Lee Johnson was living on the edge and shooting "John Belushis"--potentially lethal cocaine-heroin combos--into his arm when he wondered one day if he would ever crawl out of his own personal black hole. He was 40ish, going on dead.
"I didn't want to go to some phoney-baloney dry-out place where the owner's son is doping the place and the counselors are hooked, so I started talking to the chaplain at the Union Rescue Mission" in downtown Los Angeles, he said.
"He asked me, 'Do you wanna accept the Lord?' I had to accept something from somebody because what I was doing wasn't working," Johnson said.
So the streetwise but worn-out Johnson, who had led a life of "fast cars, fast women, fast police and slow drugs" in Los Angeles and Hollywood, agreed to give his life a Christian focus, on the condition that he go to a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center in Vista.
"I said, ' Vista? Where's that, the other side of Mars?' But I figured it must be greener grounds, and here I came."
142-Acre Retreat and Rehab Center
"Here" is Green Oak Ranch, a 142-acre retreat and rehabilitation center quietly owned and operated by the Union Rescue Mission of Los Angeles to salvage the lives of men who were going nowhere fast on Skid Row.
At the ranch, set in a little rural valley snuggled between new industrial parks and one of Vista's hallmark residential neighborhoods, more than 1,000 men who were momentarily sober enough to seek help at the Union Rescue Mission in downtown Los Angeles have learned to put distance between themselves and the booze and drugs that drained them of their dignity.
In groups of 40 at a time, they live here for a year or more, combining a program of schooling, job training and Christian devotion in order to dry out, learn a skill and get a job. Not all of them will succeed, but those who do--like Johnson--say they'll never return to Skid Row . . . in any city.
Johnson remembers his first impression when he arrived at the ranch nine months ago: " 'I think I just took a step toward Heaven.' They told me I couldn't leave the ranch for a month and I kept on wondering, 'Why would I want to leave?'
"And now you're looking at the closest thing you'll ever see to a miracle," he said. "When you do drugs, you live by the minute, between your doses of the devil and going from one jolt to the next and convincing yourself you're seeking happiness.
"Now those minutes are turning into days and as long as I can say I haven't shot up any dope today, I'm winning. For me, it's been almost 10 months."
The rehabilitation center is only half the story of Green Oak Ranch, albeit the more dramatic portion.
Shared With Youth Camp for the Public
Half of the ranch is open to the public, developed as a youth camp and a retreat center for youth groups, churches and other organizations for daylong or weeklong getaways. Any given year, more than 5,000 people stay at the complex, where they enjoy such quintessential retreat offerings as horseback riding, hayrides, campfires, swimming, horseshoes and volleyball.
But it's the other half of the ranch that seems such an anomaly in North San Diego County--a rehabilitation center that is only two hours, give or take a life style, from the gutters, empty bottles and dirty needles of downtown Los Angeles.
The ranch began operations in 1950--back when the area was the boondocks of wide-open North County--and has operated virtually without controversy ever since, even as growth has crept up the neighboring hillsides.
Ranch operators say it is that rustic environment, with its trees and stream, horse corrals and barns, that serves an important role in helping to develop new beginnings in life for men who thought they were facing dead-ends.
But most important to the success of the ranch program, they say, are the commitment and fellowship of the men who come to Green Oak Ranch.
If Los Angeles' Skid Row used to be the domain of men in their 40s, 50s and 60s who bottomed out in life by looking into the bottom of wine bottles, it now includes younger people like Kingsley Johnson who have hit bottom because of drugs.
Johnson is 26. He was fired from his job on an assembly line and had a drug-related rap sheet when he walked into the Union Rescue Mission one day, looking for food.
"It seemed that every time I turned a corner and saw a bright spot, it would close in on me before I got there," he says of his life.
He ended up in Vista, at the chaplain's suggestion.
"Every day I'm here I'm growing stronger. When I first came here, I could hardly provide for myself. Now I want to become a meat cutter and now I'm thinking about starting a family so I can provide for others, too."
The men are selected for admission to Green Oak Ranch based on interviews with Union Rescue Mission chaplains in Los Angeles and Vista.