Susan Matos takes cues from her own troubled past as she deals with the present and looks to the future.
"We have the ability to be overcomers," she told the Westminster Women's Aglow Fellowship yesterday.
"I was a bum 15 years ago. I knew what was right, and I chose the opposite. Then I came into the ministry. Now I have used every bit of that experience to bring hope into the lives of others."
As Ms. Matos spoke to about 50 members of the international, interdenominational fellowship of Christian women, she described a past that included substance abuse and her rehabilitation through the program she now directs.
"I have been blessed beyond imagination," she said. "To walk in grace is not to understand but to accept."
Ms. Matos and her husband direct New Life for Girls in Westminster, which they opened in 1981. Part of a nationwide rehabilitation program based on Christian teachings, it has helped hundreds of women of all ages.
The women, most of whom undergo rehabilitation for drug or alcohol abuse, come directly to the program or are referred by courts or counselors.
"Our goal is to be an example to the girls who see us every day," Ms. Matos said. "We want to take what the Lord has done in our lives and share."
The Matoses and their five daughters live on the grounds of the Littlestown Pike facility, which provides housing to as many as 14 women.
"We are always full because there is always someone with a need," she said.
Judy Valentine, assistant director, said the women "don't have to be in trouble, just hurting and wanting a way out to their problems."
Through prayer and grace, Ms. Matos said, she pulled herself back from the edge of disaster. Now, she said, she has dedicated her life to turning despair into hope in the lives of others.
Christian faith, the teachings of the Bible and a homelike structure help the women turn their lives around, she said.
"Sometimes, the girls think what they have done is so horrible ZTC that God could never love them," she said. "God loves without conditions. Nothing will bring us so far from God that we cannot reconcile with him. Nothing can separate us from God's love but ourselves."
The daily routine at New Life for Girls includes strict adherence to house rules that ban tobacco, drugs and alcohol. Bible reading, chapel services and inspirational talks, often given by graduates of the program, punctuate the days.
"We are just people, and we are going to make mistakes, but I tell them Jesus came here as a man," said Ms. Matos. "He knows what we experience and has the ability to feel everything we feel."
Formal graduations take place twice a year. Most women continue in the next step of the program at a "college-like" facility in Dover, Pa., where many of them are reunited with their children.
The Westminster facility has expanded to include Victory House, home to five families. Participants can learn the basics of running a home and being effective parents.
Several women have completed the course at Victory House and have returned to the community to resume their lives, she said.
The couple also founded New Life Chapel, a nondenominational church on John Street in Westminster.