Tom Kacich: Film may hit 'Home Run' for recovery program

All around the country this week, groups of people will be talking about and promoting a new baseball movie.

But not the one about Jackie Robinson, the revered Brooklyn Dodger who broke baseball's color barrier in 1947.

A second baseball-themed movie, opening next Friday, confronts a different social issue: abuse and dependency.

Churches and groups across America are using the movie "Home Run," a fictional story about a young ballplayer with alcohol and anger management problems, to help people address and overcome their demons. The movie, which stars Scott Elrod of "Argo" and Vivica A. Fox, who was in "Independence Day," highlights Celebrate Recovery, a Christian-based recovery program with more than 14,000 local ministries, including one in Champaign-Urbana. Celebrate Recovery was founded in 1991 by John Baker, a pastor at the Saddleback Church in southern California.

Locally the group meets at the Windsor Road Christian Church in Champaign and is headed by Gary Wackerlin, a man who has very publicly acknowledged his struggle with alcoholism in radio interviews, in church testimonies and most recently at a promotional screening of "Home Run" at the church.

"We just want people to see it so they know there's hope in their life, because whether we admit it or not we all have issues that we struggle with," said Wackerlin, a former banker who now works with a private business brokerage firm and is executive director of the Christie Foundation in Champaign. "They're not all about alcohol. There are so many other things."

The local Celebrate Recovery group meets every Friday night at the church. Naively, I expressed astonishment that people would want to get together at a church on a Friday night when so many others are out on the town, starting their weekend.

"Interesting enough," Wackerlin explained, "for Karyl (his wife) and I, it's something we really look forward to on Friday nights, the rest of our leaders as well. The reason is, it's a great way to start your weekend. Whatever you are struggling with, you can go into the weekend with some hope, rather than leaning on your issue."

Every Friday night, he said, 30 to 50 people show up.

"We have a dinner. We have live worship. And we have either a lesson or a testimony," Wackerlin said. "Then we have breakout groups that are gender specific. Men get together to talk about men's stuff. Women talk about women's stuff.

"It's a part of my life. When you go through recovery like I did, the 12th step is to bring this good news to other people. That's just what happens. It's not something you are forced to do. It's a part of me. I try to arrange my Friday so that I'm done with all my other stuff early in the afternoon and then I can focus on Friday night."

Celebrate Recovery, he said, doesn't address only alcohol abuse.

"There are all sorts of things that people bring with them when they come to our meetings. People may be having financial problems, and it worries them and they get all bound up. There are people who are heavy and they take out their anxieties by eating," Wackerlin said. "There are two big differences between secular programs like Alcoholics Anonymous and Celebrate Recovery. One is that we're a Christian program. We don't talk about a higher power; we talk about God. Secondly, this is for all hurts, habits and hang-ups. It's not just drugs and alcohol. The movie is accurate in that it depicts a lot of interactions and a lot of things that people struggle with."

Wackerlin's journey toward recovery began several years ago when he agreed to seek treatment at the Hazelden center in Minnesota.

"I went in and out of (Alcoholics Anonymous) once or twice and finally I decided I needed to deal with this once and for all. I had a lot of people who encouraged me. It was phenomenal. It wasn't like I was on my own," he said. "I had so much support. And once you do that and you discover a new life, you want to share it. As the movie says, 'freedom is possible.'

"Admitting the problem is step one. And that can be so hard. At the beginning I would do anything not to acknowledge it," he recalled. "'I don't have a problem. You have a problem.'

"Step one is admitting that you are powerless. That's where it all starts."

The Wackerlins have pledged to do all they can to get people to the Savoy 16 next week to see "Home Run."

"Everyone who had a Celebrate Recovery ministry had an opportunity to sign a commitment to work to bring a thousand people to the theater when the show opens," he said. "We're working hard to make sure that not only a thousand people show up, but that the right thousand show up.

"Our hope is that people see this and realize that they don't have to be stuck."

Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette editor and columnist. His column appears on Sunday and Wednesdays. He can be reached at 351-5221 or at tkacich@news-gazette.com.

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