GULFPORT -- Three days after his mother died, Joe Mattingly's father and brother told him enough was enough.
Mattingly had to go, they said. His drug and alcohol addiction had cost him his job as an aircraft mechanic and alienated everyone in the family.
Mattingly checked in for detox at a hospital in Louisville, Ky. Over the course of his 30-year addiction, he had been through at least five recovery programs. When his head cleared, he realized it was time to either die or get busy living. A social worker told him about the TNT Ranch Recovery Home in Gulfport. He said the social worker knew he needed a long-term recovery program like the six months to a year offered at TNT, as opposed to two weeks or 30 days.
Mattingly has been on the ranch for five years now. He slipped a couple of times, forcing owner and founder Tony Stapleton to send him to the hospital, but he's been sober now since Dec. 6, 2012.
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"We're just so proud of what we're doing here," said Mattingly, who does maintenance work around the ranch and is earning a bachelor's degree in drug and alcohol counseling. "This is a life's mission. This is about saving lives."
Stapleton and his wife, Shirlene, have always run their ranch on faith -- faith the bills would somehow get paid even though many of the hundreds of homeless alcoholics and addicts who have come through the doors had no money. Today, they are trying to raise $60,000 that will finish a new building Harrison County codes require to replace the family home they've added onto over the years to house clients. They have already raised $90,000.
The money goes for materials. Contractors have donated time and Seabees have volunteered labor to pour a foundation and erect the building. The wall studs are in place, so it's clear to see where 14 rooms with closets, a kitchen, an office, a conference room and bathrooms will be.
Finding a way
When the first building is done, the Stapletons plan to raise money for a second one. They have to tear down four of the six buildings on the property because they are not up to code. The Stapletons' house, whose living space is separated by a steel door from client rooms, can remain.
In addition to the main house, the ranch is a hodgepodge of sheds, gazebos, small trailers under wooden covers and what they call "the old ranch house." All were built by the men and women who have come here to sober up, stabilize because of a mental illness, or both. There are two small ponds and a couple of old horses on the 3½ acres, with statuary planted around the gazebos where residents sit to talk, smoke or meditate.
The old ranch house, which also won't be torn down, has a TV room and a big kitchen where residents eat their meals, and attend mandatory morning meditation, AA meetings and Bible study. Others in the community come here for AA meetings, and the residents go to AA and Narcotics Anonymous meetings in the community. Area ministers hold church services on Sundays.
Five days a week, those who need it take camp buses to outpatient therapy programs in Louisiana. "Going to school," they call it.
"I've always managed to do what I need to to get a person out of the weather, get them something to eat and give them love and hope," Stapleton said. "I understand that I can't save the world, but if I can make a difference in someone's life, I can assure you, I am going to put everything I have into it."
Stapleton grew up in North Gulfport with alcohol and alcoholics. As a child, he fetched his grandfather's moonshine from under the house so he would be rewarded with a sip. Seven of nine sons became alcoholics, Stapleton included. He was a high-functioning alcoholic, able to maintain a career in the U.S. Army while he drank a gallon of gin a day. He popped breath mints and kept mouthwash handy.
He stopped drinking, cold turkey, almost 29 years ago, about the time he married Shirlene Stapleton, a devout Baptist who did not approve of drinking.
One of his youngest brothers, Calvin, drank and did drugs. The family periodically sent Calvin to stay with Tony Stapleton, the oldest son, for several months at a time.
Stapleton was stationed in Grand Rapids, Mich., when Calvin arrived on a Friday night. Tony Stapleton had a military inspection early the next morning, so he went to bed after a brief greeting and left the house early Oct. 12, 1992.
At work, he received a telephone call from his wife. His little brother, who was only in his 20s, had hung himself and was dead.
"I was just out of it," he said. "I couldn't figure out why he came all the way to Michigan and killed himself."
Born to serve
The Stapletons were already planning his military retirement and return to the Coast. He had bought a house for $1,500 and moved it out to the rural property north of Gulfport. A friend of his took in veterans. He followed her lead, establishing the ranch in 1993 before he returned home in 1996.
Veteran care was a part-time thing in the beginning. But it grew into the Stapletons' full-time occupation because of the need for housing. His own family's struggles with addiction also led Stapleton to take in homeless addicts, veterans or not. He does not pay himself a salary. His military retirement provides enough income. He pays Shirlene Stapleton and seven others who work on the property, including Joe Mattingly, $400 a month each.
Homeless advocate and volunteer Ted Hearn of Gulfport kept hearing about TNT Ranch. Hearn visited four years ago and has since become like a father to Stapleton. He helped the Stapletons establish TNT Ranch as a nonprofit organization and set up a board of directors. Hearn now serves on the board, and has arranged donations of food for the ranch from Feed My Sheep, a Gulfport soup kitchen that sometimes collects more of some food items than it can use.
"When I first started coming out here, I was amazed," Hearn said, "because most of these people don't pay anything -- can't pay anything."
Tony Stapleton, who is 55, said his life is pretty much church and the ranch. But that's fine by him.
"In the spiritual realm," he said, "I believe that this was something God had planned for me before I was born."
Want to help TNT ranch? You can donate to their building fund.