On the walls of Wendell Wilson’s office are snapshots of young men he helped overcome drug and alcohol addiction through Loving Hands Ministries.
Wilson and his wife, Nancy, started Loving Hands Ministries 25 years ago. It is a Christian-based drug and alcohol rehabilitation program for young men.
“I’ve always had this propensity to help young people,” said the preacher who will turn 69 this month. “I had a concern for that element of people especially those that were alcohol and drug-related.”
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It all started when Wilson himself was a troubled youth. While a young man living on the streets of Alexandria, Va., a woman offered him and a friend a six pack of beer if they would attend church. Wilson decided to take her up on the offer.
It turned his life around.
“I got saved that night,” said Wilson. “I said I’ve got to try something different and I believe He works.”
Wilson became a pastor at age 22. After reading the book “Cross and Switchblade” in 1970, a story about pastor David Wilkerson and how he helped the troubled youths of New York City, Wilson decided to make it his mission to help other young men turn their lives around.
He and his wife, Nancy, took in a 19-year-old who had been arrested for marijuana possession.
When they moved to Bradenton, Wilson started going to the jails to see of he could help other young men who had been arrested for drug charges. Eventually he and his wife took another young man into their home.
But bringing them home had its own set of problems, said Wilson. He decided to follow the format of Teen Challenge, the faith-based program started by Wilkerson in 1958, which proved successful in other communities.
Loving Hands Ministries was chartered in 1984. And in 1992, they opened a second, larger facility in Pasco County called The Lighthouse.
The Loving Hands Ministries’ logo defines its mission. Inside of a heart shape, hands are cupped beneath flames with a reference to the New Testament’s Peter, chapter one. “The words “Love will conquer a multitude of sins,” outlines the heart and hands.”
“The heart of God is love,” explained Wilson. “God is love. The hands represent His hands and they’re extended to hurting people.”
Love is what the 18-month program for substance abusers is all about, said Pastor James LaDuke, intake director and director of development.
“Most of these guys don’t have a father figure and sometimes a mother,” he said. “These things cause tremendous anger and frustration. There’s such a blank spot when nobody cares.”
That’s why many of them turn to drugs and alcohol, said LaDuke, who joined Loving Hands almost two years ago after moving to the area from Michigan.
“Ninety five percent of the men in jail and prison have drug-related offenses,” he said. “It keeps progressing. The more you need drugs, the more you need money.”
Loving Hands Ministries provides Christian-based guidance and direction for many of these men to help turn their lives around, said Wilson. About eight out of every 10 that come to Loving Hands graduate from the program, he said.
“We’ve seen a lot of lives changed,” said Wilson.
But the program is not an 18-month vacation, said Wilson. No one who comes to Loving Hands would change without seriously wanting to make that first step.
“You really can’t help someone unless they want to change,” said Wilson. “Until it’s more painful to stay the way you are, you’ll stay the way you are.”
The love of Jesus Christ is the real success behind Loving Hands Ministries, said Wilson. Without Jesus Christ in their lives, the program doesn’t work, he said.
“Drugs and alcohol are not the root problem,” he said. “The root problem is sin. Unless you seek Jesus Christ as a way for you to change, you are not going to change.”
To make those life changes, program participants are given rigorous reading assignments of Christian-based literature, and asked to submit book reports every 10 days, said LaDuke.
They are also asked to learn a new Bible verse every 10 days and each week present their testimonies to other churches.
Daily they work on trying to understand the underlying problems that made them turn to substance abuse.
“We’re trying to help them change their thinking,” said LaDuke. “They have a bad vision of themselves. These guys are basically kids doing wrong and not thinking about the consequences of it.”
When not focusing on their lessons, they help maintain the 10-acre campus and buildings, cook their own meals, do their own laundry, and keep their bedrooms and classrooms neat and tidy. They earn free time to play basketball, swim in the pool, or just watch television.
New arrivals are not allowed phone calls for at least 60 days, said Wilson. Visits from family members are forbidden during that time as well. There is no smoking, no leaving campus without permission, and no tolerance for rule violations.
It is all part of the rehabilitation process to free the young men from the throngs of addiction.
“Addiction is a beast,” said Wilson. “Normally, it doesn’t just go away on its own. It takes a lot of learning, spiritual strength, and time.”