PENSACOLA, Fla. (WKRG) — The Waterfront Rescue Mission held its annual Holiday Luncheon today, celebrating the work it is doing with the homeless community in Pensacola and the surrounding areas.

President of the mission, Clay Romano, said his team is successful because of three facets, having a strategy for winning, having great personnel and execution.

“When I came here a year and a half ago, I knew a lot about Waterfront, having been a board member, but I didn’t realize how incredibly complex the Waterfront Mission actually was,” Romano said. “I didn’t realize how incredibly talented our team was. I knew I needed to develop a game plan to lead this organization, but in order to do that, I needed to step up my game.”

When Romano took over the organization, he said the team was hurting from Hurricane Sally and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Our gameplan at that point was to simply survive,” Romano said. “I realized very quickly that we needed a new game plan. One that would highlight the talents and skills of our team and allow us to win in this new normal, post-pandemic world.”

Out of all the problems that the mission has to fight against, Romano said none were as big as the fight against COVID-19, which increased the homeless population in the communities they serve.

“It caused a lot of issues for us in delivering those services that we offer,” Romano said. “It was our organization’s drive and tenacity that allowed us to face that challenge head-on. It’s that same drive and tenacity that will allow us to face any challenge in the future. If there is anything that you guys take from today, it is that Waterfront is up to that challenge.”

Looking at Waterfront Rescue Mission’s numbers compared to last year

Over the last year, Romano said the mission has seen an uptick in activity for their day-to-day resources. He said right now, they are seeing 75 to 100 people coming up to the mission each day asking for resources.

For overnight shelter services, Romano said those numbers are also up from last year. Currently, Romano said they are seeing more than 160 men in their mission facilities every night. On Tuesday night, Romano said they had 172 men in their facilities.

This year, Romano said they are looking to serve 2,300 unduplicated individuals, an increase from 1,565 from all last year. He said 15 percent of those 2,300 are going to be veterans.

Through three quarters of the year, Romano said the Waterfront Rescue Mission team has served 117,000 meals, up from 83,000 in all of last year.

For men getting into permanent housing, Romano said that number is up 15 percent.

Waterfront Rescue Mission changed my life

For a man named Michael, the Waterfront Rescue Mission changed his life, going from an addict and criminal to a chaplain and fully employed.

“I was a decent kid, I assumed,” Michael said. “I was in ROTC in high school and had my whole life planned out. I was going to join the military, do 20 years and then retire. I got out of high school, joined the military, got a medical discharge from the Navy and when I got home, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I was lost in limbo.”

Michael said he then started working in restaurants, which was a bad environment for him.

“The first week I got back from the military and started working there, I started smoking cigarettes, started drinking and tried marijuana for the first time,” Michael said. “It wasn’t long after that that I went on to harder drugs. When I first started doing them, it was just for fun to take the edge off. Then, it kind of started to spiral out of control until it was all I wanted to do. I got in trouble with the law, spent some time in jail and then got put on probation.”

When he tried to get clean himself, Michael said he lasted six months before going back to drugs. He said he violated his probation and spent another year in jail until the judge gave him a choice, five years in prison, or rehab.

“It wasn’t really a tough choice for me,” Michael said. “When I first got to the mission, I didn’t want to be there, honestly.”

Within two weeks at the mission, Michael said he gave his life to Jesus Christ, which changed his life from that day on.

“I had purpose, I had meaning,” Michael said. “I went to the mission, graduated and then started working at the mission doing food service. I did that for about a year and a half and then I was asked if I wanted to start counseling with some of the guys. That grew into becoming an assistant chaplain and then a chaplain. I quickly realized it was beneficial because I could actually relate to the guys, they could see that I had been through what they had been through, and it was easy to counsel with them.”

While at the mission working as a chaplain, Michael said he started going to school, then graduated from Pensacola State College in radiology. From there, he is now working at Northwest Florida Hospital doing x-rays and CT scans.

“I’m still very involved with the mission, teaching classes and helping the guys,” Michael said. “It is definitely something I want to stay connected with, because it does ground me. When I am with those guys, I remember how easy it is to fall back into that and it can happen to anyone, no matter where you are in life or what you are currently doing. It takes one bad decision to fall right back into what you were doing.”

For more information on the Waterfront Rescue Mission, or how you can volunteer, click here.

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