Friday, April 29, 2016

Steve and Deb LaForge: Partners in a Life of Service

When Steve and Deb LaForge first met, Steve was very involved with Habitat for Humanity.  After they got married in 2007, Deb also got involved with Habitat and together they became project supervisors, helping to direct volunteer groups in the building of new homes.

One of the homes they oversaw belonged to Randall, who had been a participant in Room In The Inn’s recovery program. Randall had actually worked on the construction crew for Room In The Inn’s new facility in 2009 and 2010, saving his earnings to pay for his new home. Other recovery program participants, along with staff members from Room In The Inn, volunteered to help build, under the capable supervision of the LaForges.

On the day of Randall’s house dedication, Steve and Deb had the chance to meet Charles Strobel and others from Room In The Inn. Inspired by the way the Room In The Inn community had come together to support Randall, they wanted to get more involved. Their congregation, Woodmont Christian, was part of Room In The Inn’s winter shelter program. Steve and Deb responded to a plea for overnight hosts. Steve says, “we became an overnight pair and have had many wonderful experiences. We love that this is something we can do together.”

Woodmont Christian is one of Room In The Inn’s “on call” congregations, meaning that in addition to hosting guests on a weekly basis, the congregation often opens its doors on nights that are freezing cold, snowy, or icy. Woodmont’s extra efforts, combined with those of other on call congregations, means fewer or no people turned away from a night of safe shelter. Deb notes the importance of being there for her neighbors who have nowhere else to turn, saying, “I would pray that if I found myself in that situation someone would be there for me, bringing to life ‘do to others as you would have them do to you.’ I know I would not want to find myself out in the cold with no place to go. Because I do have a place to go, I want to share what I can.”

As much as Steve and Deb love serving others themselves, getting other people involved is just as gratifying. They recall inviting a new family with teenage daughters to get involved. The first night these new volunteers served, the church had set up a television to watch football and served barbeque and popcorn. The girls and the guests were divided on who they were cheering for, and as Steve remembers, “it was like having all of your friends over to your house for the big game.”

The LaForges attended last summer’s Second Sunday Series, an educational opportunity for Room In The Inn volunteers. Steve says, “Using the information the staff provided, we have widened our Room In The Inn program to not only serve the gentlemen, but also women and families. We have a better knowledge of the challenges our guests face every day.”

In thinking about the impact of Second Sunday, Deb said, “it was good to learn that there is no one way of hosting and providing for our Room In The Inn guests. Each congregation does it a little differently.

Deb sums up her experience with Room In The Inn by saying “We both have had occasions where we’ve been able to share stories with our guests.  We’ve cried with them, we’ve laughed, we’ve prayed with one another, and each time it’s been a humbling experience. It becomes its own form of addiction and the desire to serve grows each time because you want to hold tight to that feeling.”

Friday, April 8, 2016

Ann & Charles Riddle and Kenny Elliot: Living for Today

by Miranda Buell

Kenny Elliot bought a fifth of vodka on the day he took his last sip of alcohol.

As he was drinking on his couch he began talking to the empty room, planning out his recovery, telling himself he was going to get up and leave, and finally passed out. When he came to, he packed a bag full of dirty clothes and walked to the Guest House at Room In The Inn. He was ready to make a change, but things weren’t easy at first. “When I first came to this place, I thought I had died and went to hell,” Kenny says of his first days. He was hesitant to participate: “I was just there for a bed every night, but I heard something in the meetings that got me listening.” One of the teachers was discussing recovery and Kenny realized he was desperate for whatever that man had. So he started helping out around the Guest House and cleaning, doing whatever he could to keep moving. Working kept him away from the temptation to leave. “As I went on I just got stronger,” he says.

That’s when he met the Riddles. Ann Riddle is Room In The Inn founder Charlie Strobel’s first cousin, and those close familial ties have kept her and her husband, Charles, at the heart of Room In The Inn for many years. Kenny met Ann while she was teaching a computer class and Kenny, in dire need of recovering his drivers’ license after having it revoked after a DUI several years prior, asked Ann for her help. She obliged, and they began studying from the Driver’s Education book together every Tuesday for about a year. But when Kenny went to take the test for the first time it was on a computer; he wasn’t familiar with the format and he failed. So Ann and Kenny began again, this time practicing online. Kenny passed his second attempt with flying colors – he only missed one question. “It was just jubilation,” says Ann of Kenny getting his license.

The Riddles say everything went uphill from there. Kenny became employed at Room In The Inn, took some additional cleaning jobs around town, and continued his journey through recovery. Of his position on campus, he says, “The reason I try to keep this place clean is because I’m clean. Sometimes I’ll see a piece of trash and walk by it, and then think about it and turn right back around and pick it up.” He doesn’t take anything for granted.

