It is impossible to tell the story of Mission Solano without also recounting the story of Ron Marlette, our founder and Executive Director. The following article was written by Amy Maginnis-Honey and published in the Daily Republic, Fairfield CA, December 10, 2006. Click here to download the original article.
From Homelessness to Hopefulness
The Story of Ron Marlette
and Mission Solano
“Like those he helps, Mission Solano founder comes from a past haunted by despair”
Ron Marlette has a four-letter word he likes to use over and over. Hope. It was a longtime dream that got him helping the homeless in Solano County as the founding executive/ director of Mission Solano. The same aspiration carries him through daily as the mission prepares for its new location. And, it was all three that carried him from a life of homelessness, drugs and crime to a man of the community and Christ. “It has been an interesting process,” said Marlette, 45, a longtime Fairfield resident. “I’ve been in the gutters and in the boardrooms and just about everywhere in between. “I was a drug addict. I walked the streets of Fairfield. I ran the streets of Fairfield. I ran drugs on the streets of Fairfield.” While his family usually had a roof over their heads, it was often at places like the now-defunct Sleepy Hollow motel. At one time, the now-razed Crescent neighborhood in Suisun City was home.
He dropped out of high school as a freshman and eventually became a ward of the court. He was placed in a day school where the teacher left an impression on him, but he didn’t realize it until years later when he was attending a youth rally and participants were asked about people who had made a difference in their lives. “She was an anchor who brought me hope,” Marlette recalled of the woman. The day after the rally he was at a Rotary meeting. A woman sat next to him. It was Margo McGlone, the teacher. McGlone, who is now retired, taught the program for junior high and high school students who were on probation, had been expelled from their school or referred for poor attendance. McGlone saw a spark in the troubled teen. “He stood out. He was a bright kid,” she said. “He wasn’t behind academically. He was full of energy and ideas.” However, after he completed the program, McGlone didn’t know his fate. “Because we didn’t graduate them we never knew if we had made inroads or not. Sometimes it only takes a moment to reach someone,” she said.
Though she had followed stories of Mission Solano in the news she didn’t connect the name. “When we first sat down at Rotary I didn’t recognize him or he me,” she said. Now she beams with pride knowing a former student has changed his life around. “I’m so impressed with what he’s doing. He’s taken on a big challenge and is doing well. He can identify with people in transition. He’s always been clever, smart and creative,” McGlone said. “He’s a shining example. I never worried about Ron. Somehow I felt there was good in him. He just hadn’t seen it yet.”
Marlette left high school figuring he could make more money selling drugs. “I wanted to live the good life like I saw on TV with fast cars,” he said. Cocaine, methamphetamine and LSD were among his drugs of choice. “I’d use pretty much anything that would get me high,” he said. He had no hope. “I figured I had to party because I might be dead tomorrow. It was a lifestyle and culture I didn’t think I could get out of,” Marlette said. Things got worse before they got better. When Marlette was 18, his mother died of alcohol poisoning. “My last memory of her was in 1978 in Allan Witt Park, homeless and drinking,” he recalled.
She was only 38. “That threw me even deeper into addiction and the path of destruction,” he said. “I was robbing, stealing and breaking into homes. I was lucky I wasn’t dead.” Then, a healthy dose of paranoia set in. It was 1981 and Marlette was living in a drug house. Marijuana was growing in the barn and methamphetamine was being sold from the living room. Fairfield city councilman John Mraz was a Fairfield policeman at the time. “I knew most of the people violating the law,” he said. “Ron was doing things. He was on my list but not at the top of my list. He tried to stay below the radar pattern. I knew he was out there.”
Recently, Marlette returned a phone call to Mraz, who jokingly asked him, “Why would you call me back?” Marlette replied in his earlier years if he had heard Mraz was looking for him, he’d have gone underground. “Ron is trying to help everybody,” Mraz added. “He wants to get them off drugs and alcohol. I’m proud to be a partner with him and anxious to see him open the facility in the near future. “The only problem I have with Ron is that he always wears aloha shirts.”
A huge shipment of meth was delivered to the house and Marlette was sure the police were going to raid the house. So he moved the drugs to another house. When he came back the house had been raided. “I knew they had found something,” Marlette said. “I felt they were going to come back and get me.” So, he hurriedly checked himself into a drug rehabilitation program. Marlette was 21. It wasn’t that he really wanted to sober up. But it would sure look good in court to say he had voluntarily sought treatment. “About two weeks into the program I began to think, ‘this feels nice.’ I wondered if I could stay sober. After 10 years of doing drugs I would wake up and remember what I dreamt about. That was foreign to me,” Marlette said.
