Star Magazine

The Conversation: Led by Ladell Flowers, Dismas House offers help to addicts

Ladell Flowers, president of Dismas House, a nonprofit organization that assists clients with addictions.
Ladell Flowers, president of Dismas House, a nonprofit organization that assists clients with addictions. The Kansas City Star

Ladell Flowers of Lee’s Summit is executive director of Dismas House, DismasHouseKC.com, a state-certified, faith-based addiction treatment provider. Anyone needing services or wanting to volunteer should call 816-531-6050. Flowers began working at Dismas House in 1977. This conversation took place at the organization’s office, 3100 Main St.

What has changed since 1977?

There are more people in dire straits than there were in 1977.

Did the numbers jump during the recession?

Yes. Two things happened during the recession. The number of people increased rapidly and the class of people changed. A person with a double master’s was suffering as much from substance abuse as a person with a GED or no GED.

Where does the name Dismas House come from?

Dismas was the name of a thief on the cross next to Jesus who asked Jesus to remember him when he came into his kingdom. Jesus replied, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

In 1959 in St. Louis, a Jesuit priest by the name of Charles Clark taught high school by day, and during the evenings he would go through the streets of St. Louis and minister to people. The Catholic Church did not like a high school teacher being out with prostitutes and drug addicts.

When the church was getting ready to call him on the carpet about it, a judge heard about what he was doing and asked Clark as a favor to go into the St. Louis work house and minister to the men there. He went there and found that was his calling.

People started calling him the Hoodlum Priest and a movie with that name was made about him. He called his ministry Dismas House and today there are branches of it all across the country. Father James Flanagan from the (Kansas City-St. Joseph) diocese here and my father, the Reverend Everett Thornton, brought it to Kansas City in 1972.

What makes ministering to people with substance abuse different from other ministries?

There is no easy fix. We (as a society) like easy fixes — let’s do this and this and be done with it. With substance abuse, it is continual. You have to look at it like diabetes or something, where you can get better, you can maintain it, but it never goes away.

Did you ever abuse drugs?

Yes. At the age of 12, I was a deacon in the Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis. So I was supposed to be a good kid, but I started drinking at the age of 16. When I went to college I was introduced to marijuana.

I never was bad to anybody, but it caused me to flunk out of college. I was at Mizzou on a music scholarship — I was a trumpet player — and the dean called me in at the mid-term and said, “You’re done.”

So I went back home to St. Louis. My father had passed away, and I told my mother I was coming home to help her, like a hero. I never told her I flunked out of school.

Do you think she knew?

Sure, she knew. And it was painful because I knew she knew, but I had to play this game. Then one day when we were washing dishes, out of nowhere she said, “You know, son, just because a man falls, you don’t have to stay down. Never give up hope.” And I told her what happened.

She encouraged me to start back at junior college and I ended up back at Mizzou and got three degrees, a bachelor’s and master’s in education and a master’s in educational counseling.

I was told that you often have trouble raising enough money to keep Dismas House going and that frequently you do not pay yourself. How do you make ends meet?

(Long pause.) Well, it’s been by the grace of God. When I was married — my wife is deceased — her income helped. There’s sacrifice involved. It’s robbing Peter to pay Paul sometimes. I honestly don’t know. I just get up every day and I make it.

To reach Cindy Hoedel, call 816-234-4304 or send email to choedel@kcstar.com. Follow her on Twitter @CindyHoedel, and at Facebook.

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