“You don’t live on faith. You live on reality.”
James Stallworth has much to say about his early life. This statement summarizes the world as he saw it — a world ripe with possibility and distraction. A promising athlete at 18-years-old, James set the National Federation of State High School Associations record with a long jump of over twenty-six feet. He went on to attend the 1990 World Junior Championships in Athletics in Bulgaria, where he surpassed his own personal record while winning the gold medal in the long jump competition. He also left with the bronze medal in the 200-meter.
The next year, instead of starting a promising college career, James found himself in a prison cell for selling $20 worth of cocaine to four undercover police officers. His full-ride to Fresno State University was terminated. Soon after, he became a father with the birth of his first daughter.
Twenty-four years later, James still has the look of an athlete at 6’3” with a thin, athletic frame. He carries himself with a quiet confidence and inviting smile. Ask him about his past and his eyes seem to glance over to a scene playing out before him: “I think about that night every day,” James said. “I can’t even tell you why I did it. It’s the lifestyle, it was the attention. I thrived on that. I was hanging with my friends and doing what they were doing. I just got caught up in it.”
Fast-forward to December 2014 — James’ journey brought him right here to Visalia Rescue Mission. “The Mission has been awesome. There has been a lot of discovery. God is good, and without Jesus Christ, I don’t know where I’d be.”
Around the same time James found himself in jail, Annette Edwards was living a similar life. “When I was growing up, drugs, alcohol, and violence were normal to me.”
Spending time in juvenile hall by age 12, pregnant by age 16, selling drugs by age 17, Annette was pursuing the only lifestyle she knew. At age 23, Annette lost custody of her children after her husband died and the children’s biological father assumed custody.
Custody hearings weren’t the only issue landing Annette in court. “I lived recklessly for six or seven years. The judge got tired of seeing me, so I would serve a year for a misdemeanor, instead of the typical 90 days.”
All of her time behind bars didn’t change her, as she would return to drug use after every release. This changed after her last 45-day sentence in county jail when she found a bible. “I just prayed and talked to the Lord, and saturated myself in my bible. I believe I was delivered there on that bunk in the county jail.”
Annette’s introduction to Visalia Rescue Mission came with the morning paper one day. “It’s when they were building the new Community Center, and I thought, I don’t want to go back to where I came from, I want to change my life. I want my children and my grandchildren in my life. So when I was released, I got a ride to the [VRM] Shelter and they told me about the House of Hope. That program changed by life.”
Sergio Rocha is a 44-year-old grandfather with a good job — a truck driver who works six days a week, yet is soft-spoken, kind, and shows no sign of his former lifestyle.
Before coming to VRM, Sergio was serving a 12-year-sentence as penance for a life of drug use and sales. His drive into this lifestyle was fueled not by his hardworking and sober family, but by the movie, Scarface. “I wanted to be like Tony Montana. I wanted to have power, women, and money. I was the black sheep of the family back then.”
Prison didn’t play into the glamorous portrayal Sergio saw in a criminal culture. “I had a lot of guilt and pain thinking about my family. I would be in my cell at night and couldn’t sleep. I’d cry thinking about not being there to help them or save them from anything.”
Upon his release, after just 31 months, Sergio became a student at our Life-Change Academy. He found gratefulness in the smallest of gifts, like the ability to open a door and go outside at will. He also found closure from his former life:
“Like a pastor told me one day, ‘If God forgave you, who are you not to forgive yourself? Are you higher than God?’ And ever since then, I have forgiven myself and thank God for forgiving me, too.”