A funny thing happened to us on our way to volunteer with Hurricane Laura relief efforts in Louisiana, we ended up in an old prison in Texas.

On Labor Day, following a wonderful weekend with some of our family back in Pennsylvania, we headed south to help with some of the hurricane relief efforts that devastated Southwest Louisiana.

We made good progress on the road on Monday traveling into Kentucky and sleeping for a few hours at the Kentucky Welcome Center.  Tuesday, even with having to stop in a Save-A-Lot parking lot somewhere in Kentucky for me to participate in my bi-weekly PCA Zoom meeting, we made it into Alabama and stayed at a little campground that was just off of the interstate in Athens.  We left early Wednesday morning because we had made reservations the night before at a campground in Picayune, Mississippi and wanted to get there at a decent time.  We accomplished that goal by arriving around 4:00 PM, giving us enough time to get set-up, take a dip in the pool and order dinner from Papa John’s.

As we rolled out of Mississippi and into Louisiana on Thursday, little did we realize what was in store for us.  I had been in communication with a friend and pastor from Virginia, Chuck Balsamo who had been staying at the Dream Center of Southeast Texas in Beaumont at the time that Hurricane Laura hit the region.  He was one of the first responders in the relief efforts.  I had reached out to him to see how we could get involved in helping after Labor Day.  After a few emails, conversations and text messages, he told me that he had a place that we could hook up our RV at that had 30-amp service.  While we were in route to the Lake Charles area on Thursday, Chuck started a group text message between myself, Pastor Mike Conner of the Dream Center and himself to make sure that our arrangements were still in order.  Chuck kept telling me that we’d have about an hour commute each day from the Dream Center into Lake Charles.  Considering that we’ve been driving five or six hours a day since Monday, an hour didn’t sound bad at all.  However, the one thing that I forgot to calculate was RV time.  Driving an hour in a regular vehicle is quite different than driving an hour in an RV, to say the least.

So, as we drove through the Lake Charles and Sulphur areas and were seeing the devastation that the hurricane had wreaked, we were in disbelief.  It’s one thing to see it on the news reels, but a completely different perspective when you see it in person.  I again felt close to my mom and understood why she had volunteered so much with disaster relief efforts with the Salvation Army.  She had an uncanny ability to help people in their lowest moments.

As we left that region and headed to Beaumont to the Dream Center, I kept thinking to myself, “This is insane, why am I driving 90 minutes (RV time) away from where we want to volunteer?”

Little did I know that the Lord had a bit of a different plan for us for a few days.

As we neared the Dream Center, I started thinking to myself, “What did Chuck get us into?”  He did describe the Dream Center as a compound, and said that it would remind me of a place that I’d want to be if scripting another Mad Max sequel, but I guess that didn’t really click with me for whatever reason.  Chuck also neglected to inform me that the Dream Center was located on what they call “Prison Row.”  As I came off the exit, the first sign that I see reads, “Caution, Hitchhikers are likely to be Escaped Inmates.”  Now, I’m really wondering, what in the world are we doing here?  I miss the turn into the Dream Center and have to drive past two more prisons before making a U-turn with my 32’-3” RV in yet a third prison driveway.  At this point, I’m thinking perhaps our best option is to miss the turn for the Dream Center again and just go somewhere else, but God wasn’t about to let that happen.

We pull in, I call Pastor Mike to let him know that we’ve arrived and he comes around shortly on his golf cart to greet us and lead us to the spot where we can plug in and dock for the night before heading back into Lake Charles the next day.

Pastor Mike had a meeting to get to so he introduces me to Donny, who is a disciple in the Dream Center program.  Donny helps us get set-up.  We end up tripping the breaker, so Donny comes back to help us again.  He changes the outlet for us and we start to talk.  I ask him what his story is and about the program.  As I inquire about what the Dream Center is and what the facility used to be, I begin to get a better understanding of why we ended up here.

The facility is an old juvenile prison that had been shut down for several years before Pastor Mike and his wife Vilma

Dream Center of Southeast Texas Campus

decided to lease it and turn it into the Dream Center.  The barbed wire and high chain link fence around the facility make it seem a little intimidating, but the work that is being done inside those fences is truly life changing and God’s mission.  Mike was originally involved with the LA Dream Center and he and Vilma moved to Texas a few years ago.  The Dream Center is a faith-based recovery program.

Mike comes back over to us after his meeting to make sure that we’re all squared away with the electric and we start talking about the program as well.  Listening to Mike and his passion and vision for the facility was inspiring to say the least.  Here is a man who should be starting to enjoy his retirement and decides to take a project of this magnitude.  When asked why, he simply responds by saying, “It’s a God thing.”

Our original plan was to head to Lake Charles first thing in the morning, but with the little electrical setback and not really getting settled in as early as I was hoping, I tell Mike that we’ll be leaving a little later.  He mentions that they have a devotional service at 8 AM, and I ask if we can attend.  He says, “Absolutely!”

As we’re listening to the message, God is speaking to both Sandy and I and telling us that we need to spend a few more days here and help Mike and Vilma.  After the service, we let them know that we plan on staying a few more days to help them with whatever they need.  They take us to breakfast and we learn more about their story and get to see how God works first hand when our waitress starts inquiring about the Dream Center and tells Mike her vision to help veterans and foster children, which just so happened to echo one of his visions for the Dream Center that he had just shared with me the night before.  We all sat there with chills as we marveled at how God connects us to just the right people at just the right time.

When we got back to the center, Sandy and I went down to help some of the guys put boxes of food together for tomorrow’s food drive outreach.  Part of the recovery program at the Dream Center is service and giving back.  We worked with some amazing men who are part of the disciple program here.  They told us about how much it means to them to be able to help others.  They are all at different stages of their recovery and their journey with God, but all seem to be headed in the right direction.  Recovery isn’t an easy process, it’s a commitment to change years and years of destructive behavior and really truly can only be accomplished with faith in God and a strong support system.

We had dinner with the guys and then went to their Celebrate Recovery program in the evening.  Again, listening to inspiring stories of faith and courage and seeing several of those who we met get recognized for the levels of their journey in which they have achieved.

As I sit here tonight, I know that the Lord is definitely guiding us in this journey.  This is truly turning into “The Journey of My Mother’s Son.”  We started out on a trip to help with hurricane relief efforts and end up helping at a faith-based recovery center on September 11th.  The irony of the Lord’s work is ever present.  For those of you who have just started following this journey, my mother volunteered with disaster relief efforts, she became a drug and alcohol counselor in her “later in life” career change and she volunteered for almost a year at Ground Zero following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center.

Tonight, at the end of the Celebrate Recovery session, we recited my Mom’s favorite prayer in its entirety, the Serenity Prayer, a fitting end to an amazing day.

Tomorrow, we will help distribute the food packages that we helped put together today.

We will end up back in Lake Charles, probably after the weekend to help there, but for now, we will help wherever we can here at the Dream Center of Southeast Texas and witness how God can turn an old prison into a place where dreams can come true and success can truly be obtained.