Originally printed in The State on Feb. 25, 1996
Nothing about the trim, blond-haired man at the Salvation Army meeting hinted that he once had been a commanding general at Fort Jackson.
In fact, the retired major general, John A. Renner , was dressed casually in jeans and a pullover sweater as he listened intently to the young man seated beside him.
The young man was a recovering alcoholic, with no job or home to go to. And Renner felt as challenged by the young man's problems as if he were confronting an obstacle course:
"I spent my whole life counseling soldiers, from recruits to brigadier generals. But I never had to do anything like this,'' Renner said.
Renner volunteered for the job with four members of his Spring Valley Rotary Club: mortgage broker Robert Capers, Southern Bell's Beverly Frost, insurance executive Marion Hanna and David White of Modern Office Equipment.
The Rotarians are helping recovering alcoholics and drug addicts re-enter society as sober, productive wage-earners.
For 1 1/2 hours on Monday evenings, they and about 10 other community volunteers huddle, one-on-one, with their "clients'' who have signed contracts acknowledging their readiness to enter the mentoring relationship.
Most clients are referred to the highly structured, six-month, Salvation Army "live-in'' program after screening by other agencies.
The volunteers aren't expected to be miracle workers, program director Carol Garland says. But they offer the enrollees emotional support and friendly guidance.
The community leaders' willingness to spend time with the substance abusers has, in many cases, opened "some emotionally shut doors,'' Garland said. "It makes them feel good that an Army general or the CEO of a company is willing to help.''
One grateful "graduate,'' for instance, recently wrote his mentor this warm letter: "You have helped me in ways I don't think you fully comprehend. A year ago, I was hopelessly destitute and spiritually bankrupt. I don't give you all the credit, as you know there were others who helped.
"But rising above all others there you were and still are. You were a friend to me when that's what I needed the most. You were a father figure when I needed direction, you were a priest when I needed spiritual guidance, you opened doors that would have otherwise been closed.''
Such mentoring relationships, USC psychologist Fred Medway says, are powerful testimony to the influence of positive role models who have demonstrated in their own lives "the keys to success.''
Not only can mentors spend time that overburdened caseworkers don't have, but almost without exception, they bring with them such a high degree of commitment and motivation "it carries over to the client,'' Medway says.
Ron Nelson, 46, a Sheetrock worker battling a 30-year narcotics habit, said of his mentor: "I didn't think this much compassion and concern existed in people. I really thought the world had gotten too cold for it.''
Nelson joined the program seven weeks ago after attempting suicide with a drug overdose. Over the years, he has sought treatment at "a recovery house'' and at Morris Village, the state's drug-and-alcohol treatment center.
But nothing worked, he said.
"But I'm optimistic now,'' Nelson said. "This is just the beginning for me. These men -- and God -- have given me the key. I'm going to make it!''
Nelson's mentor, Cam Howell, a NationsBank executive, feels good about Nelson's chances for recovery. But, he adds, "Ron really hasn't been tested yet.''
Howell said it's wise to remain cautiously optimistic. One of his clients fell by the wayside after just such a promising start, "and I had to leave the program abruptly; I couldn't handle it. I had to take a break.''
Volunteer Walter Keenan, president of The Keenan Co., has had a string of successes over the past few years. A few of his clients have gone on to college or technical school.
"Now I know why our Good Samaritan, John Fling, gets so charged up over helping people,'' Keenan said. "There's so much gratification here. Most of my life, I've never gotten involved, one-on-one, like this. Some nights you leave here with a real high.''
Keenan is now mentor to a client whose father was a successful businessman. The young man never felt he measured up, so he sought solace in alcohol. Keenan has helped the youngster grapple with his low self-esteem and given him encouragement. "I've now got the boy turned around,'' he said.
Police Chief Charles Austin was so impressed by a client's development that he later offered him a job with his department. And Realtor Bob Russell supervised one client through real estate school -- then brought him into his agency.
Spring Valley Rotarian Gordon Peters has made a big contribution as well. He has recruited several desperately needed volunteers from his Rotary Club, helping expand the program's outreach. "We need three times as many volunteers,'' he said.
Peters' client is James Gannt, a 36-year-old former banker with Irving Trust Co. in New York City. Plagued for years by a drinking problem, Gannt said his wife "finally gave me an ultimatum.''
With Peters' help, Gannt has set some goals. Now, he's considering the ministry, a calling he has struggled with for years, he said.
"I was on my knees the other night praying,'' Gannt recalled. "I could hear my grandfather singing his gospel songs, telling me the door was open to come on home, that I had finally seen the truth, the way and the light.''