LAKELAND, Fla. (AP) — In the more than 30 years he’s spent leading New Life Outreach Ministry, Larry Mitchell has not once considered giving up.
“I can’t ever remember wanting to quit. I can’t even remember really contemplating quitting,” said Mitchell, 67. “And people would say, ‘How do you do what you do?’ … I don’t know — I just do it. I don’t think about it.”
In the late 1980s, Mitchell was a high-functioning drug addict, holding down a job as a pharmacist. A man came in to Mitchell’s drug store one day, and it was like “Jesus walked through the door.” Mitchell decided in that moment he wanted to get to know that man.
The result of that relationship was a mission trip made up of doctors, nurses and other medical staff to Lima, Peru, where Mitchell had a spiritual awakening. He returned to Lakeland determined to get off drugs, and he’s been sober ever since. He opened New Life in 1989, a nonprofit that offers permanent housing, residential transitional housing, prison re-entry and employment services.
The organization’s mission, according to its website, is to “provide transitional and permanent housing to men — including men with mental and physical disabilities in overcoming life-matters of homelessness and substance abuse.”
Funding for the organization comes from donations, grants and in some cases, rent. Those staying in New Life housing that have a job may pay up to $300 a month to stay. Mitchell allows them to stay for as long as they need, which can be up to two years, leading to a waitlist of men seeking shelter.
”(They stay) until they’re self-sufficient,” Mitchell said. “It would make no sense to put somebody out who’s not ready, (just) to become homeless again.”
Running New Life is more than Mitchell’s method of giving back. It’s his calling.
“I just know I have more satisfaction with what I do here than every degree that I worked hard to get,” Mitchell said. “So you look for satisfaction in life, but most people don’t find it. I found my, my purpose, and I’m living it out. It’s just that simple.”
When Mitchell opened New Life Ministry, he had just two people come under his wing. Unsure how to run a treatment program, Mitchell would leave them with tapes to listen to during the day while he ran his drugstore, which Mitchell retired from after 27 years in the business. When he would come back at the end of the day, he would “minister to them, just love on them.”
Eventually, Mitchell brought on a director who had worked with an internationally recognized treatment program in LA
“It takes a village. It takes people concerned. It takes a whole lot to lift somebody up, to give them opportunities,” Mitchell said. “But it’s the joy; it’s the satisfaction. It goes beyond anything I think a person could ever do.”
Flash forward more than 30 years: New Life can house up to 25 men at any given time. Before the onset of COVID-19, it could house more than 35; the program had to move from bunk beds to single beds because of social distancing.
Mitchell ran New Life out of his office at the drugstore for a time and then eventually out of his downtown office at a space he set aside to direct the Central Florida Business Diversity Council, which Mitchell said serves as a Chamber of Commerce for minority-owned businesses.
Now, Mitchell has his own office at 1221 Omohundro Avenue, just off Kathleen Road and a few blocks north of Memorial Boulevard, the newly opened headquarters of sorts for New Life.
The organization has gotten larger, attracting full-time employees such as Kimberly Draine, who does administrative services for the organization from a desk located immediately to the right when clients step into New Life. And there are others who simply partner with the nonprofit, like Keith Ward.
About a decade ago, Ward spent more than a year on the streets of Atlanta, homeless. A former military officer in the US Army, he couch-surfed and stayed at shelters, using a $1 razor in the bathrooms at McDonald’s to keep his clean shaven look from his time in service. He couldn’t get the help he needed from Veterans Affairs.
Ward eventually moved back to Florida to help take care of his sick mother. Now he partners with New Life, helping the residents get assistance with health insurance. He compared himself to human resources at normal companies that deal with benefits for clients. He and Mitchell are both involved with the local chapter of the NAACP.
“Watching Mr. Mitchell here, for me, being homeless, it helps me to turn my efforts to him, because I’ve been these guys,” Ward said. “I’ve been hungry. I’ve been cold.”
New Life pursues renovations, expansion
Overall, Mitchell has six buildings where he can house men in need.
One of the dormitories is located just behind the New Life building on Omohondru. That building, along with the other five, are set for future renovations.
Although COVID-19 cut down the number of men Mitchell can host at any one time, it also led to the American Rescue Act and more than $500,000 in funds Mitchell is set to receive in April. He plans to use that money to renovate all of his buildings, which will include converting one of his houses into a shelter that will prioritize veterans.
The house behind the main New Life building shows its wear. The furniture is aging and it’s hot. It’s the same with the other houses, all located within a few blocks of the main office. Mitchell said some of the houses are up to 70 years old and need layers of attention, “from roofing to bathrooms to air condition.”
Part of the goal is to get the homes beyond “suitable living.”
“You want it to be up to standard. I mean it’s deliverable, which passed inspection, but we need it to be — upgraded, yeah,” Draine said. “So that’s what the funds are used for, for all of the houses.”
Mitchell said construction on the renovations is set to begin around April, when the funds hit. The changes are set to expand New Life’s capacity by about 10 people, partly because of the demolition and expansion planned for one of the houses.
The major changes come on the heels of a project that was 15 years in the making: the main office, where Mitchell now works out of.
Besides offices for Mitchell and Draine, the building has a large multipurpose room where clients and community members can access services, use computers and attend events, including faith-based ones. Meetings used to occur in the dining rooms of the dormitory behind the building, but Mitchell prefers the new open, light-colored, air-conditioned space.
“It helps a lot, mentally,” Mitchell said. “It really does. I didn’t realize how much it does. You’ve got something that looks nice, feels good, you know, it goes a long, long ways.”
New Life launched a fundraising program for the building in 2019, 14 years after initial construction on the space began. It officially opened in 2021.
Mitchell, a community activist, said he has just one answer when people ask him how he does his work with New Life: “I don’t know.”
“I just do it. I don’t think about it,” Mitchell said. “I believe my faith is very strong. I think I just know I have more satisfaction with what I do here than every degree that I worked hard to get.”
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