By KEVIN CHIRI
Tammany West news
LACOMBE – The beginning of a North Shore program called Operation Angel is shining a spotlight on a Lacombe ministry known as the Giving Hope Retreat, formerly the location of the K-Bar-B Youth Ranch in Lacombe.
In reality, the Retreat is an extension of the New Orleans Mission that was taken over in 2012 by two successful St. Tammany Parish businessmen who offer totally free rehab services for addicts of all kinds—offered for the simple price of listening to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Johnny Lonardo and David Bottner came together in 2002 as business partners, but as two born again Christians they are both living their lives with a mission to spread the Gospel, and help mainly drug addicts get clean in the process.
Operation Angel was introduced earlier this year in St. Tammany Parish by law enforcement leaders as a new way to address the drug problem. With heroin addiction becoming the new challenge in communities across the nation and in St. Tammany, the North Shore now offers a free trip to a rehab center if someone shows up at a local police station and asks for help.
Giving Hope Retreat is a satellite branch in Lacombe of the New Orleans after investors funded the purchase of the K-Bar-B Ranch for $1 million. It has become the main location where St. Tammany police bring addicts asking for help. That total is now approaching 150 people who have asked for help getting clean, a number that Lonardo and Bottner’s group accepts for free in a time when public rehab centers legitimately charge thousands of dollars a person to help someone in their fight against drugs.
For Lonardo it’s a simple cause.
“Once I got saved God has shown me that my life is to witness for him and help others,” he said. “We are doing that with the New Orleans Mission and now we are doing it on the North Shore.
“As long as we put God first in everything He will continue to bless this ministry,” he said. “Those that truly put their faith and trust in Jesus Christ will get delivered from the drugs. We’ve seen it on a continual basis—the real struggle for people isn’t the drugs, it’s a matter of truly repenting of whatever they are holding onto.”
Bottner came from a similar background of substance abuse when he was originally in Lancaster, Pa. where he was doing drugs and alcohol heavily before accepting the Lord at the age of 30.
“I hated who I was,” he said. “Sometimes I wanted to drive off the Twin Spans and die. I went to a church service at Harvest in Slidell and saw the Passion of Christ and that was it for me. God changed my life.”
Bottner began using his success in the business world to help addicts who wanted to work for him. He would pay $3,000 a person to send them to rehab centers to get clean so they could start working and rebuild their lives.
“If addicts don’t have a job when they get clean they just go back to the drugs,” he said. “As for spending that kind of money for people I didn’t even know very well—when you use your money for the Lord He will provide.”
Lonardo is a man who knows the same story about drug abuse. He has an incredible history growing up in Rhode Island, then in Florida where he lived a life dominated by drugs, alcohol, pornography and more. It all changed one night for him when he tried to involve his wife in a bad situation that led to her leaving him.
“I ran to some water in back of the house and saw the brightest, white light I had ever seen. I thought I was either going to die, or I was incredibly high on the drugs,” he said. “But I knew that I had met God. My life was changed from then on.”
As he began changing his own life, Lonardo began taking people into his home in Florida to help them get off drugs. Then through a business deal he connected with Bottner in Louisiana, leading to the purchase of the New Orleans Mission in 2012.
“The Mission was in terrible shape, had about $3,000 in the bank and was full of rats and many other problems,” Lonardo said. “The City of New Orleans was about to close it until David told them we would run it for free.”
Mayor Mitch Landrieu offered $50,000 to assist in the operation of the Mission since they were the primary organization helping the homeless population in the city, but Lonardo and Bottner turned it down.
“We knew that if we took the money they wouldn’t let us preach the Gospel,” he said.
Two days later an anonymous donation of $90,000 came in.
“God continues to show us that if we do it His way and keep Him first in everything, He will provide,” Lonardo said.
The Mission accepts addicts of all kinds—even more than drug addicts—and takes them in for free, offering a 21-day program to start. If they need to go to detox first the Mission pays for it.
“We love you, feed you, give you shelter and most importantly, give you the Gospel,” Lonardo said. “It’s the start of a one-year program to get clean. If you get past 60 days, you come to the North Shore to Giving Hope Retreat.”
The Mission costs approximately $1.2 million a year to operate and can house as many as 232 people at a time, currently holding about 170. They not only counsel addicts involved in the one-year program, but serve over 30,000 meals a year to the homeless population in New Orleans and the surrounding area.
Lonardo, who felt led to start a radio program in Florida that he paid for himself with the name of “Desperate Reality” is now on the air in New Orleans every Saturday night, offering help to anyone in listening distance.
The program airs from 10 p.m. to midnight on WWL radio and is an outreach to anyone who has a problem and needs help. If they call the radio show the Mission will send a van out to pick them up on the spot and offer whatever assistance is needed.
“We had a call recently from a couple living in the woods in Mississippi so we went and got them to the Mission,” Lonardo said. “There was a woman with her two kids living on the street and a cop heard us on the radio so he sent us to help her.
“God is truly changing lives,” he added. “When I came to New Orleans I thought God was going to have me just do the radio show, but instead we started the Mission and now the radio show has started.
“We are doing the work that, unfortunately, the churches are supposed to do,” Lonardo said. “God is leading everything we do, as long as we keep the truth as the most important thing.”
One of the leading contributors to the Mission is Troy Duhon, a successful car dealer in New Orleans, while all other funding is obtained from private donations. Bottner is involved in the community and leads the funding work, while Lonardo is heading the actual Mission operation.
The support for their work has been strong, leading to a current $6.6 million renovation of the Mission that will open up a 32-bed women’s side. Dick Piner and Gardner Realty have been major contributors to the work along with Duhon.
“We take anyone who needs help,” Lonardo said. “We have wealthy parents drop their kids off who are hooked on drugs. We are helping women who have been abused. Jesus is what’s going on with us.”
Lonardo said the Saturday night radio show has gained such notoriety that they have had contact from a national network discussing the prospects of going on the air.
“Our vision is to be the Hannity show, but for Christ,” Lonard said with a laugh. “As long as God is in it, we are just following.”
To assist the New Orleans Mission and the North Shore Giving Hope Retreat you can mail a check to Giving Hope Retreat, 31294 Hwy. 190, Lacombe, La., 70445.