On 55 acres of land in the far southwest corner of Genesee County is -- at least for some people who are at their wit's end -- a little slice of heaven.
The land is scenic, of course, but more importantly, for people who think they've exhausted their opportunities for escaping addiction or other behaviors that have seriously messed up their lives, there is an open door and yet one more chance for them to get things straight and find some peace.
Freedom Fellowship has been at 254 Broadway Road, Darien, for more than a decade. It was founded when John and Victoria Kula, with a deep desire to help people find God and overcome their destructive behaviors, came across an old motel and barn for sale on 50 acres of otherwise open land.
"I was helped 20-some years ago and my life changed completely," John said. "So my purpose was to help others. This was our vision way back and we ended up out here in Darien. The Lord led us out here and we purchased this property."
Victoria said she and John had been seeing each other for about two months when a friend invited him to a conference.
"The conference was about spiritual things and he came to know the Lord there," she said. "I knew about the Lord before but wasn't really a follower. Once John changed it was just natural for both of us to want to serve the Lord. We feel because of our experiences in life God has called us to help people with the same struggles we experienced ourselves."
Freedom Fellowship is a non-profit that offers a path to faith-based redemption for anybody struggling with destructive behavior, whether it's drugs, drinking, gambling, eating disorders, or any other behavior a person feels has gotten out of control.
Total Freedom, on its website, calls it a "one-step program." That step is Jesus Christ.
Those who enter the program live on Total Freedom's campus for nine months of discipleship.
"There's a curriculum that's set up by Total Freedom in Florida," John said. "It's a biblical curriculum that guides you through a healing and deliverance process. (The curriculum) is normally three to four months. The curriculum is put on an iPad and each individual works at their own pace. It's all videotape teaching. It's all about healing and transitioning and growing as who we are and being able to transition back into society."
John doesn't pretend it's easy. It's not for everybody and some people walk away. The day before John spoke with The Batavian, a man traveled from Oklahoma after being accepted into the program. He was there for a couple of hours and then turned around and went back home.
Still, John said that about 95 percent of the people who enter the program have stayed clean or otherwise avoided the destructive behavior at the end of their two-year Total Freedom journey. Participants are not tracked after completing the two-year program (that includes 12 months of after-care). It's not possible to independently verify the rehabilitation claim.
"It's a lifestyle change that we're really teaching," John said. "It's putting God in the center of your life and letting Him lead in everything you do."
For those who can't afford rehab, the first four months of the program are free. During the next phase, participants are expected to take a job to learn a skill, either at one of the ministry's businesses or off campus. At that point, they pay $125 a week for room and board.
"They start learning how to save money, the basic skills of life, living," John said. "That is how the process goes through nine months. Then there's a year of aftercare where the test comes on how you're gonna handle your life and what you've learned."
Building a ministry
John is retired after 33 years of working, and he draws a pension. Neither John nor Victoria are paid by the ministry.
"It has always been very important to us to not take an income from the ministry if it wasn’t necessary," Victoria said. "So far we haven’t needed to, so we don’t."
Tax records, as of 2020, show Freedom Fellowship, a 501(c)(3), has $1.4 million in assets. Most of that appears to be the property the ministry owns. The main campus, 50 acres, is assessed at just over $1 million, and an adjoining property, acquired in 2019, is assessed at $247,000.
"The younger generation is earning an income through the various businesses that the ministry runs, and they need the income to make a living," Victoria said. "We do have some very generous donors and we did receive a large donation in order for us to purchase the properties."
What attracted John and Victoria to the first parcel that comprises the campus was a former motel that was being used as a residential rental complex. That former motel now houses family members of people going through the program. John and Victoria have added on, building a dormitory, recreation and meeting rooms, and a kitchen in a separate structure.
That most recently acquired property, on the west side of the campus, includes a two-story house built in 1880 that houses women going through the program.
The acquisition of the house, John said, allows the ministry to keep the men and women separated by the length of the campus.
Total Freedom can provide a residence for eight women and 12 to 15 men at a time.
While there, residents can make use of a fitness center and sauna, play foosball, ping-pong, basketball, and other sports, help in the garden and with the goats and chickens, and each Sunday enjoy fellowship with family before and after services.
