THE OPPORTUNITY VILLAGE opened in the end of 2016, just in time for Jason and Deanna Smith.
In the summer of 2017, the Smiths were living in a tent in a friend’s backyard, eating from a dumpster, and experiencing methamphetamine withdrawals. Over the previous four years, ever since Jason had started using meth as a way to deal with persistent knee pain, they’d struggled to hold their lives together. Deanna started using and eventually quit her job as a customer service rep for Walmart. They lost their families and sold their possessions, bit by bit, to support their addictions. They fought over whether to use their money to pay rent or buy more meth—and over which one would get the last hit.
When their landlord finally evicted them, they had nowhere to go but the tent. Deanna became depressed: “All I wanted to do was sleep. … I didn’t care if I laid in there and died.” Jason dreamed of his wife lying beside him, not breathing and a voice saying, “You don’t have to live like this anymore.” When he woke up and found her alive, he knew something had to change.
They called the Dream Center, and on Oct. 4, 2017, Jason and Deanna Smith moved into adjacent tiny houses in the Opportunity Village. They attended church and Celebrate Recovery groups, worked in the Dream Center’s resale stores, and took classes that taught practical skills: finances, parenting, and communications. Each met separately with a case manager, financial coach, and “care coach,” a Biblical counselor from an organization called JC Cares. They paid rent with Dream Dollars.
At first, the program was very hard: “You’re giving up all your freedoms, and you’re still in your worldly mindset,” Deanna Smith said. She unrooted old habits and replaced them with healthier ones: Instead of smoking, she reminded herself that her body was a temple for God, and instead of drugs, she learned to go to the Bible for hope and comfort. “When I learned to surrender to the Lord, He began working on my heart and transforming the way I thought and lived,” she said. “The staff at the Dream Center encouraged me daily, and I saw how they were and wanted to be like them.” One of the biggest breakthroughs for Smith was learning to forgive her stepfather who abused her as a child.
For the first month, she missed living with Jason, even though she understood they needed time to focus on their individual problems. She would lie in bed facing the wall nearest his house and pray for him. At Thanksgiving, the staff surprised them with a bigger house they could share.
Deanna Smith is now in a position to help others. The next summer, she finished work one day and saw a new woman sitting with her head down in the cafeteria. “I just remember seeing her looking so defeated, and I remember being there. I just wanted to help her,” said Smith. She came up behind the woman, hugged her, and said, “Welcome!” That was the start of her friendship with Debbie Crawford.
CRAWFORD, A WIRY WOMAN, has short hair, glasses, and a traumatic story: Her drug-dealing husband kicked her out, and she moved into a shack in a pasture. A woman from a local church helped her find a house for herself and her son, then in his 20s. But early in 2018, Crawford received a call that a police officer had shot and killed her son.
That started her on a downward spiral: heavy drug use and a suicide attempt. Her church friend helped her get into the Opportunity Village in July. At first, Crawford kept to herself, but when Deanna hugged her, she said, she “could just feel something different.” The two became close friends, and Deanna encouraged Crawford to read the Bible. Crawford saw that Smith’s life had radically changed and thought, “‘If God’d do all that for her, maybe He’ll do it for me too.’ When I surrendered to God, He started piecing my heart back together.”
Not everyone who starts the program graduates (the graduation rate is 50 percent, though Wilson said 85 percent of graduates maintain healthy self-sufficiency). Staffers recently dismissed one woman whose drug test came back positive after a family visit. They gave her a second chance, but she was unwilling to change. Even those in the program who are willing to change can experience major discouragement. Founder Wilson spoke of the need always “to remind them who they are and whose they are, because they easily want to fall back into discouragement and think that they’re not worth it.”
Those—including Deanna and Jason Smith and Debbie Crawford—who graduate from the program have a full-time job, a car, and money in savings. From the Opportunity Village, graduates can move into 10 off-site transitional houses for the six-month Bridge program. They continue to meet with their financial and care coaches to manage money and stress, while paying reduced rent with real money.
The Smiths and Crawford work at one of the Dream Center’s three resale stores. Contemporary Christian music plays as the ladies sort donations and stock the store. Sometimes they pray with customers who browse through shelves of dishes and racks of clothing.
Life after the Opportunity Village has not been painless: In February, Crawford had an emotional breakdown on the anniversary of her son’s death and ended up in the hospital for two weeks. But Crawford said she left the hospital with thankfulness for ordinary blessings like birds and trees and a new desire to read Scripture.
Chris Wilson said the Dream Center cannot take credit for the success: “There’s not a single person who successfully graduated who was not leaving here as a follower of Christ,” she said. “So there’s no denying what truly changed their life.”