Furnie Gaines was in trouble.
The former cook had a drinking problem, and by the late 1980s had exhausted every program in the Atlantic City area designed to help him.
"They ran out of places to send me," he remembers.
Today, Gaines is a testament to the power of human will and a true American success story. With the help of Trenton’s Rescue Mission on Carroll Street, the 57-year-old Gaines is now the director of Support Services and Facility for the Mission. The Rescue Mission assists the homeless seeking shelter, food and clothing, as well as provide services to those battling addiction.
Last week, after giving a presentation to the pupils at Antheil Elementary School in Ewing, Gaines was surprised with a proclamation, lauding him as Antheil’s own "Present-Day Hero." Gaines has been a guest speaker at the school for five years, providing inspiration for the kick-off of Antheil’s annual Helping Hands Coat Drive and crocheting of scarves for the Rescue Mission. Over the course of the school year, the pupils crochet 300 scarves for the Mission clients. They also collect coats to be donated to the Mission to help the homeless through the cold winter months. The drive lasts through February.
"We are always looking for authentic and powerful role models for children, and he overcame so many obstacles in his life and persevered,” noted Donna Steinmetz, a counselor at Antheil. "He is such a respectable and humble person, and gives inspiring talks to the children about living wholesome lives. His sincerity comes through."
Gaines’ proclamation marked a first time for the school, Steinmetz said, adding that Gaines’ gentle humanity shines through in a way that engages the children.
"You could hear a pin drop when he speaks," she said. "He talked about how the children are the leaders of the future, and how to give in a world of takers. He speaks of the importance of giving back to the community."
Gaines also speaks of redemption, and of the hard work it took for him to get to where he is today. He credits the Mission for sticking by him when all seemed hopeless.
"It used to frustrate me so much. People kept telling me (alcoholism) was a disease, but then they would throw me out," he said. "The Rescue Mission was different. They kept me there and gave me a chance."
Broke, destitute, and thrown out of many homeless shelters. Gaines found himself on the steps of Trenton’s Rescue Mission. It was 1988, he was 37, and it was time to get serious.
One of the counselors at the Mission took one look at Gaines and said, "You need to give yourself a break."
Gaines was skeptical, thinking that he would once again get thrown out for drinking.
"I tried, and I wound up drinking,” he said. "But I didn’t get thrown out. I had been in several other places… where if you start drinking, they throw you out. But this place is different."
The Rescue Mission stood by Gaines. He took several jobs in the organization, cooking, housekeeping, and other services. All the while he was attending support group meetings in an attempt to stay sober. During this period, he met a special women friend who attended the meetings with him. Their friendship gave Gaines the incentive to keep sober and turn his life around.
"I met her when I was panhandling," he said. "We became friends."
Over the years, the two cultivated a strong relationship despite overwhelming obstacles. He was living at the Rescue Mission, and she was in the projects. She offered Gaines a little incentive.
"This young lady said to me, 'if you get me out of the projects, I’ll marry you,'" he said.
Gaines took his last drink on Aug 18, 1989. Meanwhile, he stayed at the Rescue Mission as a resident, remained sober, and learned he could join the staff.
"They said that I had a good future if I didn’t drink," he said. That was all the incentive Gaines needed. He remained sober for a full year before joining the staff.
"Whatever they wanted me to do, I did," he said. "They had a place for me, and put up with my craziness."
Things started looking up. Gaines married Thomasine in 1992, and promptly began to hunt for a house. Through another alumnus of the Rescue Mission trying to start a career as a real estate agent, Gaines bought a house for $40,000.
"It was 1995, and I thought 'what do I have to lose?'" he said. It worked out for him, too, because it was the first house he ever sold.
Gaines fixed up the house, and sold it for a tidy profit two years later.
The Realtor then suggested another property. Again, Gaines worked with a builder who had been saved by the Rescue Mission, and built a life in Trenton.
"I have a 31-year old son and a 9-year old grandson," Gaines said proudly. "Life has been good. The Rescue Mission gave me the opportunity to get my life together."
Today, Gaines is in charge of the same facility that offered him a life preserver 20 years ago. He oversees the safety of the facility, including all four buildings, the kitchen area and housekeeping.
"I have to keep everything in proper running order," he said.
Gaines can't say enough positive things about the Rescue Mission and how his life changed forever once he walked though those doors.
"(Chief Executive Director) Mary Gay Abbot-Young had so much faith in me, and helped me along the way."
Before Gaines was introduced at the Antheil Elementary School assembly, the children dedicated the Helping Hands project to the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. According to Steinmetz, Gaines didn’t hesitate to share his own dream with the children.
"He said he always followed the teachings of Dr. King in theory, but now he got to follow him in reality," she said. "He said his dream is that the boys and girls become leaders who know how to give rather than receive."
Through his work at the Rescue Mission, Gaines is practicing what he preaches.
--Courtesy of The Times of Trenton, article by Michele Anermiller