Meet the Staff: Nathan Smith, Our CPO

Ever wonder what fuels the fire in the hearts of our staff for the homeless and hurting? Starting this month, we’ll be introducing you to the outstanding men and women who work tirelessly to see lives transformed – to get a peek into what brought them to the Mission and what keeps them going.

Ask anyone on campus and they’ll tell you: Nathan Smith has a huge heart for the homeless. But it didn’t start out that way.

“I wasn’t necessarily callous to helping people with great needs,” Nathan remembers. “I just never paid any attention to that as a kid.” It wasn’t until his first missions trip to India that his life, and his heart, changed forever. Nathan not only found his calling while he was in India, he found his wife – who was serving in the medical clinics of the same missions’ field.

“Years later, I was having trouble getting out to India to continue my mission work because I was building a family here. That’s when I was challenged by my grandmother-in-law to do more work locally. I started working with the homeless, which blossomed into a church ministry. From there, I met Jay Cory (former President and CEO of Phoenix Rescue Mission) who got me started at an entry-level position at the Mission.”

At the Mission, Nathan flourished. In just six short years, he’s risen through the ranks from Project Coordinator to Project Manager to Director of Community Engagement. During that time, he was instrumental in the expansion of the Mission’s reach into regions like Glendale, where he and his team saved the city’s largest food bank from closing for good.

Nathan’s team reopened Hope For Hunger Food Bank and increased the output of the previous ownership by more than 50% – serving more than 160 families per day under his watch. He was also a key player in the formation of Glendale Works, an integrated workforce development program aimed at reducing homelessness in Glendale by providing homeless individuals day-work cleaning city property.

In May, he accepted the position of Chief Program Officer!

God has put me in these different spots to expose me to what it means to be a leader, what it means to work with people who are really, really down and out and it’s prepared me to take that on at a higher administrative level. I couldn’t be more thankful for the path He put me on to get here.

Congratulations on your promotion, Nathan. We can’t wait to see how God uses you next!

Things May Look Different, but the Work Goes On

News of the coronavirus forced us to cancel the groundbreaking ceremony of our new, 4-story Life Recovery Building which will house our men’s program and increase available beds from 170 to 360, allowing us to have greater impact on many more lives. But the work goes on! Construction is underway, and all throughout Phoenix Rescue Mission, we’re still bringing help and hope to the homeless and needy.

At the Mission, we’re staying abreast of the COVID-19 situation and making decisions in real-time regarding how to best care for and serve those in our ministry family. Our leadership team has developed plans for each area within the organization, so that we can responsibly continue our ministry with care and compassion, especially at this crucial time of need in our city.

We’ve adjusted our outreach in creative ways. Our Hope for Hunger Food Bank has been transformed into a drive-thru style so we can continue our normal hours (M-F, 8am-12pm). There are no zip code restrictions on who can receive food at Hope for Hunger, so anyone can receive food assistance so long as they show an ID and proof of residence (typically a utility bill). Healthy volunteers are still needed each weekday. If you can help, sign up at prm.volunteerhub.com.

We will also continue our Community Markets and Mobile Food Pantries around the Valley, all with redesigned procedures to minimize or eliminate personal contact.

In times like this, we’re given an opportunity to display God’s love, help build courageous people, and engage in the welfare and comfort of our communities.

With your faithful support, we will continue to reach out to the hurting and homeless with hope and help. In times of darkness, the light shines brightest – thank you for the partnership that gives a path forward to the men, women, and children we serve, even in the midst of the current crisis.

Q&A with Our New CEO, Ken Brissa

Ken Brissa

Ken Brissa joins Phoenix Rescue Mission as an accomplished nonprofit and for-profit senior executive with more than 25 years of executive leadership, fundraising, board development, budget and program management, organizational strategy, and continuous improvement experience.

He has a proven record of success as a leader, inspiring and developing high performing teams, cultivating relationships, managing staff and volunteers, building impactful community and constituent relations, and driving effective local and national collaboration.

Q&A with Ken Brissa

What ties do you have to Phoenix? Why does serving at a local ministry in this particular city excite you?

