christian-oriented regeneration program, an intense curriculum that educates and trains participants to help them join the workforce and lead productive lives.
“I burned a lot of bridges in my life,” Johnson said. “My journey through the mission was a lot of pain and a lot of submission. I had to do a lot less speaking and a lot more listening. I was very selfish.”
Johnson told his life story of heartache, adversity and triumph Saturday at the center in Overtown where he and 173 formerly homeless people celebrated the beginning of their new lives in an emotional and spirit-filled graduation ceremony complete with caps, gowns and many hugs.
A big post-commencement party was held afterwards in the center’s cafeteria across the street.
During the ceremony, there were no fancy words or exquisite sounds of Sir Edwin Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance.
Instead, there was the Deep Fried Fund Band, plenty of gospel music, hallelujahs and humble confessions of transformed lives of those who slept many nights in soiled and tattered clothes on the city’s dangerous streets.
The graduates completed the program at the Rescue Mission’s centers in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach.
Officials say this year’s group is the largest to graduate since the program’s inception. A majority of the graduates were African-American, though they were from various walks of life and ethnic backgrounds.
Started in 1990, the regeneration program has given the homeless a second chance at life. During the program, students spend about six hours a day, five days a week learning reading, writing and mathematics, according to Marilyn Brummit, marketing and development director at the center. Students also are required to take nonpaid internships to learn job training skills.
Overall the curriculum is tailored to the student’s individual needs as long as their education skills are on a ninth grade level, Brummit said. Students must finish the program in six months but some may complete the curriculum sooner, Brummit said. In Broward, the standard for completion is three to six months.
The standard in the outreach center in Palm Beach is the highest, where students finish the program within three months, Brummit said. Students do not take a test to graduate, but are evaluated by staff members based on their performance in the program.
With the help of donations, the cost of the program is free to all participants.
On Saturday, parents and friends wept at the sight of their loved ones wearing crisp black robes over pressed dress shirts and dresses, holding certificates in their hands and ready to live successful lives.
James Thurston had been married for 32 years before his wife, Cheryl, divorce him after growing tired of her husband’s heavy cocaine use and fruitless attempts to break his habit in other programs. After the separation, Thurston ended up homeless in Overtown and discovered the Rescue Mission from a referral.
On Saturday, Thurston was drug-free and a graduate who plans to become an electrical technician after getting an associate’s degree at Miami Dade College. He also plans to re-marry his ex-wife who was there with him on Saturday relieved and overjoyed.
“I’ve been through many difficult years with him for so long,” Cheryl said. “I feel he has conquered his habit. I’m so proud of him.”
The program included rousing speeches and testimonies that urged graduates to remain faithful to the program’s principles. A performance by the MQV Dancers, a popular team of mimes, excited the crowd with a stirring dance interpretation of So Glad I Made It by Gospel singer Marvin Sapp.
Ken Polansky, education supervisor at the Rescue Mission recalled the biblical story of how David defeated Goliath with a slingshot to spur the graduates on to big victories over their struggles.
“Your Goliaths may not carry swords, but they carry weapons like addictions, unemployment and depression,” he said. “You will face giants in your life, but now you won’t face them alone.”
“If you find yourself depressed, either you are living in the past or you are experiencing the anxieties of the future. If you’re content, you are living in the present and have peace,” said Linda Washington-Brown, board director of the Miami Rescue Mission and Broward Outreach Center.
Keynote speaker and former WSVN Channel 7 Fox Anchor Rick Sanchez reminded graduates to stay humble, and wept as he recalled his firing from CNN in 2010 following remarks that were perceived as anti-Semitic.
“Life is not what we do ourselves. Life is what we do for others,” he said.