[The Van Buren County Democrat, as a regular series, continues to investigate both addiction and addiction recovery and its impact on the county. This article, by columnist Jackie Sikes, is part of this on-going series.]

“Put me in the Zoo” is a child's storybook written by Robert Lopshire. They say a leopard can't change his spots but in this story a leopard longs to be put in the zoo because he has so many things that he can do. He wants desperately to be a part of the zoo and he can change his spots. He sets out with determination to prove he deserves to be put in the zoo and convince two children that he is “zoo” worthy. So, much like this popular book, Pastor Rick Montgomery believes that a Leopard can change his spots, and when given the right tools and support, behaviors can change and lives can be saved. And like the leopards spots, the changes that the property in Dennard has gone through over the years has lead him and his team to where they are today.

Hallie Orman first constructed the zoo, located on highway 65 just north of Clinton, in 1967 with the hopes of attracting people from all over Arkansas. When the zoo first opened, it featured a miniature train ride that boasted the tallest miniature train tracks in the world. The zoo also featured an ice cream shop, gift shop, restaurant, and had a variety of animals including lions, tigers and monkeys to name a few. Orman kept and ran the business successfully until the sale of the property in 1979 to a man from Texas.

The new owner made a few changes that didn't go over very well with the public and in 1979, after the lion escaped, the complaints from the public lead to the final decline of the business and the place was abandoned. Years went by before another buyer attempted a restaurant at the location. The restaurant didn't last and the property continued to fall into disrepair.

Change was coming again when Pastor Rick Montgomery passed the old zoo and immediately knew that this unique and historic landmark was the answer to his prayers. In October 2010, just like the movie, “We Bought a Zoo,” Pastor Rick and his wife began planning new and creative ways to use the zoo to help spread his message and help others. The clearing of brush started in June of 2011 and by 2014 the three main buildings had been renovated.

The Mission of The New Tabernacle Baptist Church is two-fold. One is to reach the Least, the Last and the Lost of our generation with the Love of Jesus our Lord taught from the word of God from our Jewish roots. The second part of the mission is through a program called the Zoo Outfitters Operation. This program is a six month resident program that teaches men to live without addictions.

The Zoo Outfitters Operation, as of the day of this interview, has 19 men in the program and has been running for 18 months. The leaders and teachers in the program are all volunteers and it is open to participants from all over the state. Pastor Rick receives 5-6 calls a day from men interested in being a part of his program. In order for someone to be accepted into the program they must complete an interview, agree to abide by all the rules that govern the program, agree to participate in all services of the church, agree to no phone usage, abide by the visitation rules and assist with a monetary contribution whenever possible.

Agreeing to abide by the rules is a top priority for Pastor Rick, he says, “If I can't teach you to follow simple rules in six months then you won't be able to follow the bigger rules when you leave here.” This type of reasoning, is in part, the result of the program having a 70 percent success rate. Those who don't succeed the first time are encouraged to go to another facility to try again. This program may not be the right fit but there are programs that might work better for an individual and Pastor Rick is there to help them find the right program. Men coming into this program make the choice to participate over other options available to them when leaving the prison system. Oprah Winfrey says, “You get in life what you have the courage to ask for.” Asking for that second chance, having the courage to take that stand and make that commitment is the foundation to success and the first step in recovery.

Participants in the program keep busy in study each morning and by working on the grounds in the afternoon. All work done around the facility including the cooking, cleaning and maintenance is done by the participants in the program. It takes a team to run a program like this and that is part of the process of recovery.

Michael and Jesse were my tour guides for my interview and I was amazed at all the work that has gone into the facility but what amazed me more was the energy I felt when talking to these men.

Michael claims that this place “Ran on blessings. This place is changing lives. Society shuns addicts, it's a spiritual sickness. You may be living where you are lost in the world. This place teaches you to find out what is holding you down and shows you the way to get out, to see the light and gives us a purpose in life.” Not only do participants learn through the written word but they learn to deal with their emotions and learn about ways they can give and help others.

“The program teaches you to go out and help and give to others.” Part of this program has the men working in the community. If they are on a project for the day all they ask is that they are fed in exchange. This program teaches you when you get angry, Put your God filter on and let him guide you to a better response. Emotions and anger is not sin, it's when you act on it. When facing a negative make a positive out of it when you are facing anger do something nice for somebody, when you face hatred, love somebody,” he said.

Jesse is Pastor Rick's right hand man who will be graduating from the program this December. Jesse has observed an “Explosion of energy in the last three months.”

Some participants do really well and through their words and actions help and inspire other participants. The bonds formed here are building blocks for participants to move on in life and back into society even though some of them may have to be reminded that they do have to leave at the end of six months. Here they find their purpose, they make peace with themselves and are ready to return to their loved ones with a new lease on life.

“Addiction does not discriminate.” Jesse reminds us, and touches so many people.

Programs like this one are not only important to the participants but to their friends and family. Pastor Rick is saving lives, saving families. His heart is good and in the right place, giving to others through his ministry with his church and his program.

“Because this is what I believe – that second chances are stronger than secrets. You can let secrets go, but a second chance? You don't let that pass you by,” Daisy Whitney.

So like the Leopard in the book, he asked to be put in the zoo but when the children in the story saw all that he could do they offered him a second chance, an alternative, and that was to share his uniqueness and talents at the circus, which was a better fit for him. Participants in the Zoo Outfitters Operation ask to be put in the zoo, they get a second chance, they reconnect with their individual uniqueness and talents and when they graduate they find their better fit in the world.

The New Tabernacle Baptist Church is a church first with Saturday Services held each week. Saturday classes begin at 10 a.m and Worship at 11 a.m. A potluck follows the Worship service on Saturday as well as before services on Wednesday's. Its Wednesday services are live on Facebook at 6 p.m., Zoo Church Village.

The recent move from Sunday services to Saturday will leave the guys available to visit with other churches, spreading the word and sharing their stories. Their program could use financial assistance and by sharing with others they are hoping to receive love offerings or monthly commitments from other churches to help supplement their program. As with most churches they rely heavily on donations and giving hearts. If you would like to learn more about the ministry of this church call Pastor Rick at 501-514-8535. If you'd like to make a contribution you can go to their Web page at thezoochurch.com, 12173 Hwy 65 North, Dennard - and prayers are always appreciated.