CLINTON — He came to Clinton in 1973 to play baseball.

Thirty-six years later, the Rev. Ray Gimenez is thankful that even though he never made it to the Major League, the sport brought him to Clinton and led him to his true calling — that of saving souls.

Gimenez was honored Friday with the Liberty Bell Award, which is given by the Clinton County Bar Association each Law Day to honor a man, woman or organization that has pressed forward in promoting freedom.

Clinton County Bar Association President Matt Brisch said Gimenez was chosen because his work truly enacts the meaning of freedom. Freedom, he said, is defined as being free from restriction. In this case he said, Gimenez helps people as they work to free themselves from substance abuse, criminal acts and destructive decisions.

Gimenez founded the Victory Center in 1987 because he saw homelessness and helplessness, said Brisch. The center now provides shelter for the homeless, has more than 25 staff members and more than 40 volunteers. It offers intensive programs that work with the court system and monitors those ordered to complete community service. He also provides intense training to teach people how to live and have a productive life and also offers substance abuse counseling and a program for ex-offenders.

Brisch described Gimenez’s work as being integral to the court system, that it’s one thing to prevent someone from committing a crime — you can just lock someone up, he said — but Gimenez works to make a difference in how people live.

Former Clinton County Associate Court Judge Arlen Van Zee agreed.

He said there are many programs meant to help people in the court system, Drinking Drivers programming, batterers’ education programs, anger management counseling and mental health programs among them.

“Sometimes we’re successful; sometimes we’re not,” he said.

He said what’s really needed is to help people change on the inside.

He said Gimenez’s goal and that of the Victory Center is to change hearts.

“That’s the ultimate solution for change,” he said. “You change behavior by changing hearts.”

Gimenez thanked those in attendance, saying baseball brought him to Clinton but it really was a gateway to his ministry and the Victory Center.

“That’s the greatest thing we do — to change lives,” he said.

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