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From ruin to graduation

Beaverton's LifeChange Center helps lift Melinda Bell back into society

TIMES PHOTO: MILES VANCE - Melinda Bell high fives well wishers and family at the Spring Graduation ceremony of the Portland Union Gospel Mission's LifeChange program at Cornerstone Church in Beaverton on Aug. 13.

Melinda Bell stands in front of a crowd of family and friends at Cornerstone Church in Beaverton. It is her graduation day. She’s wearing a crisp white dress, a teary smile and an air of confidence as she begins to talk about her successful journey to recovery.

“I never thought this day would happen,” Bell said.

Big changes

Two and a half years ago, Bell, now 41, was in a very different — and darker — place.

She was addicted to methamphetamines, facing 10 years in federal prison and she had lost her family. By all accounts, it looked like Bell had run out of options.

But that was before she was admitted to the Portland Union Gospel Mission’s LifeChange Center for Women and Their Children (at 3400 S.W. 103rd Ave. in Beaverton), a Christian-based program that assists women and children in crisis.TIMES PHOTO: MILES VANCE - Melinda Bell raises her arms in triumph after speaking at the Spring Graduation ceremony of the Portland Union Gospel Mission's LifeChange program at Cornerstone Church in Beaverton on Aug. 13.

And Bell was definitely in crisis. In addition to her own addiction, she’d also been busted for selling prescription medications and was facing a long stretch behind bars.

“I remember Melinda being recommended to me. She was a close call for release to (Court Assisted Pretrial Supervision),” said Honorable Magistrate Judge John V. Acosta, who granted Bell the chance to come to the LifeChange Center following her arrest. “I had serious doubts because of her background.”

Acosta decided to give Bell a shot, though, she was released to CAPS, and after that, to the LifeChange program.

“She was hand-delivered to us by the (U.S.) Marshals,” said lead case manager Cheryl White.

Rigorous journeys

Many of the women in the program are dealing with overwhelming challenges such as domestic abuse, drug addiction and homelessness. Talking about the real-life changes they must implement may involve simple words, but they tell the story of rigorous journeys back from adversity.

Bell certainly dealt with her fair share of adversity, even after her move to the LifeChange Center.

“(Melinda) said, after two weeks, ‘I’m done. I’m going back to jail. This is too hard,’” White recalled.

But Bell did not return to jail. Instead, she decided to face her challenges and stick it out at the LifeChange Center, a place that has become a healing home to many women in need.

Now serving even more

The LifeChange Center, which relocated to Beaverton in 2013, accommodated just 7-10 women at its previous Portland location and did not house children at all. The Beaverton location now serves as home to 18 women and 25 children, all working on their personal journeys to wellness.

The program uses empowerment, helping women to take control of their circumstances, establish boundaries and live healthier lives for themselves and their children. There are no steps in the program; instead, the program’s tiers are called “decisions” so that women understand they can make good choices and begin healing on their own.

The first decision a woman must make is to enter the program and go through stabilization; in that portion of the program, women and children are given a clean, safe place to sleep and eat, along with basic dental and medical care, and other immediate necessities.

From there, they can progress into the extended program, which lasts approximately a year, and become Sisters in Service, a phase in which they become employed within the program.

Moving forward, women may later choose extension programs such as Women of Wisdom, which provides internships to women who want to enter the workforce, or Training, Education and Employment Maintenance, where women attend classes and learn valuable job skills.

An unlikely journey

Judge Acosta sees less than a dozen people per year in Bell’s position, and in his 7 1/2 years of working with parolees in the CAPS program, he said he has only worked with a few who have performed as well as Bell.

“My life was pure chaos, “ Bell said. “I was on meth every day for three years. I thought that I was living the good life, but I really wasn’t. I wasn’t living at all. I know that now. The hardest part was being away from my family.

“Before (the LifeChange program), life was all about me. I didn’t care about anyone else. Now, I put others first. “

Her advice to other women is “Stay strong. You can do it. Use the resources you have around you. Use the community you have. Trust them and just know that God will see you through it.”

Bell is now reunited with her children, 13-year-old Javon, 11-year-old twins James and Elise, and 8-year-old Omar; they live together at the LifeChange Center. Bell said that when she leaves the LifeChange Center, she hopes to make her permanent home in Beaverton.

In the fall, Bell will attend Portland Community College pursuing general education studies, and she said she will eventually use her education to help others.

For each of the various programs, graduation celebrations are held quarterly. Bell’s graduation from the Women of Wisdom program came last week on Aug. 13.

Graduation day

Bell flashes a wide smile before the graduation begins.

“I haven’t slept in three days. I got off probation today, too,” she said. “Having both (of) these happen today. ... l can’t believe it.”

Judge Acosta, who attended the event in support of Bell, looks on. “(Melinda’s) performance was so impressive. I have overseen many defendants in my years on the bench, and there are many chances to go sideways,” he said. “At every opportunity, (Melinda) made good decisions and smart decisions.”

— Miles Vance contributed to this storyTIMES PHOTO: MILES VANCE - Melinda Bell (left) was joined by her sister Tumyka Norwood (center) and mother Linda Bell during the Spring Graduation ceremony of the Portland Union Gospel Mission's LifeChange program at Cornerstone Church in Beaverton on Aug. 13.