Man giving to others what shelter gave him

October 29, 2000

Man giving to others what shelter gave him

By MARLO BARNHART / Staff Writer

photo: YVETTE MAY / staff photographer

REACH Cold Weather ShelterTwo years ago, the REACH Cold Weather Shelter in Hagerstown gave Charlie Kelly the gift of life.

Now he's giving it back.


"I would be dead now if it wasn't for these people," Kelly said recently as he prepared to begin his second year as an intervention aide at the shelter.

Driven by a zeal he has difficulty describing, Kelly happily offers the gift he got to others - people just like he used to be.


Unprepared for cold weather and captive to alcohol addiction, Kelly showed up at the shelter in the fall of 1998.

"I lived at the shelter that whole winter and worked at day labor," said Kelly, 43, who had found his way to Hagerstown from Arizona in the mid-90s.

That first winter, he met Sherry Hesse, coordinator for the Presbyterian Church of Hagerstown's efforts at the fledgling shelter.

"We started out just providing a warm bed, but with referrals and cases like Charlie, we do more," Hesse said.

When she first met Charlie, she wondered why he was there. She learned he had a college degree and had a professional career in Arizona.

Divorced in 1987, Kelly left Arizona for Texas and then went to Virginia where a friend lived. He became a bartender, a career choice he likened to being a fox in a hen house.

In 1997, Kelly found himself out on the street. Too proud to ask his parents for help, he drifted into Martinsburg, W.Va., where he stayed at the mission there for a time.

"I then hiked to Hagerstown and spent three weeks at the mission here," Kelly said. But then he got a job as a bartender again.

Still unwilling to face his addiction, Kelly said he hit bottom in September 1998 when he got thrown out of the Hagerstown YMCA after a fight.

"After a five-day stay in a detox unit, I went to the shelter," Kelly said.

Although he was still drinking over the winter, Kelly said shelter personnel let him stay there as long as he wasn't disruptive.

Hesse took a special interest in Kelly and continued to work with him when her two-week volunteer stint was up.

"She was persistent but not annoying," Kelly said. "Sherry would listen and she never preached she was just there for me."

Hesse's persistance was challenged one Sunday night in the spring of 1999 after Kelly's drinking buddies once more had to pour him into bed.

"I went downstairs and called Sherry, telling her I needed to go to a detox center right away," Kelly said. "She picked me up and took me to the VA Center in Martinsburg."

A veteran of military service 25 years earlier, Kelly had always avoided the programs that were available for veterans with alcohol problems. But that night, he was running out of options.

Hesse said Kelly drank vodka on the trip to Martinsburg because he knew if he stopped suddenly, he'd get sick.

That turned out to be Kelly's last drink and he remains sober today. "My date of sobriety is May 2, 1999," Kelly said.

Hesse networked with other members of her church and together they continued their work with Kelly. Hesse's husband, Scott, and her children were also there to support him.

"Those people knew that my real problem was that I was spiritually bankrupt," Kelly said.

After the month-long program at the VA, Kelly entered the Wells House in Hagerstown, a halfway house for men who need help with addiction-driven problems.

Now working for BFI in a job he said he really enjoys, Kelly was married Oct. 14 to a woman he met since coming to Hagerstown.

At the shelter, Kelly works as an intervention aide about 20 hours a week. His first night on the job was a sobering experience.

"One of my commitments is to continue to work with the shelter," Kelly said. "I thank God every day that I was treated like a human being there."

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