Honolulu Star-Advertiser

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Hawaii NewsIncidental Lives

Employee of the Salvation Army helps others leave the life he left

Michael Tsai

Busy as he is these days, Curtis McClean always makes time to walk the streets around his Iwilei office, ambling along the sidewalks outside the Institute for Human Services next door, where folks gather early to secure a spot in the dinner line, and across Aala Park, where homeless people sleep beneath park benches and addicts and dealers circle nervously about the bathrooms.

As intake coordinator for the Salvation Army’s Adult Rehabilitation Center, McClean, 32, specializes in reaching out to those who need help reclaiming their lives from addiction, homelessness and crime.

He knows the odds are stacked against his success. By his own estimate, of those who come to the center for help, roughly half stay long enough to graduate from the program. Of those, maybe half will stay clean, sober and on the right path to being productive members of the community.

McClean doesn’t fret about those who don’t make it (although the wasted paperwork does irritate him). Rather, he focuses on the few who continually affirm that he’s doing the right thing with his life.

“When I see someone who’s made it, it’s like ‘Victory!’” he says. “I just want to help people get to where I’m at — and further. I want them to know that it’s possible.”

McClean isn’t shy about sharing his testimony of reclamation. He grew up in a single-parent household in Kaimuki and Palolo. By the time he was 13, he was drinking and smoking pot. He soon graduated to crystal meth and crack cocaine.

One day, McClean came home and found money his mother had hidden under the TV.

“She probably hid it because I had friends coming over all the time and we were doing drugs, but at the time I felt insulted, like she was hiding it from me,” he says. “So I stole it and bought drugs. My mother never came home after that.”

When the electricity was turned off and the landlord finally bolted the door, McClean hit the streets. He fell in with a gang, burglarized houses for money and shoplifted whatever food he needed to survive. Later, he began stalking Waikiki, learning Japanese so he could charm an overlapping series of Japanese girlfriends into paying for his lifestyle. He had a son with one, a daughter with another.

McClean somehow managed to stay alive and out of jail, but he knew he couldn’t continue. One night, beneath a freeway overpass where he sometimes slept, a friend recommended that McClean check out the Salvation Army.

It took a while but McClean took up the suggestion. Through the first weeks of the program, McClean was so depressed that he simply did as he was told. As time went on he started to recognize the opportunity before him. He accepted the organization’s Christian-based philosophy, did the hard work of addressing his behavioral issues and, upon graduation, found steady employment within the organization.

Today, in addition to his job at the Salvation Army, McClean is preparing to graduate from Remington College with a degree in computer technology. He’s also reconciled with his family.

“The hardest part at first was staying away from my old life, but I told myself that I’d divorced a life that never gave me anything,” he says. “Now, thanks to the Salvation Army, I have a life that I never thought I could have. Now, when I try to help other people get to where I am, I feel good because it’s coming full circle.”


Reach Michael Tsai at mtsai@staradvertiser.com.

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