After spending our entire lives in the Chicagoland area my wife and I were ready to say goodbye to winter. I traveled to Phoenix three or four times for work in my late twenties and loved everything about it so we knew it was a matter of when and not if we’d someday move to the Valley. We moved to Phoenix in 2006 and we’re incredibly blessed that our three children and two grandchildren all live here as well and are close-by.

Serving and working at a local ministry in Phoenix is something God has been putting on my heart for some time. I knew He wanted me to take my professional experiences and successes and bring them to an organization where I could help grow His kingdom.

 

Are there any particular passions or key values you bring to the table?

I believe the foundation of a successful organization is collaboration – getting the right people involved in the right things at the right time. This not only leads to better outcomes but builds better understanding, buy-in, trust and commitment to the organization and its mission.

I believe as a leader in this role it is my responsibility to remove obstacles that are preventing our staff and volunteers from being successful, to identify each person’s unique abilities to effectively contribute, and ultimately to help the people on my team grow. This means they significantly grow professionally, personally and spiritually under my guidance and so much so that they are promotable either within our organization or another. While it would be unfortunate for us if they move on to another organization, we would have had the benefit of their talent and the outcomes they helped create while they were here.

 

What are a few things that drew you to the CEO position at PRM?

Most importantly the thing that drew me to the CEO role at PRM was the opportunity to be both an operational and a spiritual leader. This is something God has called me to do in this season of my life. When I read the position description for the first time I told my wife, “You have to read this!” It was as if God wrote a personalized account of the role He was holding for me.

The opportunity and ability to quite literally save both earthly and eternal lives is a responsibility I nor the staff and volunteers at Phoenix Rescue Mission take lightly. The people that I’ve met so far are talented, anointed, passionate professionals and children of God. I’m blessed and looking forward to working side-by-side with them.

 

What are a few things that are happening at PRM that excite you?

There are so many things that excite me.  One being the way in which PRM serves its clients and offers programs that focus on healing the total person that help truly transform their lives. From recovery to vocational development, counseling and mentoring, and all services in-between Phoenix Rescue Mission truly offers a hand-up, not a hand-out.

I’m excited to be part of the construction of the new building and expansion of the Transforming Lives Center for Men. We are at capacity today and more men in the Valley need our services and need to know God. This expansion will allow us to touch more lives and significantly increase the impact PRM makes in these men and our community.

 

Do you have a vision for Phoenix Rescue Mission’s future?

My personal vision for PRM’s future is in lockstep with that of the organization – to transform lives while transforming our city.  We’ll continue to work with partner organizations to fulfill this vision while building new partnerships and relationships to grow our impact.

 

What is the story of your spiritual walk?

Knowing Christ has led me to this role – He has placed every experience, no matter how small or significant, in my path for a time such as this.

I grew up believing in God and knowing that Jesus Christ was my savior, but I did not have a relationship with Jesus. I recited prayers, more than usual when something bad like a family illness or national tragedy was going on, attended church on Sunday, etc. It wasn’t until we finally accepted one of many invitations from some dear friends to join their family at their church that I truly began to know Christ.

I had never experienced an evangelical, non-denominational worship and message service.  During worship that first time I was so uncomfortable and wondered to myself, “Why in the world are these people singing, jumping and raising their hands in the air?” I thought, “This is not for me!” Then the pastor started his message. I told my wife later that afternoon that I felt bad for the other 200 people in the room because the pastor was talking directly to me. We started serving in the church, joined and later led Small Groups and grew our relationship with Christ. Fast forward to the present I am on the board of my home church in Scottsdale and I was a guest speaker and delivered my first message there in October 2019.

 

Is there anything you enjoy doing here in Arizona?

Hiking Camelback Mountain and walking around Chaparral Park are two favorites. We need to make it a priority to discover new hiking trails.

 

Favorite sports and teams?

My favorite teams are the Chicago Cubs and Chicago Bears with the Diamondbacks and Cardinals a close second.  I like watching football most and love playing baseball and golf.  It’s strange though to love golf as much as I do and be as bad at it as I am.

A Prescription for Pain: Darin’s Story

It was a bright sunny day when it happened. Darin, who was 28, had just purchased a house in Chandler and was hard at work making it a home. He was hauling rock around his new yard when, suddenly, burning pain ran down his right leg. He quickly set down the wheelbarrow, but the pain didn’t go away.