Services are held in a chapel built in a converted barn.
And then there are the lush hiking trails through the heavily wooded, creek-laced back portion of the expansive property.
"The program is mind, body, and spirit," John said. "The menu we have, there's no sugars or carbs. The trails are here for exercise. Every morning, as far as the body is concerned, for a half-hour, we come back here (on the trails) and either walk or run, or whatever you want to do, but there's got to be a movement back here on these beautiful trails."
There was one person a while back, John said, who entered the program weighing 500 pounds. He needed a walker to get around.
"He walked the parking lot until he could walk these trails and eventually he lost the walker and he lost 140 pounds," John said.
There are also chores for residents. They clean the grounds and help with maintenance.
The Entrepreneurial Spirit
As for employment opportunities on campus, Freedom Fellowship established four businesses:
The businesses are intended to provide training and work experience for residents going through the program, an opportunity to earn money to help pay their rent and help them learn about managing finances, and generate revenue for the ministry to supplement donations, however, the print shop took a couple of years to start turning a profit and the auto shop is not yet profitable.
The auto shop is a Napa-certified training facility. It's run by Mark Snow, who entered the program in 2016 and has stayed clean and sober since.
"I personally had been through 10 different rehabs over the course of 20 years of drug addiction, and I came through Total Freedom and I'm set free from it," Snow said. "The difference is Jesus Christ. That's all there is to it. The difference is a relationship with God. There's no other way to explain it."
For Mike Raymond, it also took putting all of his faith in God to finally put him on the right path, he said.
He first experienced Total Freedom in Florida, his home state, but soon found himself struggling with alcohol again.
Raymond had a pretty successful life in the restaurant industry.
"I kept being offered more, more and more opportunity in the field," Raymond said. "So as much as I didn't particularly like it, I stayed with it because the money was good. I worked in various capacities over the course of my career, anywhere from starting out at the very bottom to working as a regional training director. I worked as a regional vice president. I worked as a food and beverage director, as a general manager."
The good money led to the high life and when that wasn't working for him any longer, Raymond wound up at Total Freedom in Florida. After going through the program, he tried returning to the restaurant industry but fell back into old habits. He joined Total Freedom in Darien in 2019 and has been part of the program since, running the kitchen for the ministry.
"What's worked for me is submitting, realizing that -- to really come into the knowledge of the truth -- that this is not my home, that I'm a sojourner, and that I have a purpose and that Jesus died for me," Raymond said. "What I need to do is glorify Him in what I do and not look to the things of the world -- the money, the fame, all the things that I looked at as positives in my former life."
His job now is heading up Freedom Fellowship's newest business venture, The Table, a Mexican-themed curbside pickup restaurant on the campus.
"Mexican food has always been my cup of tea," Raymond said. "I worked for a Mexican concept for a long time. We made everything from scratch. It was real, and it's one of my favorite foods. So when I came here, it was not, obviously, the intention but when we started talking about (starting a restaurant) originally, that was the first thing that came to my mind. We prayed about it and decided, 'Hey, let's go with it and open a concept that was similar to what I knew."
The Table opened to the public earlier this month. The restaurant's menu is available online, along with online ordering.
Because New York doesn't sanction faith-based rehabilitation, most of the residents who join the program do not come to Total Freedom through the court system (though a couple of judges in Western New York have authorized it, John said). Instead, people at their wit's end hear about Total Freedom from churches and community centers.
"Once people know who we are and what we do -- and I'm going to be honest with you -- basically, sometimes it's the last resort for them because we don't charge and a lot of places want insurance or they want $1,000 up front," John said. "We just want to bring them in and when they can eventually pay, that's fine. If not, that's fine, too. We believe in and trust in that (idea), and that's definitely a blessing."
Photos by Howard Owens
A room in the men's dormitory.
Part of the hiking trails.
The Batavian visited Total Freedom on June 25, the day the ministry hosted a car show, chicken BBQ, basket raffle and a bit of a carnival. Retired pastor Richard Gritzke, pictured above with his Rolls Royce, won the prize for most classic car. The photos below are all from June 25.