Gary Drake moves slowly these days, his body fragile, his head bald after a rugged course of chemotherapy to combat stage 4 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Battling cancer for the second time has pushed him to make the difficult choice to retire as director of development for the Montana Rescue Mission. Drake, 64, has been involved with the MRM on the board, leading the ministry and now as a money raiser, for 25 years.
He will be missed, MRM's executive director Perry Roberts said Thursday.
“Gary always had a vision for what needed to be added, what needed to be started, what the need was that wasn’t being filled,” Roberts said. “It was evident in his entire career: the people we serve came first.”
Drake, always witty, is a pleasant presence at the rescue mission, he said, and someone who sees the good in others.
“We all need to be that way, but it’s good to have someone that’s that way by default,” Roberts said.
A dark time
Drake, in an interview at his southwest Billings home, said that back in 1985, the Montana Rescue Mission actually rescued him.
“I went through a really dark time in my life, just a really low point,” he said, sitting at his dining room table. “I’d been transferred to Denver for a job and that didn’t work out the way we planned, and we ended up coming back to Billings.”
Not long after, walking downtown, Drake was approached by a panhandler who asked if he had any spare change. Drake brushed him off and kept walking.
Drake felt a clear impression from God, to turn around, go back to the man and apologize.
“I said I had no reason to treat him that way and asked for his forgiveness,” Drake said. “He said ‘that’s OK, it happens all the time.’ So I gave him what money I had in my pocket and went on my way.”
Before he left, though, Drake asked the man where he was staying, and the man told him the Montana Rescue Mission. Then the following Sunday at Faith E Church, the president of the MRM board approached Drake and asked him if he’d ever thought of joining the board.
Back then, the MRM had only the men’s shelter on Minnesota Avenue.
“Two things crossed my mind,” Drake said. “One, I can’t believe this is not a coincidence, and the second thing, still feeling low, was that I have nothing to offer the mission.”
But he reconsidered his initial decision and agreed to join the board. It was a time of turmoil among the staff, with a constant turnover of executive directors, Drake said.
When the last of a series of directors was asked to leave in the early 1990s, the board temporarily took over the running of the ministry. Drake was asked by a number of people if he had considered applying for the job.
Again Drake hesitated, still feeling the weight of his past failure. But he ultimately applied for the top job and was hired in July 1992.
“Through my work with the mission, associating with people serving on the board and the staff, and the opportunities I had to really put my faith into practice, it was transformational for me,” he said. “I don’t know if it could have happened anywhere else.”
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Drake had some challenges before him. The Women and Children's Shelter had opened in 1991 in a downtown building that was more than a century old and in need of constant repair.
The ministry had only 13 employees, including Drake, and few programs available to the homeless population it served. The most immediate problem, though, was a staff struggling with the aftermath of an emotionally stressful time.
“One of the first things I felt I needed to do was meet with every one of them and ask for forgiveness as a board member not seeing what was happening,” Drake said. “I think God used that to heal some wounds very quickly, which allowed us to move beyond that.”
Drake, who previously worked in the business world, used his skills to move the ministry forward. With both shelters full almost every night and more resources needed to invest in the lives of those people, he began to reach out to the community for support.
Over time, the staff grew to about 80 employees, and at its peak had a budget of $4.5 million. What that allowed was the chance to help its clients in the best possible ways.
That included a buffet table with many resources, Drake said, “to meet someone at their point of need, not to be one-size-fits-all.”
“It was a paradigm shift for us, to recognize that homeless wasn’t a problem to be solved, but the homeless were people to be served,” he said. “It was taking it from the big problem down to the individual.”
By 2010, Drake was beginning to feel burned out. When the MRM received a large grant to establish a formal development department, he decided to apply for the director of development job.
At the same time Roberts, who was a board member, applied to be executive director. Drake called it a “win-win.”
“We were able to raise not only a significant amount of dollars for the ministry, but we brought in somebody who had fresh eyes to look at things,” he said. “I really felt I was doing something I’d been built for.”
Time to go
Drake initially was diagnosed with stage 3 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2008. After treatment, it stayed in remission until this spring.
This time around Drake went through four cycles of very intensive chemotherapy, but a PET scan revealed the cancer wasn’t responding.
So he is starting radiation not as a cure, but to reduce the tumor size and the pain Drake constantly battles. The hope is that new therapies may come along in time.
With the drain of the disease and its treatment, Drake and his wife, Sharon, decided it was time for him to retire “to give me the greatest chance of getting healthier.”
Sitting in the hospital during the chemo treatments has given Drake time to contemplate life and God and all the blessings he has received, including his wife and his family.
He recently had lunch with a hospital chaplain friend who compared God’s will to a river. God’s will can take you somewhere, his friend said, only if you surrender and let go of the idea that you can control the destination.
That’s tough for someone who’s always tried to be in control of his life, Drake said, be it a career or health or life.
“For me, I think this has been about not trying to swim upstream, not trying to take myself out of the stream,” he said. “But to trust God to see where he’s going to take me, believing wherever that is, he’s got my best interest at heart.”