MISSOULA - Erin Mahar grew up dreaming she would someday make a positive difference in the world.
At times in her life, she did just that.
For awhile, she served as an AmeriCorps volunteer and offered her help to others. She worked alongside her father in the county attorney's office just after high school. She went to church with her family and prayed.
But Mahar's life wasn't destined to be perfect.
She tried her first drink in eighth grade. By high school she was smoking pot every single day. Her life was filled with highs and lows. There were blackouts and craziness that drove a wedge between her and those she loved.
Her family tried to help. They checked her into treatment programs, but none of the information she garnered there ever stuck.
Her dad took her once to court where she watched the orange-clad prisoners take their turn before the judge. She told herself that would never be her.
But last December, she had her turn.
There she was dressed in her own orange jumpsuit standing in that same courtroom. She pleaded guilty to felony criminal possession of dangerous drugs. And she listened to the judge say that she was running out of opportunities to turn her life around.
Her father heard it all from the back of the room.
"It was awful, just awful," Mahar said. "I never thought that something like this could have ever happened to me. I came from a good family and a good upbringing. It was all so very hard."
Mahar was in jail when the stranger came to visit.
"I'd never seen this woman before," Mahar said. "She came to talk to me. She told me there was help for me if I was willing to take the first step."
The woman had attended Teen Challenge Montana Women's Outreach program in Missoula. She understood what Mahar was going through. She'd been there herself.
And so the judge gave this 31-year-old woman from Corvallis one more chance to turn her life around. He deferred imposing a sentence on the condition that Mahar complete the year-long faith-based program.
That was six months ago and Mahar marvels at how much her life has already changed.
"I worked on some amazing projects while I was with AmeriCorps and I always thought that was the best part of my whole life," Mahar said. "This has been better ... I'm reconnecting with God. I'm getting back to the person who I actually am."
She's already thinking about finishing up her last year of college. And after that, she may try to find a ministry of her own.
Her family has seen the change.
"My brother is a successful petroleum engineer," she said. "Our relationship is being restored. He tells me ‘it's like I finally got sister back.' It's so awesome to hear him say that to me."
Jan Henderson has seen it all before.
Since 2000 when she established the first Teen Challenge program in Missoula to help women 18 and older turn to faith as a way to break the hold of drugs and alcohol, Henderson said about 50 women have graduated from the program.
More than 80 percent of those remain drug and alcohol free.
"We have 10 gals that are in college now," she said. "All of them were destined for prison before they came here."
Henderson knew from the beginning what the women faced in making the decision to change their lives. She has been through her own struggles with addiction.
The year-long program isn't easy. Only about one-third of the women who start the program finish it.
"A lot of the staff has gone through the program," Henderson said. ""We know all the excuses and we pretty much call them on it. The women who finish this program end up with a lot of hope. If they stick with it, they do pretty well."
The Teen Challenge Women's Residential Center in Missoula is a 20-bed facility that's based on a program 50 years old. The original Teen Challenge was started by David Wilkerson, author of "The Cross and the Switchblade" to help counter the feelings of loneliness and alienation found in the street gangs of New York City.
Today there are 1,100 centers around the world, including 250 in the United States. Missoula's program is the only one of its kind in Montana. The closest program for men is located in Spokane.
Henderson's daily challenge is finding the funding to make it all happen.
The program receives no federal and state monies to pay for the $30,000 to $35,000 a month needed to keep everything running smoothly.
"Most of these gals don't come here with a nickel," Henderson said. "We don't turn anyone away because they can't afford it."
While the program earns a little from its thrift store and coffee shop in Missoula, the bulk of the funding comes from private donors and churches.
"It's God's people helping God's people," said Belle Demeny, Teen Challenge's program coordinator.
Henderson is currently working on a $450,000 capital fund raising project to install a commercial kitchen and improve the dining portion of the facility.
The need to do something is readily apparent every winter when frost appears on the inside of the kitchen walls and plumbing freezes due to a lack of insulation in the old nursing home facility in on Missoula's Seventh Street in Orchard Homes.
"We do everything we can to raise a nickel," Henderson said.
And one of the largest of those fund raising efforts has raised its share of hackles of some in the Missoula community.
Teen Challenge is hosting Sarah Palin on Sept. 12 at the Hilton Garden Inn. Palin was the Republican vice presidential candidate in 2008 who now has a core of ardent conservative supporters.
The $100 a ticket event is about two-thirds sold out. If the first program sells out, Palin could consider speaking a second time, which could go a long way in helping Teen Challenge toward its goal.
"We know that people either love Sarah Palin or they hate her," Henderson said. "I think that a lot of people have no clue on who she really is."
Just the fact that a national figure is coming to support Teen Challenge in Missoula is important in Henderson's eyes.
"I feel that even bad press is better than no press," she said. "I'm excited about the exposure that Teen Challenge is receiving from this."
Too often, Henderson said by the time people learn about Teen Challenge, they are at the end of their rope.
"People call us and say ‘my friend is going to die' or ‘my daughter is going to die' if something doesn't happen soon," she said. "I know from my experience that by the time people come here they've tried lots of other programs and they haven't worked.
"So no, it doesn't bother me that some people are upset that we're bringing Sarah Palin to Missoula. This publicity is helping getting the word out there that we're here to help."
Mahar considers herself one of the fortunate few who found this place of second chance.
"It's a hard program, but it's also greatly rewarding," she said. "When I was in jail, the other women there asked me ‘why would you want to give up a year of your life to do something like that.' At first it did sound awful to me too."
Mahar has a lot of reasons to be motivated to finish the program.
"I don't want to go back to jail. I don't want to have a felony on my record ... but those aren't my only motivation. They are not even my strongest.
"For the first time in a long time, I feel good about myself. I feel like I have a future."
Editor Perry Backus can be reached at 363-3300 or firstname.lastname@example.org.