ALTON — “Sam” was preparing to jump from his chopper when he realized what happened.
The fighting was intense, and in the chaos of the moment the formation was jumbled. Sam found his buddy suddenly in front of him in line, not behind as he had been, and the soldier was in Sam’s spot when he took a bullet to the head.
He died in his friend’s arms, forever marking Sam’s tour in Afghanistan with an indelible and horrific memory.
In the years since, the survivor’s guilt and post-traumatic stress disorder have taken their toll, and the veteran returned home with no resource for moving past the trauma he experienced.
Stories such as Sam’s are behind Dar Bryant’s efforts to create the first Freedom Fest at River of Life Family Church on Sept. 10. Bryant serves as center director for the Dream Center, a nonprofit organization formed this year to help veterans, addicts and those returning to society following prison terms to begin new lives.
“I have a passion when it comes to veterans,” Bryant said. “I have family members who are vets, and I would also see the men on the streets of St. Louis asking for money. Much of the time, those men get out of the military with psychological issues, end up serving time in prison, then get out and have nowhere to go and no resources. So we started looking at how to help those who have done so much for us.”
The inaugural Freedom Fest will take place from noon until 5 p.m. on Sept. 10 at the church, 3401 Old Fosterburg Road. In addition to food and beverages, there will be live music, entertainment for children and veteran’s services on site, including credit counseling and housing options, free of charge.
Clothing, food boxes and hygiene products provided by the Dream Center and Catholic Charities also will be available for veterans who need assistance with more urgent needs.
Guest speaker will be Chad Williams, former Navy Seal and author of the book “The Seal of God.” Williams will speak at 6 p.m. and also will sign copies of his book in the River of Life auditorium at 6 p.m.
“He was involved in really intense combat and did several tours,” Bryant said. “During his experiences there, he had an encounter with God and came back and wrote this powerful book. He would have been one of the people I see on the street corners, so his story is pretty amazing.”
Musical guests include Nashville recording artist Kyle Greenwell, southern gospel trio Fred Church and the Spirituals, Shawn Hiltibidal, One Eighty, Jason McAfee and other acts to be announced.
In what Bryant hopes to be an annual event held near 9/11, the free festival is a chance for those seeking resources and information to find it easily while surrounded by support.
“The failure is there,” he said. “Our government should be seeing what is going on and providing help for these people who serve our country. The government needs to ensure these people are getting the help they need. If they won’t, then we will do our best to offer that service.”
History of the Dream Center
When Dar Bryant graduated from Roxana High School in 1978, he could not have envisioned the convoluted, crime-ridden road his life would take.
He also could not have foreseen such a powerful deliverance from that life.
“At one time, I was on Arizona’s top ten most wanted list,” Bryant said. “I look back on it and cannot fathom how I am still alive.”
A descent into drug addiction led to a years-long career as a high-profile drug dealer and trafficker, which in turn led to two prison sentences. After spending years “running as far away from God as possible,” Bryant eventually was broken enough to decide two stays behind bars was enough of a wake-up call.
Attending services at River of Life Family Church, Bryant began the process of building a stable, faith-based life for himself, his wife and family.
A renewed commitment to a clean life motivated him to keep his past a secret from everyone except the pastor for seven years, so he was frightened and apprehensive when asked to share his story with the congregation on Easter weekend.
Instead of the condemnation he expected, he said he was met with love and support.
“I was worried about what people would think, and I did not want to be treated as a pariah,” Bryant said. “I also felt that years and years had been wasted. If someone is going through something similar, and I can help, then those years are no longer wasted. There is a reason for all of the junk I went through and the junk I did.”
One person sitting in the congregation that day was Keri Barker, who felt she was at the lowest point in her life.
“I found hope there,” Barker, who now serves as office coordinator for the organization, said. “They showed me love and acceptance. I went to a church service and heard Dar’s story, and it touched something in me. That started a series of events that I think can only be explained by God. My life was not where I wanted it to be, and I told my husband we needed something different.
“These people showed me love and acceptance, and this is the only place where I felt relief, and I found hope.”
Overcome with the response from people who now had the courage to share their own stories of serving time or having a family member with a similar past, Bryant saw a desperate need for a prison ministry, and the Dream Center was born in February 2016.
Working directly with the Illinois Department of Corrections, Vet Centers and other services, the mission of the Dream Center includes five branches of service-assisting “returning citizens” (the term used for those released from prison who are assimilating back into society) with employment, education, food and clothing, providing aid to struggling veterans, meeting the needs of the homeless, helping at-risk youth through intervention and providing counseling and other services to addicts.
“If you feel you have nowhere to turn, that is when we will be there,” Bryant said.
Upcoming events planned through the Dream Center include a Thanksgiving dinner (an expanded version of the River of Life dinner to reach out to veterans and returning citizens) as well a new youth center on the property.
Resources for restoration
On the first Wednesday of each month, the group also holds a Resources for Restoration meeting in the Dream Center’s building on the north side of the church.
“We bring all different resources from all different areas together to provide networking and help for people to find the avenues they need for restoration,” Barker said. “We have lunch, usually have a guest speaker, and we talk about subjects like homelessness, sex trafficking and addiction.”
Law enforcement, faith-based organizations, social services, government organizations and more attend the meetings and are on hand for assistance.
“They all have one thing in common,” Bryant said. “They all believe people can change, and they want to do what they can to help keep people out of prison. That is the common thread.”
The next Resources for Restoration meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, Sept. 7.
Sowing the seeds
Bryant, who today can be found working the church’s media booth every Sunday, has finished a book about his life entitled “360: Full Circle,” out later this year. Carrying himself with an almost tangible mix of intensity and approachability, he is determined to use his life lessons to reach as many people in need as possible.
“I would speak in front of the youth group at church about my past, and one little girl asked me, ‘If you had it to do over again, would you do anything differently?’ My first impulse was to say of course; I would not wish my past on anyone. But then I paused and realized if I had done anything different, I would not be doing what I am doing today.
“The hard times are no longer a waste. I am now taking those 35 years and using them for something positive.”
For more information on Freedom Fest, Resources for Restoration meetings or other services offered by the Dream Center, call (618) 433-8899 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.