If Ray Porter were to chart the highs and lows of his life, he would pinpoint 2001 as his rock bottom.
“I was homeless and unemployed and fighting heroin addiction,” remembers Ray, who was 40 at the time. “I was toting around two big sacks of clothing, storing them wherever I could, just doing what I had to do to supply my drug habit. That’s how dismal it was.”
Fast forward 22 years and Ray has just been named the Program Operations Manager for The Healing Place for Men, overseeing men attempting to rebound from their own rock-bottom moments. He is happily married with five children and 14 grandchildren.
“I believe in the recovery process,” says Ray, simply.
Ray started using drugs as an athletic teenager at Franklin High School in Franklin, Va.
“That was what everybody was doing that I was associating with, even in school,” he says. “I can remember playing high in a game. When I was tackled, I didn’t feel the initial impact. Everything seemed great.“
After high school, Ray played football at Virginia State University for two years before losing his athletic scholarship due to injuries. Over the next decade, his drug use escalated from an on-again, off-again pastime to a habit that consumed his life.
“I was using and dealing at the same time: heroin, cocaine, alcohol, the whole gamut,” says Ray, who was indicted for sales and distribution of cocaine in 1991 and spent the ‘90s in and out of prison. “I would get out, violate parole, go back in. I had periods of sobriety, but the only way I stayed sober was because I was incarcerated.”
Finally, out of prison but living on the streets, Ray decided he’d had enough and asked the Daily Planet, a local nonprofit that was providing him with meals, about a drug rehab program.
“I wasn’t serious at all,” says Ray, who was referred to The Healing Place in Louisville, what he calls ”the mothership” to Richmond’s program. “But I did know that I was not cut from the cloth to be able to survive living outside.”
Better Covenant Deliverance Evangelistic Church in Glen Allen, Va. agreed to sponsor a bus ticket for Ray to get to Louisville. After more than 25 years of using heroin, Ray went cold turkey the day he boarded the bus in December 2001.
At The Healing Place, Ray began working the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous and taking a hard look at his life.
“The way that this program is designed, you’re coming off the streets and you’re dealing with the 12-Step program,” explains Ray. “You realize you’re powerless. And then you see there is a solution.”
Ray remembers vividly the moment when he realized he could turn his life around. He was about 30 days into his recovery program, lying in his bunk when he began to weep.
“I was just thinking back over the years,” he recalls. “I had lost my mother while I was in active addiction. I lost my father and my oldest brother five days apart, from massive heart attacks. The words came to me, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you.’
“I had never looked at life with so much desire to want to live. Prior to that, there were times when I was saying ‘God, just let me die.’ I immediately started caring about people and felt compassion for people.”
Ray successfully completed the first phase of the recovery program and transitioned to serving as a Peer Mentor to newer participants. Within a year, he became the lead staff assistant in the Louisville program, overseeing the men’s community while also scheduling and teaching recovery classes. But his past wasn’t quite behind him yet.
During a random questioning by a Louisville police officer, Ray admitted that he had violated his parole by leaving Virginia to go to The Healing Place. He was a fugitive.
“I knew I still had another thing to clean up,” says Ray. “I thought, ‘I’m ready to get this chapter of my life over. It’s time to finalize this.’”
He returned to Virginia to serve two additional years in prison.
Coming full circle
Upon Ray’s release from prison in 2004, Al Jackson, the program director at The Healing Place in Louisville, asked Ray to join him in bringing the recovery program to Richmond. Ray agreed, and spent the next two years helping to get The Healing Place of Richmond off the ground while serving as a Peer Mentor to the first participants.
During that time, his willingness to help out with building maintenance earned him a full-time position as facilities manager, a position he held until 2023.
“It was truly a blessing,” says Ray, who also reconnected with Better Covenant Deliverance Evangelistic Church, eventually becoming its associate pastor for education. “I was rooted and grounded around people in recovery. I had the atmosphere and opportunity to minister to countless young men.”
As the years passed, Al Jackson retired and another program director was hired. Then, another. Finally, this spring, Ray agreed to take on the role himself.
“The more people would come and say ‘you’re the man for the job,’ the more I wanted to be assured this was something I wanted, that I could bring something to the table to benefit the agency as well as the participants,” he says. Prayerful consideration gave him his answer.
“My strongest attribute is being able to spiritually guide young men to a point where they see that ‘wow, I do have a purpose in life,’” says Ray. “What that entails is establishing a culture that is showing love and compassion but also being disciplined and instilling integrity and honesty in people’s lives who haven’t been living that lifestyle prior to coming here.”
Ray believes CARITAS’ superpower lies in the people who surround the participants.
“They see the people who labor hard, the volunteers who come, and the alumni returning and taking time out of their busy days and saying, ‘We love you. You can do this,’” he explains. “Their confidence is boosted, and they start to believe they are worthy of every good thing that God has in store for them.”
For Ray, one of those good things is leading the very program that helped him turn his life around.
“It has come full circle,” he says. “I will finish out my time here as I started, with The Healing Place. It’s been one heck of a ride.”