Not that day, not the next, not for the next seven years.

The doctors told him he had lifted too much. He had compressed the disks in his back to the point that he crushed the nerves that led to his right leg.

“I was in a lot of pain, it was horrible. But I’ll never forget when my doctor said to me, ‘Here, just take this stuff.’”

From pill one, Darin knew he was in trouble.

“I took the painkillers that first night and pretty quick, I knew I was in trouble. It was such a good feeling. It wasn’t just the pain, every single problem I had just went away.”

Darin went from doctor to doctor looking for a safer, more permanent solution. But after 20 MRIs, no one could pinpoint exactly where the damage occurred. Until then, surgery wasn’t an option.

“Meanwhile, my tolerance for the painkillers was climbing; I needed more of them to numb the pain. So I went doctor shopping. Back then it was easy to visit different doctors, tell them about my leg and get another prescription. I didn’t think too much about it because I was legitimately in pain, but in the back of my mind in knew I was losing control.”

So did his family. They noticed the uptick in medication and arranged an intervention. They sent Darin to a rehab center where he managed to get clean. But the pain was still there. For the next year and a half, Darin would grit his teeth and bear it without the help of painkillers. Just when he was about to break, he had a breakthrough.

“This doctor took an MRI and said, ‘Yeah, I see it, there’s a little bulge right there that’s crushing the nerves.’ I couldn’t believe it; I finally had proof that I wasn’t insane.”

After seven long years, Darin finally received the surgery he needed to correct his nerve damage. But the problem was, with surgery came more painkillers.

“I was on morphine for the surgery and then OxyContin for the next month while I healed. And I was okay. But right after my back healed, I got into an accident and broke my leg. When that required surgery and more painkillers, it was too much. After four months of continued use I was hooked again.”

This time, things were more complicated. He was married, he had three kids and “doctor shopping” was no longer an option. As his addiction ramped up, so did national awareness of the opioid epidemic. He was quickly “red flagged” and had to turn to the streets for the painkillers he needed.

“When I started on the Fentanyl, my life just spiraled. I quit working. I could hardly be a parent. I was a mess. My wife was getting fed up with it. When she found the pills, she confronted me and I didn’t have an explanation, so she kicked me out. It was over. Fortunately, my brother knew someone who used to work at the Phoenix Rescue Mission. He told me, ‘No more of this. You’re going to a long-term facility with Christ.’”

Darin admits that he wasn’t thrilled.

“I thought I knew what God was about. He was someone who was just waiting to punish me for all the partying and pain that I caused. That and when I first saw this place, it looked like a prison. I told my brother, ‘There’s no way I’m going in there.’ But it was the only way to get better, to fix my relationship with my family, and hopefully with my wife. So I planned on staying for Foundations.” [the first, two-month stage of our recovery program]

But Darin found more than just recovery here; he found a relationship that changed everything.

“When I was in Inner Healing [the second stage of our recovery program], I was discussing God with Richard [one of our recovery counselors] and he told me, ‘you’ve got to look at God like he’s got this wallet and your picture is in there. He’s showing everyone in heaven like, ‘This is my son, I’m proud of him.’

He loves you like you love your kids, but so much more.

When he said that, I don’t know why, but everything clicked. A lightbulb went on and I suddenly knew in my heart that God loves me. It was amazing; I was just bawling.”

Since that day, Darin has focused on building that relationship and sharing it with the men around him. It’s changed him. Today he’s a graduate, he’s sober, and he’s walking with God on a daily basis as a part of our Servant Leadership Training program. And recently, God answered a special prayer Darin has been asking for, ever since his revelation.

“I prayed constantly that God would restore my marriage. It was over. I didn’t know what to do to fix it so I gave it to God. I told Him that, ‘If this is going to work, it’s gotta be You.’ And He did it! We’re back together, it’s going to be a long road, but I see her on weekends and we talk every day. That was all God!”

Thanks to your prayers and support Darin is back on his feet and moving forward.

“Bottom line, God has changed my heart. People say this place is holy ground. When I got here, I thought that was stupid. But no. I can’t explain it, there’s just something about this place – God is here and He’s working.”

By God’s Grace: Rejected No More [Nicole’s Story]

Kids are full of wishes, hopes, and dreams – especially around Christmas time. Many of us can remember staring at all the brightly colored presents under the tree, hoping against hope one of them was that special gift.

