No Turning Back
When Michael Parson thinks back to his days walking the streets of Philadelphia, homeless and addicted to drugs, a wry smile flits across his face. “You could say I was looking for love in all the wrong places.”
He also says that all his time in crack houses, “abandominiums,” jail cells, mental health hospitals, and sleeping outside dumpsters were marked by a constant personal effort to find a way out of a life of despair.
In 2009 he was ready to surrender. He had gotten out of prison, found temporary housing, but soon the tentacles of drugs were reaching out to him again. A short stay in the hospital because of chest pains added to his fear – he says it was a time of calling out to God for help.
That help came in the form of St. John’s Hospice, the residence for homeless men in Center City. The great staff there, including Ed Braxton and Steve Walenta, guided Mike through a time of often painful transition, encouraging him to be patient, to take it one day at a time, to take one step before the other.
It was a crucial year for Michael, a time of stability and growth. He began dealing with childhood trauma from episodes of violence. He began learning to just “be himself.” He began singing with a Gospel choir. As he advanced in his recovery, Mike started to give back. He started getting donated clothes to bring to the guys in the shelter. He took some of the guys shopping. And he gave plenty of time and effort to support a friend who was getting out of jail and trying to get his life together.
With his mind free from the demons of despair, serving others came naturally to him. Echoing the Golden Rule, he puts it simply: “I treat people the way I wanted to be treated.” Even as a child, before trauma and addiction set him off course, Mike says, “I always was a giving person. I would go to the store for elders, do errands and odd jobs for people.”
Michael moved to Project HOME’s 1515 Fairmount Avenue residence in 2011. The home here has been a great launching pad as he continues his work to serve others. "I haven’t had a bad day since I’ve been here.” Even within the community, his spirit of care expresses itself: He makes cheese steaks every Saturday for the guys in his cluster.
But it’s not just service – it’s a gift for mentorship. In informal ways, Mike is constantly mentoring others, whether it’s the guys in his cluster at 1515, or the participants in the “Narcotics No More” group he facilitates. He is a powerful role model for many people.
“Michael brings a pronounced sense of hope to the residence and the community at large,” says Aishea Watkins, Case Manager of the 1515 Fairmount residence. “It has been a pleasure working alongside him and witnessing the transformations he has made in just one year’s time. He is a great asset to the Project HOME community and an inspiration to all of those that encounter him.”
As he looks back on the long painful years, Mike asserts with confidence, “God took that stuff away from me, and there’s no turning back.”
Mike also keeps up a very important part of his life: running with the Back on My Feet program four days a week. The running, which he undertakes even with occasional chest pains, is an important part of his recovery. He even ran a half marathon in November.
He keeps on running, pushing himself, moving forward. It’s a symbol of his life. “Nothing can get in my way that I can’t handle, thanks to God. I start with God in the morning before I run, and I end with God – and I believe that’s what carries me throughout the day.”
He will be moving forward some more soon: To his own apartment. In the coming days, he will move out of 1515 Fairmount to PHA housing. He intends to stay connected to his Project HOME community. He will be coming back regularly to 1515 and cook for “the guys,” as well as continuing to teach them basic shopping and budgeting skills. He also intends to continue his volunteering – at St. John’s Hospice, at a new recovery meeting place he is running, at ministries through his church. He looks forward to achieving more goals in his life, ultimately even running his own business.
It seems pretty clear he is now looking in all the right places.