He successfully completed the 28-day program. One evening at the mall he saw a familiar face he knew as “Church Lady.” She often called on Marlette and his roommate to get them to attend church. “We would laugh and heckle her,” Marlette said. The two struck up a conversation. She told him she had been praying for him. “Here it goes again,” Marlette thought to himself. Then she invited him to attend the Billy Graham crusade the next day in Sacramento. He agreed. After all, he needed something to do and she was attractive. “I was one of the people in the stands that day that heard the message,” he said. “Something told me it was time to get out of the driver’s seat of my life.” The next day he was in church. “Inside I was different. But I still looked like I did on the streets,” he said. Marlette began to realize there was another way. He also felt a desire to help others, in addition to offering them hope.
There was a burden on his heart to go back to the streets and tell others about the peace, joy and love one could find in Christ. But he could only go so far as there was no type of residential program to help get these people off the streets. While working as a Teamster, he studied for his GED through the adult school. “All the time I had a vision to get people off the street, to break the cycle of poverty and homelessness that I had experienced,” he said. In 1991, Marlette, his wife Jennifer and their two children left Fairfield for Portland, Ore., so he could attend college. There, he got involved with the Portland Rescue Mission. He saw the difference hope can make in any life. “We can do anything we put our mind to,” Marlette said. “You can dream the big dreams. You touch as many lives as you can.”
The Marlette family welcomed two more children in Oregon. And, he graduated with honors, the first in his family to finish college. “When I look at my family tree I see a lot of Jack Daniels and syringes,” he said. “But I also saw that that could be broken.” The family came back to Fairfield in 1998. Malcolm Lee, from the Richmond Rescue Mission, told Marlette he was the perfect person to launch a new rescue mission in Fairfield. “I knew it was time to step out,” Marlette said.
On May 1, 1998, his work began. “It was just me, a telephone and a vision from God.” Sitting in a donated office in Vacaville he began calling local politicians and businessmen and sharing his dream of Mission Solano. “I was out casting the vision,” Marlette said. He recalled showing up to talk to then Solano County supervisor Gordon Gojkovich, who was unavailable. So, his aide asked Marlette to talk to her. She was to become Fairfield’s mayor, Karin MacMillan. By June he had a bus donated. “I had been praying for a building,” he said. But the bus was an opportunity, a place to let the homeless sleep at night. “It was a mission in a bus,” Marlette said. “And the community could no longer say there were no homeless here.” From that bus the nomadic sheltering program began. Different churches host the homeless on different nights, providing a meal and shelter.
Building the bridge
Through the shaping of Mission Solano, Marlette also united much of the faith community. One his best friends is Gary Rounsavall, the pastor of Solano Valley Church. The pair meets for coffee weekly. “Mission Solano, without the churches and community, wouldn’t be here,” Marlette said. “I’d have to be doing something else.” Rounsavall, who started his church 10 years ago, has nothing but praise for Marlette and his work. “My belief is that Mission Solano brings a lot of value to the community as a whole. It’s building bridges. It brings us together as churches. It brings together people from the business world, the church world and the government world. We have to work together for this to work,” Rounsavall said. Rounsavall, as well as many others, acknowledge Marlette’s big heart for the homeless. But he also feels his friend has strong leadership skills. “His vision is huge. I admire his ability to build that huge vision. He has staying power even when it hasn’t been easy,” Rounsavall said. He cited Acts 6 where the Grecian Jews complained that their widows were being overlooked during the daily distribution of food. “It was one of the first conflicts in the church, failing to feed people who needed it,” Rounsavall said. “There are some things government can do and some things we (the churches) need to take responsibility for.”
When Rounsavall’s church is called for a hotel voucher, he loves to recommend Mission Solano’s nomadic sheltering program. “I don’t know that person from Adam and I don’t know what they are using that voucher for. Nomadic sheltering creates more of accountability.” Rounsavall considers Marlette a hero. “He’s someone I can look to for encouragement,” Rounsavall said. “I’m a better person, husband, pastor and father because of Ron and his investment in my life. When I wrestle with a challenge, I look to Ron for wise counsel. I’ve gotten a lot of great leadership ideas from Ron.”
While many people think homeless people are typically older alcoholics with some job skills, that’s not the case today, Marlette said. The majority today are 20-35, many are families with children. Some are abusing hard-core drugs. Many are single mothers. “The homeless are not real noticeable in our culture,” he said. “We’ve almost built up a hardness to them.” Homelessness, Marlette added, has an impact on everyone.
“The brokenness of our society affects us all,” he said. “We need to come together to bring about proven programs. Then the communities and culture can thrive.”
