He was Losing at Life, Now He's Helping to Save Others
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Zach Norris, now the director of Program Development for Adult and Teen Challenge of Central and Southwest Missouri, by his own admission, was messed up as a kid. He grew up in Springfield, Missouri, but spent his high school years in Marshfield, a community about 20 miles northeast of Springfield. He recalls drinking heavily in junior high and even drinking vodka from Sprite bottles on the school bus because he liked the “buzz.” In high school he got into serious drug use, sinking deeper and deeper into addiction.
“My parents sent me to my first rehab program when I was 15 — three months in(patient), and nine months out(patient),” Norris says. “It didn’t help.”
Although he struggled with drinking and drugs throughout high school, he was still recruited to play basketball in college.
“I had a lot of success in basketball and had the opportunity to play in college, but in a heartbeat, everything I worked so hard for became insignificant compared to how much I wanted to be an idiot . . . to do drugs,” Norris says. “It’s crazy how quickly things can change.”
Norris says he became a criminal in many ways, as he was in and out of jail, arrested for burglary, and had at least three DUIs. He spent extended time in hospitals recovering from wrecks, psych wards, and being homeless due to his addictions.
“I was stealing to buy drugs,” he says. “Meth, heroin, along with pills and anything that there was — all of them.”
Between the ages of 15 and 24, Norris was in and out of 10 rehab programs. None of them made a change in his life. He would get out and go back to using drugs and drinking again.
For Norris, what started the chain of real change in his life was when a doctor, who was treating him for heroin addiction, recommended he attend what is now known as Adult & Teen Challenge (ATC).
“At the time, I was also facing a real serious charge, so my parents wanted me out of the state while it was being resolved,” Norris says. “So, the next day, I was on a plane for Teen Challenge in Long Island, New York.”
Going through an Adult & Teen Challenge program is not easy, especially the first several months where people, often with long-term addictions, face a radically different lifestyle.
“You’re awakened much earlier than people with addictions typically are up,” Norris says with a bit of a laugh. “From the moment you wake up, stuff gets going right away, and keeps going all the way through to the moment you go to bed. You’re told when to get up, when to go to bed, what to do . . . it’s really all about learning obedience.”
In time, he realized it was his own decision making, always choosing what he wanted, that was his downfall.
“I was obviously terrible at living — I didn’t do it well, but I could see with my own eyes, guys in leadership who were just as crazy as I was and now they’re not,” Norris says. “I came to the realization I needed to do whatever it took and stop trying to do things for myself because that didn’t work.”
That Norris came to realize he couldn’t beat addiction on his own was in itself a miracle. By the time he entered Adult and Teen Challenge the first time in 2009, he says his mind had been so addled by drinking and drug abuse that he struggled to complete thoughts; when he spoke, his sentences reflected the short-circuiting going on in his brain.
Norris made it six months in the Long Island center and then left, thinking he didn’t need the remaining six months of training and mentoring. “I was okay for a while, but then fell off,” he admits.
He re-entered the program in 2012, going to the men’s center in Neosho, Missouri, this time determined to go through the entire program. After completing the first four months in Neosho, he transferred to a second-phase facility in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, completing the program and also serving as a cook, preparing breakfast for 200 men each day.
“What’s remarkable is that after my job and classes, I’d have free time in the afternoons, and I would take my Bible and read for two or three hours,” Norris says. “People who knew me before would say that was impossible — I couldn’t focus on anything. But here I was reading the Bible for hours and God just revealing things to me in the Old and New Testaments — it was, and still is, amazing!”
Jim Lowans has been the CEO of Adult and Teen Challenge of Central and Southwest Missouri for 11 years, having spent the first 20-plus years in pastoral ministry, before accepting a position at an Adult & Teen Challenge in Pennsylvania.
When Lowans first started to get to know Norris when he arrived in Neosho, he saw giftings in him that showed a lot of raw promise.
“Once a person starts to clean up, you can discern gifts that God has given them (ATC students) that have been covered over by the dust of sin and drugs,” Lowans says. “Zach was very much a people person, very outgoing. He also has the gift of compassion…, of helps…, and he is in the midst of fully developing his potential and gift of leadership.”
Lowans and Norris fully understand how “messed up” Norris’ life was at one time. That kind of extended trauma takes time to heal and redirect, but the strides he has made are nothing short of miraculous.
“I’m just really grateful to the Assemblies of God and its U.S. Missions program, Adult & Teen Challenge,” Norris states. “Because without the both of them, I would’ve been dead in the streets.”
“Right now Zach is like my second man — not all the responsibilities of leadership, but I’m mentoring and grooming him to step into full leadership.”
Norris pauses to offer insight to parents and churches. He says that a person who has an addiction will be erratic.
“If your son or daughter is ‘up’ and ‘down’ all the time, no evenness or peace in their lives, something is going on,” he cautions. “And churches need to be aware that people who have really serious addictions, they’re not going to be able to do it on their own — they need to get out of their environment, leave where they’re at, and get somewhere to get their life overhauled . . ., but don’t make ATC your last resort — do the hard work now, before you hurt someone, before you’ve gone too far, before it’s too late.”
In reflection, Norris looks back and sees how God has totally turned his life around, literally 180 degrees.
Where once he stole to buy drugs, now his responsibilities include raising money to help people get off of drugs; where once he could barely put a sentence together, now he goes out as a public speaker at churches and businesses; where once he was unreliable, now he assists in managing two ATC centers; where once he was irresponsible, now he’s happily married with two children and a home; and where once he was addicted to drugs, now he’s consumed by serving God and pursuing his ministry credentials with the Assemblies of God.
And oh yes, where once putting him behind the wheel of a car placed everything and everyone in danger, now he has a job that requires him to spend a lot of time on the road — he hasn’t had an accident in more than 10 years.
“I just think that with the gifts and talents that Zach has,” Lowans observes, “if he keeps God first in his life, the sky is the limit for what he can accomplish for the Lord.”