That wasn’t the case for Nicole. Her heart’s desire couldn’t be found under a tree. It wasn’t something that could be purchased and wrapped in a box.

“I would see other kids who had moms and dads,” she remembers, “and that’s all I wanted – a family that was stable.”

Every year she was disappointed. Every year, the decisions that were made for her and eventually, the decisions she made for herself, pushed that dream further and further from her grasp.

That is, until God’s grace and your support converged to give Nicole a gift she had long given up as impossible.

Nicole’s family was torn apart from the get go, long before she had a chance to experience the meaning of the word.

When she and her brother were still small, their mother was murdered in a domestic violence situation by an angry boyfriend. Her father, who was in prison for selling drugs, couldn’t offer any support.

“We were shifted from one family member to another,” remembers Nicole. “We didn’t know what was going on, but we knew enough that we felt the rejection.”

Time and again, she remembers suffering physical and emotional abuse at the hands of distant relatives. It was incredibly painful. But she did her best not to let it show. She wanted to be strong.

But stuffing all that emotional hurt inside turned Nicole into an angry, rebellious young girl. During her teenage years, she was in and out of jail for fighting and truancy. Her home life was a train wreck. But it was at 18, when she turned to drugs for support, that Nicole checked out completely.

“I just couldn’t stop. There was this craving, this phenomenal craving that was so powerful. I told myself, I’m going to get over this in a week or a couple of months. Just let me enjoy myself for now. But it didn’t turn out like that. I ended up running around in the streets. I was couch surfing, living in hotels, doing drugs, drinking every day.”

The desire to keep the pain at bay was so overwhelming that when she had her first kids, two daughters, she abandoned them with their father to continue to chase the party lifestyle. Years went by. In her mid-twenties she had two more children, this time two sons. Both were taken by the Department of Child Safety [DCS] at birth because of her addiction. Nicole had another daughter in 2016, Madison. Yet again, DCS took her child.

“I went back to doing drugs and a couple months later I was pregnant with my youngest son, Ray, from a different guy. My life was out of control.”

But there was something different about this pregnancy. Nicole soon began bleeding. Small amounts at first, but eventually it was enough to send her to the emergency room.

“I ended up having Ray at 26 weeks. When it happened, my bladder burst, my body went into shock, I needed blood transfusions, I thought I was going to die. I reached out to God and repented for what I had done, I told Him I wanted my kids to live a happy life. I asked him to forgive me. Then I felt the overwhelming presence of God. I woke up three days later.”

When she woke, she felt changed.

“I saw Ray fighting for his life in the hospital, connected to all the tubes and everything, and I knew I couldn’t be selfish anymore. He was fighting for his life… why couldn’t I fight for mine? The only people I had to go back to outside the hospital were my old using buddies. I didn’t want to go back there. So I reached out for help. One of the counselors pointed me to the Phoenix Rescue Mission.

Thanks to your support, Nicole’s life turned a corner that day, and she’s never looked back.

“It’s changed my life! I was able to work through the trauma from my childhood. Phoenix Rescue Mission helped me get my kids back. They advocated in court for me and wrote letters. It took a year, but I finally got them back!”

I’ve learned how to be a good parent here, how to create routines for my kids, how to pray together and have family dinners.

"We plan out family activities once a month. We go to church together. It’s a lot different from what I grew up with. Everything is centered around God.

Today she’s sober, a graduate of our recovery program, and a graduate of our rigorous Servant Leadership Program. And she’s busy! In addition to taking care of two adorable children, she volunteers her time as a table captain for Celebrate Recovery and she has a position at Community Bridges, helping the homeless find housing. But that’s not all.

“I’m going back to school in January, I’m enrolled at Phoenix College to start doing my general studies in preparation for either nursing or counseling, where I can apply my behavioral health training and my peer support specialist certificate I received while I was here.”

Nicole has a bright future ahead of her. But even better, she finally has what her little heart desired all those years ago, thanks to friends like you – a real, stable, and healthy family she can call her own.

Thank you for the support that makes stories of transformation like this possible. On behalf of us all at Phoenix Rescue Mission, we wish you and yours a very Merry Christmas!