Don Rogers: Bouncing from bottom | TheUnion.com

Don Rogers: Bouncing from bottom

The group I marvel at most concerns men laid their lowest.

On their knees, these prematurely wrinkled, stone-eyed husks who have burned and burned out, who know the worst by touching it directly and so were torched back. Reap what you sow, baby, a blunt awful truth.

These druggies, these drunks, these criminals, these depraved humanlike animals who have done others wrong in their mania to serve themselves, only themselves.

Some of the 50 or more in this gray room, sitting on cold gray metal folding chairs, are young, ears tucked in their straight-billed ball caps, tats shining uncrinkled on still-fresh skin, maybe starting to listen as they absorb this horror they've wrought upon themselves.

A study of the group’s influence is promising: recidivism at 2.2 percent over three years for Project H.E.A.R.T. participants compared to the 43 percent to nearly 70 percent recorded averages across the country.

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Tell the other inmates you're innocent, the authorities got it wrong, you had to do it, part of the pack and all. You know. And they know even as they nod with you in agreement. You are in deep s…, and you did this to yourself, a step at a time. Blame anyone you like. It's still on you. Only on you.

But I wouldn't know, not really. I never took my bad habits to their extremes, my selfish nature all the way into criminality, run long with the wrong pals.

I only know I'm not above these men, and neither are you. They are us, like it or not, and far more in touch with the monster inside.

This is what I think as I lean forward in my metal chair, warm now under my butt, as I listen and take notes. This is what I do to listen better, remember more, whether I transcribe later or not. Maybe it gives me some safe psychic distance, too, I don't know.

Many of these men are older than me, or maybe younger in years but have run their tread down harder and faster. These are the ones more likely to talk, to share experience I know in books, from taking notes and wandering perhaps farther than I should in imagination. They had to go through it. I got to wake up, no harm done, from my nightmares.

Alcohol and other drugs permeate their stories, as does rage. Count greed, selfishness, alpha male posing, jostling for stature, need for control in there as ingredients for their cruelties, too. Failures, diminishments, frustrations and the ebb and flow of things generally not going our way all feed rage, depression sure to follow, and desperation eating, always eating, ravenous.

My desperation follows more the quiet sort Thoreau so ably noted about the mass of men. These guys have lived it at the sharp, sometimes bloody edge.

So here they are, in a room, fully recognizing each other. Drunks, druggies, gang bangers, burglars, abusers, batterers, thieves, scammers, felons, scumbags all.

And yet in this moment I'm full of admiration as their weekly Thursday evening meeting unfolds at the Interfaith Food Ministry building in a care-worn corner of Grass Valley. I believe I'm witnessing miracles.

Probation officer Fred Viola and a few others started Project H.E.A.R.T. in 2011. He leads the meetings as the head. President Dan Foxx, who coaches Silicon Valley CEOs by day, serves these fallen angels as inspirational and aspirational beacon, the heart. And Dave Mullan, once one of these men, is the conscience, the very soul of this quest for redemption.

That's how I see it, anyway, observing, taking my notes, having some quiet conversations. A study of the group's influence is promising: recidivism at 2.2 percent over three years for Project H.E.A.R.T. participants compared to the 43 percent to nearly 70 percent recorded averages across the country. Yeah, there seems to be something to the program.

But it's these men themselves who awe me. The ones who speak up, the ones whose businesses employ these men as a means of helping them reclaim decent lives, the ones who strike me as really listening.

The group veterans look each other in the eye, say "call me" and mean it, share their struggles and their hopes, stream to a biker who declares he's a week into trying to shake meth and the cops just raided his house this morning, his arrest sure to follow tomorrow morning. "You are not in this alone. Call me." Burly, bald, he wipes tears.

They are on their knees, at bottom, or eternally pulling themselves up. They've hurt, really damaged people. Their loved ones have abandoned many of them. They've forfeited any right to reference as heroes.

But still, I see what they are doing now as heroic, in its way. More so than me, fortunate enough not to fall so far to have to claw so hard. I look at them, their craggy faces, in their eyes. They have reaped everything evil they sowed.

But in this reaping is a seed of something else, and they talk of this with a reverence born of truth: "I finally learned it's not about me. It's about others. Everything I do now is about helping others. This is the key, the secret, how I beat back my own demons."

That's the gist, and it comes from speaker after speaker every time I drop in this meeting. It fills my notebook. It gives me hope.

For more information, call Dave Mullan at 530-838-3368. For the Project H.E.A.R.T. women's team, call 530-559-9639 or 530-263-2873.

Publisher Don Rogers can be reached at drogers@theunion.com or 477-4299.