The Ministry in Daren offers a “one-step program” to break the cycle of destructive behavior

On 55 acres of land in the far southwest corner of Genesee County – at least for some folks who are at their wits end – a little slice of heaven.

The land is scenic of course, but most importantly, for people who believe they have exhausted their chances of escaping from addiction or other behaviors that have seriously spoiled their lives, there is an open door and another opportunity for them to get it. Things straighten out and you find some peace.

The Freedom Fellowship has been at 254 Broadway Road, Darien, for more than a decade. It was founded when John and Victoria Cola, with a deep desire to help people find God and overcome their destructive behaviors, stumbled upon an old hotel and barn for sale on 50 acres of open land.

“I got help 20 years ago and it completely changed my life,” John said. “So my goal was to help others. That was our vision on the way back and we ended up here in Darien. The Lord led us here and we bought this property.”

Victoria said she and John had been seeing each other for about two months when a friend invited him to a conference.

“The conference was about spiritual matters and he got to know the Lord there,” she said. “I’ve known about the Lord before but I wasn’t really a follower. Once he changed John, it was only natural that we both wanted to serve the Lord. We feel that because of our experiences in life, God called us to help people in the same struggles we experienced ourselves.”

Freedom Fellowship is a non-profit organization that offers a path to religion-based salvation for anyone experiencing destructive behavior, whether it is because of drugs, drinking, gambling, eating disorders, or any other behavior that a person feels has spiraled out of control.

Total Freedom calls its website a “one-step programme”. This step is Jesus Christ.

the program
Those who enter the program live on the Total Freedom campus for a nine-month apprenticeship.

“There is a curriculum that was set up by Total Freedom in Florida,” John said. “It’s a written curriculum that guides you through the healing and rescue process. (The curriculum) is usually three to four months. The curriculum is placed on an iPad and everyone works at their own pace. It’s all taught on video. It’s all about healing, moving, and growing as We and the ability to move back into the community.”

John doesn’t pretend to be easy. It’s not for everyone and some people stay away. The day before John spoke with Batavian, a man who traveled from Oklahoma after being accepted into the program. He stayed there for a few hours and then turned around and went home.

However, John said that about 95 percent of people entering the program stayed clean or avoided destructive behavior at the end of their two-year journey to complete freedom. Participants are not tracked after completion of the two-year program (includes 12 months of aftercare). It is not possible to independently verify the rehabilitation claim.

“It’s a lifestyle change we’re really teaching,” John said. “It is putting God at the center of your life and letting Him guide everything you do.”

For those who cannot afford rehabilitation, the first four months of the program are free. During the next stage, participants are expected to get a job to learn a skill, either in a ministry business or off-campus. At that point, they pay $125 a week for room and board.

“They are starting to learn how to save money, basic life and living skills,” John said. “This is how the process takes nine months. Then there’s a year of aftercare where the test comes in about how you approach your life and what you’ve learned.”

Ministry building
John retired after 33 years in the business, and he is taking a pension. Neither John nor Victoria are paid salaries by the ministry.

“It has always been very important for us not to get income from the department if it is not necessary,” Victoria said. “So far we haven’t needed that, so we don’t.”

Tax records show that, as of 2020, the Freedom Fellowship, a 501(c)(3), has $1.4 million in assets. Most of this appears to be Ministry property. The main campus, which is 50 acres, was valued at just over $1 million, and the adjacent property, acquired in 2019, was valued at $247,000.

“The younger generation is earning income through the various businesses run by the department, and they need the income to make a living,” Victoria said. “We have some very generous donors and we have received a large donation so that we can purchase real estate.”

What drew John and Victoria to the first parcel that comprised the campus was a former hotel that had been used as an apartment complex for rent. This former hotel now houses family members of people under the program. John and Victoria added building a dormitory, entertainment and meeting rooms, and a kitchen in a separate building.

This recently acquired property, on the west side of the campus, includes a two-story house built in 1880 that houses program women.

John said the takeover of the home allows the department to keep men and women separated along the entire campus.

Total Freedom can provide accommodations for eight women and 12 to 15 men at a time.

