Ernie Mills has the look of a man who has realized he has come a long way. Standing in a small room that used to serve as not only the kitchen for his family of four, but also the master bedroom, Mills smiles as he often does as he makes a half turn to look at how the room has changed.
“We’ve grown so much since we lived here, its just so exciting to see,” said Mills.
The growth that Mills refers to is to his and his wife’s personal project since 1974, the Durham Rescue Mission. The Mission serves as a safe haven for those with addiction to drugs and alcohol to come when they have nowhere else to go.
“Many of the men that come to us have burned all the bridges with their family and friends, so we try to help them to rest, to heal themselves and to heal the connections,” said Mills.
Started out of a small parish house near the corner of East Main Street and Alston Avenue, Mills has grown the service to a multi-campus facility assisting 350 men, women and children at a time.
The new crown jewel of the Rescue Mission is its Center for Hope, just a few hundred yards away from the birthplace of the Rescue Mission. The Center now houses the men’s division, with 88 new beds, offices for staff, educational facilities and a new kitchen and dining room.
“I wanted to build a place that was nice enough that I would feel good inviting my dad to it,” said Mills. Mills said his father was a poor sharecropper in Western North Carolina who turned to moonshining to make ends meet and eventually died of cirrhosis of the liver due to alcoholism at the age of 40.
“I wanted to help dads like mine, I wanted to help sons and daughters and families of people who were dealing with addiction. I feel like that is what makes my life worthwhile,” said Mills.
The new Center offers a place for the men not only to live but classrooms for the men to earn technical certificates or a General Education Development certificate, or GED. In addition, it houses areas for counseling and family meeting rooms where the men can reconnect with loved ones and try and rebuild broken relationships.
“The new building is a tremendous blessing. It is teaching us to be good stewards of what we are given,” said Gerald Smith, head supervisor at the men’s division and former resident of the Mission. Smith said that as part of the practice of good stewardship, the building was not started until all of the $4.5 million dollars were raised to complete it.
Along with the new building, the evidence of Mills’ dedication is apparent in the number of the Mission’s staff who are former members of the Mission’s Victory Program, a year-long drug rehabilitation program that is the central program of the Mission.
“The Mission has helped heal not only myself, but my entire family,” said Rebekah Allred, who now works in the Mission’s Women and Children’s Division. Allred lost her son in a car accident in 2008 and said that her and her husband soon turned to drugs to cope. Eventually their lives and marriage fell apart, until Allred’s sister took her to the mission.
“That first night I felt the sense of safety, that everything could be okay,” said Allred. Allred eventually convinced her husband and oldest son to come to the Mission, and both have completed the Victory Program.
Allred attributes her family’s success and those of other families not only to the totality of the Mission, but also to Mills specifically.
“He is the first person in the building and the last person out every day. Even in the middle of the capital campaign for the new building when he was on his way to meet with big donors, he still would take the time to lift up the children at the Family Center. Literally lift them up to the ceiling and get them to smile and laugh,” said Allred.
For nearly 40 years, Ernie Mills has been trying to make everyone smile.
“The goal of the Mission is to help the whole person. To life that person up however low they may be,” said Mills.
Sitting in the dining room of the Center, with its large windows overlooking the surrounding neighborhood and downtown Durham, it is apparent that there are many people in Durham are now smiling because of the work of Mills and the Rescue Mission he created.