Rounsavall and Marlette were excited when they saw a recent news story focusing on a homeless man who saved a girl. “That puts a real face on the homeless. They have families, hopes and dreams,” Marlette said. “You feel like less of person when someone won’t make eye contact with you, which happens to the homeless,” Rounsavall said. “This story brings out a human element.” “It’s good it’s being told,” Marlette said. “You often see the negative side of the homeless.”
While it’s rare not to see a smile on Marlette’s face and hear positive words flow from his mouth, there are times he struggles reconciling his past with his present and future. “I still have those battles of letting go,” Marlette said. “I think people could be dead from an overdose I provided. It’s an ongoing daily battle to realize I have been forgiven. I’m still not perfect and I never will be. I still have times of wanting to give up.” One of those was when a Mission member was stabbed in the kitchen. Marlette remembered thinking he’d wake up the day after it happened and read the headlines and ask himself, “God, why did you bring me back to do this? “But I won’t give up unless he (God) tells me or the means aren’t there.”
Marlette said he received several calls of support after the incident. “That spurred me on to a greater drive, to be able to withstand life’s little hiccups,” he said. He hesitates to think of where he would be had he not changed his lifestyle. “I’d be in prison or dead. I run into my old buddies coming out of prison. Some show up at the mission. I’m not saddened to see that. I’m happy I’m here to show them the path,” he said. As a youth, Marlette and a friend robbed a donut shop in Contra Costa County. While living in Oregon, he decided it was time to make amends. Marlette contacted the police in the city where the crime took place and told them the story. The officer then put him on hold.
Though the statute of limitations had long expired, Marlette kept wondering if they were going to come and arrest him. The phone then clicked and he heard the officer say, “Sarge you got to listen to this nut on the phone.” Sarge did get on the phone and told Marlette there was nothing that could be done to him legally, the donut shop was long gone and he was absolved from the police’s standpoint.
Every one Marlette comes in contact with has a story and he knows them well. One man had been living under a bridge and was heating up some dope when he decided to change his life. “He poured it on the spot,” Marlette said. “He broke that cycle. He saw a hope and a drive that would sustain him. That’s what keeps my batteries charged.” One evening, while getting ready to leave the mission, a big car pulled up and stopped Marlette. The occupants wanted to know what they could do to help. They told him they didn’t want to just lend a hand at Christmas, but all year. “I’ll never forget that,” Marlette said. One woman in the car went on to become a board member for Mission Solano.
Standing outside the outreach center on Tuesday afternoon as the homeless were coming in to catch the bus for the nomadic sheltering program, Marlette got a big hug. “We got a house,” Shelia Glover told him. “Is there anything you need?” Marlette asked her. A man approached Marlette. “I want to thank God and I want to thank you,” said Jeff Hoover, dressed only in a T-shirt and shorts on the cold night. “I’ve never seen God’s work in such a powerful way.” The Vacaville native had left a relationship in Kentucky with only the clothes on his back. It was his fourth day with the mission, “This place is unbelievable,” Hoover said. “The compassion, the care. Mr. Marlette has given people a chance to eat and a place to sleep. I came out here crushed. I can see hope now.” Also singing Marlette’s praises were Mike Robinson who spent almost six months in the Mission Solano program, got a job and managed to save $6,000. Now, he stops by to volunteer his time. “The Lord straightened me out here,” he said. “Ron was a spiritual leader. He opened my mind to what I was missing.”
Mission Solano is getting ready to officially break ground on its Bridge to Life Center, a new facility on donated land, that will have 40 transitional housing units for single men and three four-plex family units that will house 60 families. “Together we can and will make a difference. If all of us just do a little, we can make monumental changes in our community. There’s always so much more to do,” Marlette said. Retired Rev. John Hanson feels Marlette is “unstoppable.” and will bring everything to fruition. When Marlette went to church, Hanson was the pastor at what is now Parkway Community Church. “I’ve known him since high school when he didn’t even believe in God,” Hanson said. Now, Hanson added, Marlette feels that “if God is in it, he can accomplish what he (Marlette) wants.” Marlette met his wife at the church. Her parents met with Hanson concerned about the relationship. Hanson told them he wasn’t honestly sure it was the right thing for their daughter. “She came from a very stable and well-ordered home,” Hanson said of Jennifer Marlette. “Jennifer has always been a strong believer.”
The frequency of dating increased and before long there was talk of an engagement. “At that time I saw a real spark in him,” Hanson said. “He sees something and he goes all the way. Now the family says he’s the best thing that ever happened to their family. And, he’s one of the best things ever to come to our church. “He has integrity and more drive than most people. He will never quit. His future is secure,” Hanson said. And, as an old friend recently asked Marlette, “Are you still dealing Jesus?” The answer is yes and will continue to be the same.