Campus life
While there, residents can make use of the fitness center and sauna, play football, table tennis, basketball and other sports, help out in the garden and with goats and chickens, and enjoy each day fellowship with the family before and after services.

Services are held in a chapel built in a converted barn.

Then there are the lush hiking trails through the bushy back of the creek from the expansive property.

“The program is mind, body, and spirit,” John said. “The menu we have, no sugars or carbs. The tracks are here for a workout. Every morning, in terms of the body, for half an hour we come back here (on the tracks) and walk or run, or whatever you want to do, but you have to be there. Movement again here on these beautiful tracks.”

John said there was one person a while ago, who entered the program and weighed 500 pounds. He needed a walker to get around.

“He walked into the parking lot until he could walk these lanes, and eventually he lost the pedestrian and lost 140 pounds,” John said.

There are also chores for residents. They clean the floor and help with maintenance.

Entrepreneurial spirit
For on-campus employment opportunities, the Freedom Fellowship has created four companies:

The companies aim to provide training and work experience to residents who undergo the program, the opportunity to earn money to help pay rent and help them learn about managing finances, and to generate revenue for the ministry to supplement donations, however, the printing press took two years to start making a profit and the auto shop has yet to turn a profit .

The Auto Shop is an NPA approved training facility. It’s run by Mark Snow, who entered the program in 2016 and has stayed clean and sober ever since.

“I have personally gone through 10 different rehabs over my 20 years of drug addiction, and I have come through Total Freedom and I am free of it,” Snow said. “Difference is Jesus Christ. That’s it. Difference is the relationship with God. There is no other way to explain it.”

For Mike Raymond, it also took putting all of his faith in God to finally put him on the right path, he said.

He first tested Total Freedom in his home state of Florida, but soon found himself struggling with alcohol again.

Raymond has been living a very successful life in the restaurant industry.

“I kept being offered more and more opportunities in this field,” Raymond said. “As much as I didn’t particularly like it, I stayed with him because the money was good. I’ve worked in various positions over the course of my career, anywhere from start-up to working as a regional training manager. I worked as a regional vice president, worked as a food and beverage manager, as a general manager “.

Good money led to a high life, and when it was no longer useful to him, he ended up in Total Freedom in Florida. After passing the program, he tried to return to the restaurant industry but reverted to old habits. He joined Total Freedom in Darien in 2019 and has been part of the program ever since, running the kitchen for the ministry.

“What has worked for me is yielding, and realizing that—to really come to the knowledge of the truth—that this is not my house, that I am a guest, that I have a purpose and that Jesus died for me,” Raymond said. “What I need to do is glorify him in what I do and not look at the things in the world—money, fame, all the things I viewed as positive in my previous life.”

His job is now heading up the Freedom Fellowship’s newest business, The Table, a Mexican sidewalk pickup restaurant on campus.

“Mexican food has always been my cup of tea,” Raymond said. “I’ve worked for a Mexican concept for a long time. We made everything from scratch. It was real, and it’s one of my favorite foods. So when I came here, that wasn’t the intention of course but when we started talking about (starting a restaurant) originally, it was That’s the first thing that came to my mind.We prayed for him and decided, “Hey, let’s go with him and open up a concept similar to what I knew.”

The table opened to the public earlier this month. The restaurant menu is available online, along with online ordering.

Because New York does not allow rehabilitation on the basis of religion, most residents who join the program do not come to Total Freedom through the court system (although two judges in western New York have allowed it, John said). Instead, people hear on their end of complete freedom from churches and community centers.

“Once people know who we are and what we do—and I’ll be honest with you—basically, sometimes that’s their last resort because we don’t charge a fee and a lot of places want insurance or want $1,000 up front,” John said. “We just want to bring them in and when they can finally pay, that’s OK. If not, that’s OK too. We believe in this (idea) and trust it, and that’s definitely a blessing.”

Howard Owens Pictures

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Mike Raymond

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Mark Snow

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A room in the men’s dormitory.

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Part of the hiking trails.

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Batavian visited Total Freedom on June 25, the day the department hosted a car show, a chicken roast, a basket pull, and a bit of a carnival. Retired Reverend Richard Gretesek, pictured above with a Rolls-Royce, won the most classic car award. The photos below are all from June 25th.

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