Robert Cook stood up straight, his baritone voice steady and strong as he recalled the first time he tried to hang himself, when he was barely 9 years old.
“I was abused every single day of my life, just savagely abused,” Cook told a group of residents and community leaders seated inside the chapel at the New Orleans Mission.
“By the time I was 10, I had already had stitches about a dozen times. I had my nose broken twice; I had my jaw broken, my ribs broken. I knew very early on about despair. … I was completely lost,” he said.
Cook’s brother stopped him from ending his life, but the abuse didn’t stop, and Cook fell headfirst into substance abuse and depression, a downward spiral that lasted for years. In August 2013, he hit bottom. He woke up in jail after totaling his car on the interstate with “copious” amounts of drugs and alcohol in his system and found himself facing a five-year prison sentence.
But when a judge allowed him instead to enter a diversion program at the New Orleans Mission, a faith-based program aimed at helping ex-offenders rehabilitate themselves and re-enter society, Cook's life started to turn around.
After a five-month jail stint, he started his new life through the organization’s Giving Hope Retreat. The experience sobered him and, most important, helped him forge a relationship with God, he said.
Now, sober and with a new passion for life, his family says they barely recognize him, Cook said, his voice finally breaking.
“This program has done nothing but help me," he said. "There is so much truth here … and the Lord has done something truly amazing in my life.”
Cook is one of many who have sought help and shelter from the New Orleans Mission, which is undergoing a series of major renovations, part of a multimillion-dollar project to improve the largest homeless shelter in the Gulf South.
The shelter’s main building, which sits next to the Pontchartrain Expressway on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard, has been in a state of deterioration for years, New Orleans Mission CEO David Bottner said.
“Renovations to our facilities will help the mission operate more efficiently, allow us to implement more job training programs, and provide an environment that is more inviting to the homeless,” Bottner said. “All of these improvements will lead to more people utilizing our services, and in turn, more people who find hope and healing through the love of Christ under our roof.”
The mission’s holistic approach seeks to help lost and homeless people, some whom are former addicts and ex-offenders, recover, rehabilitate and learn the skills necessary to re-enter society.
Included in the plans for the building, which is being renovated in three phases, are new showers and bathroom facilities, a new kitchen where culinary training will be offered, improved laundry services, an expanded medical clinic, and a day shelter with classrooms where job and vocational skills training will be offered.
The project began with structural work to the main building and chapel, which included new walls, a new roof and renovations to the building’s façade.
The second phase, to be completed in October, includes demolition and reconstruction of the rear accessory building to provide new bathroom and shower facilities, storage space, a new kitchen and renovations to the second-floor sleeping area.
The shelter now houses 170 people a night. The additional space will bring its capacity up to 200.
While fundraising efforts — including a $1 million donation from Fifth District Savings Bank — have raised more than $5 million, an additional $1.4 million is needed to complete the final phase of the project. That phase will include new interior walls, paint, ceilings, flooring, lighting fixtures, offices, security cameras and a key entry system, among other amenities.
The day shelter, which is scheduled to be completed by year’s end, is a major component of the project, for it will help to get the homeless off the streets between 7 a.m. and 4 p.m., when the dormitories are closed, Bottner said. Five new modular buildings will provide a quiet room, a game room, a computer lounge and a gym, among other daytime facilities.
Following complaints from neighbors about loitering, the shelter’s entrance will be moved to the rear of the main building, on Clio Street, so that the homeless men and women can have “space to rest without judgment or shame,” according to a release from the project’s organizers.
During a site visit Thursday, Bottner touted some of the organization's newer vocational programs including ministry, media and production, clerical skills and more.
“The greatest treasure is not the building,” he said. “The greatest treasure that we have is giving hope to hurting people.”