Thankful every day

February 23, 2018

Mark Stokes and his wife, Elise, with their children Solomon, Isaiah and Avalyn.

‘‘I don’t know if there’s anyone out there or not. If there is and you can turn my life around, I’ll give you the whole thing because I’ve made a massive mess of it. I can’t fix it.’’

Sitting alone in his room at Kyabram’s Teen Challenge, these were the thoughts Mark Stokes wrestled with as he contemplated ending his life.

At 23, all he had to account for was a series of broken relationships, a life-threatening drug addiction and a name blackened by crime.

Deep down, he knew he wanted to break this cycle of destruction — but he just didn’t think it was possible.

And he didn’t know if he had the strength to fight any more.

Mr Stokes’ journey to that room at Teen Challenge had been a long one.

Kicked out of high school at age 14, he had picked up a carpentry apprenticeship before falling in with the wrong crowd — an older group of friends who led him down a dark path.

Looking to prove he was a man to his new mates, the teen resorted to violence and negativity, lashing out at anyone who got in his way.

Moving from his home in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne to Williamstown at age 19, Mr Stokes enrolled in the army and completed his training as far as he could progress.

Required to wait until he was 22 to try out for the Special Armed Forces, Mr Stokes trained with the commando units to fill his time.

It was during training he was approached by an army buddy who had found a way to make quick money — by illegally poaching abalone.

Little did he know this decision would ultimately ruin his career — and his life.

He was working for the second most-wanted poacher in Australia and New Zealand.

The group used specialist diving equipment to move in and out without being detected — but even this wasn’t enough to keep them out of trouble with the law.

‘‘Turns out there was surveillance on the boss’ house,’’ Mr Stokes said.

‘‘This taskforce had set up a surveillance stop on the second floor of a milk bar across the road from his house and watched us all for about six months.’’

One night as the group slipped out to fish on Flinders Beach, they were followed.

It was a rewarding dive that evening. They headed off the beach laden with 40kg bags of abalone, each bag worth a staggering $2500 apiece.

It was then they were pounced upon.

In the blink of an eye, 30 fisheries officers had spilled onto the sand, sparking a desperate chase on foot down the beach. It wasn’t long, however, before the group was caught, arrested and charged.

While copping a hefty fine was tough enough in itself, the impact these charges had on Mr Stokes’ army career were much more serious.

He was immediately discharged from his duties.

‘‘I was heartbroken; I had done something so stupid and lost my dream,’’ Mr Stokes said.

‘‘I was pretty institutionalised with all of the army training and I didn’t feel like going back to a normal job.’’

Shattered over losing his career — and his girlfriend in the process — Mr Stokes quickly returned to his old group of friends and became heavily involved in the Melbourne underworld.

His life began to spiral downwards, his family giving up on him as he became addicted to drugs and continued a life of crime.

The robbery of a factory led to his first stint in prison, with Mr Stokes spending subsequent years in and out of jail.

‘‘Last time I was in prison was in 2005,’’ he said.

‘‘I was depressed, suicidal and I had a drug habit where I was using syringes every day.’’

It seemed there was no hope for Mr Stokes, his dreams of the army crushed and every relationship ruined because of his addictions and behaviour.

To appease his parents, Mr Stokes begrudgingly accepted an offer to visit drug rehabilitation centre Teen Challenge.

Accompanied by an ex-detective from the city, Mr Stokes hoped if he agreed to visit, his parents wouldn’t kick him out of home.

‘‘I thought the guy who took me was setting me up. I was real coy in anything I said,’’ Mr Stokes said.

‘‘When I got to the place I thought, ‘Look at all these people, they’re losers who’ve wrecked their lives.’

‘‘But still, I thought, ‘You could put all these people in a blender and what comes out still wouldn’t be as bad as the things I’ve been doing and the way I’ve hurt people.’’’

As a last-ditch effort, Mr Stokes enrolled in the program.

But he had a week to wait before it kicked off, which he spent recklessly — getting into fights and eventually wrecking his car.

At the end of the week, however, his time was up. He returned to Kyabram, to Teen Challenge — and to day one of the program that would eventually change his life.

‘‘I got there and people were saying ‘God loves you and he can change your life’. Meanwhile I was wondering where God had been my whole life. I thought he must have been asleep,’’ Mr Stokes said.

‘‘I was in a room on my own and I was there thinking, ‘If there’s not going to be a real change in my life here then why would I come here for 12 months? It would just be a waste of my time and I could be out in the world doing what I wanted.’

‘‘But at the same time I was thinking that I’d already tried everything the world’s got to offer — so maybe it’s just better if I check out and commit suicide.’’

Two nights later, Mr Stokes was continuing to wrestle with these dark thoughts when something changed.

A voice, similar to his conscience, told him to get a notepad and pen and write down everything he’d done wrong in his life.

‘‘I thought, this is a test I can easily pass. The voice was different to the others I’d heard through my life, it seemed nice,’’ he said.

In his room writing away, Mr Stokes soon began to realise the impact of his actions on others.

‘‘I’d just been a destroyer. I’d robbed my parents, I’d broken every girl’s heart I’d been with, I’d abused everyone.’’

After jotting down the list, he tore up the page and threw it in the bin. It was time for a new beginning.

‘‘There was a glimmer of hope for the first time in my whole life. Everyone was telling me I’d met God. They started talking about the sacrifices he’d made for my sins,’’ he said.

‘‘I thought if he went through all that for me then surely I can do something for myself.’’

Through Teen Challenge, Mr Stokes learned everyone has value and no matter what they have done, anyone can turn their life around.

After three years at the centre, Mr Stokes began mentoring other participants and found a job as a carpenter. It was also during this time he met his wife Elise, who was working in administration for Teen Challenge.

Soon enough, Mr Stokes had started his own carpentry business, managing to pay off the family house — now home to the couple and their three children.

‘‘Everything has turned around,’’ Mr Stokes said.

‘‘If I’d heard 12 years ago I would be doing this, it would have seemed impossible. But I’m running a business now and giving people jobs and contributing to society.’’

The past 12 years have been drug and alcohol-free for Mr Stokes — no easy feat by any means.

But looking back on his life now, Mr Stokes wouldn’t change a thing.

He’s thankful for that day he walked in the doors of the rehab centre in Kyabram.

He’s thankful for the support network that was there to catch him any time he slipped while on the road to recovery.

Above all, he’s thankful for every day he’s breathed since that night he sat alone in his room at Teen Challenge 12 years ago, wondering if life was even worth living.

●Mr Stokes recently completed the PursUte Ute Push, accompanying friend and fellow Teen Challenge member Simon Gilboy in pushing a ute 50km for two days to raise money for Teen Challenge.

The event took 10 hours and raised $10000 for the centre.

To donate to Teen Challenge, go to

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