And Ann and Charles haven’t just been around to encourage Kenny in his growth; they’ve been there for the challenges as well. Two years ago Kenny had a series of heart attacks and underwent four bypass surgeries. At first, Ann says, he didn’t want to go through with the procedures. But the Riddles told him, “Hey Kenny. It’s just like your truck. If a pipe bursts on your truck you get it fixed.” After he was out of the hospital, the Riddles helped him get settled back into his apartment. They recall him walking through the doorway and looking up at the ceiling: A lightbulb was out. Without hesitation, he walked downstairs to the basement, grabbed what he needed, and came back upstairs to change the lightbulb, all in his first moments home from the hospital.

It is that fierceness, that will to move forward, that sense of pride in his work, which the Riddles find so incredible about Kenny. Ann says, “It’s been [an adventure] in that he keeps going and keeps fighting, and I mean the tenacity is just amazing. He’s very amazing to me. I mean, truly amazing man. If everybody could be like Kenny, we wouldn’t have so much sadness going around.” What could have been a one-off opportunity to help a man in need of a license has turned into a life-long friendship between Kenny and the Riddles. Through his friendship with Ann and Charles, Kenny has come to realize how much people care about him, and how important the small things in life are. “As a kid I wanted everything, but today I just want to live.”

On May 17th Kenny will be teaching a class at Room In The Inn to honor the day that will mark his 6 years of sobriety. And you can bet Ann and Charles Riddle will be sitting front-row, beaming with joy.

From left to right: Charles Riddle, Kenny Elliot, & Ann Riddle

Monday, March 28, 2016

Jack and John: Laughter is the Best Medicine

Jack Lunn and John Grapes
by Jeff Moles

By day, Jack Lunn works in sales, as he has for 37 years. By night, he is a stand-up comedian. As he puts it, “I’ve worked about every comedy gig you could do in my 15 years of doing stand-up. From Zanies, to a psychiatric convention, to doing Elvis impersonation at a corporate conference in Chicago, to driving five hours to perform twenty minutes for free, to working the seediest little bars and hang-outs you can do. It’s all part of the world of stand-up comedy, and I’ve done it.”

However, Jack’s favorite place to share his comedic gifts is Room In The Inn. Since 2010, laughter has been reverberating through the halls of Room In The Inn when “Funnyman Jack” is teaching his comedy class. “My goal is to get laughs early and often, not just from me, but from everybody. I get them to write jokes, tell jokes, brainstorm. I challenge them. They get a chance to perform in the end.”

It is rare to not find John Grapes sitting in Jack’s classroom on a Friday. John has been struggling with homelessness for three years, and takes part in many of the educational opportunities offered at Room In The Inn. Comedy class is his favorite.

John spent years in the music industry. He played drums with such superstars as Eddie Rabbit, Kitty Wells, James Brown, and George Jones. He says, “Music is all I wanted to do since fourth grade, and I made it work.”

Suffering from severe stage fright made performing difficult for John. He turned to drugs and alcohol to numb the anxiety that would overtake him. John got clean thirty years ago, but a physical ailment kept him from continuing with his passion for performing. Looking back, he wishes he would have listened to his father’s advice to finish school, and to have a “plan B” to fall back on.

About John, Jack says, “John self-admittedly has stage fright, one of the big causes he says for picking up some bad habits that were a negative influence in his life. I believe stand-up comedy has hit this problem head on and given John more self-confidence, particularly in front of an audience. Laughter brightens his life.”

Jack says that he knows he can depend on John, something that is reinforced in the community nature of his comedy classes. Community is an active force in his classroom. “My class does a lot of brainstorming and that means all of us pulling together on the same rope. We’re always searching for that killer joke. And by working together, a lot of times we get there. I love it when students laugh and support one another’s material and jokes and performance.”

John says that the encouragement he gets from Jack and his classmates is invaluable. It helps him look his fear of being on stage head on. Every few months, Jack and his students present a comedy showcase in Room In The Inn’s Clancey’s CafĂ©. Jack is constantly looking for new student comedians to perform, and also relies on his regular class members like John.

In John’s words, “I like to share my comedy because it lets people get away from themselves for a few minutes. They don’t dwell on how miserable they are, and they don’t have to use drugs and alcohol to escape. Jokes get people away from the cold, cruel world.”

John says that after he finishes his time on stage it’s like a tremendous weight is lifted off his shoulders. His teacher Jack says, “I don’t know where John is headed, but I hope he gets there. He makes me laugh, early and often. We’re close to the same age and we have a lot of similar likes and interests. So we connect as a couple of friends cuttin’ up and moving through this thing called life. I wish John happiness, clarity, direction, and determination to find his way…wherever his heart desires.”

Friday, March 25, 2016

Melvin and Carl: Watching One Another Win

by Jeff Moles

Melvin Scates and Carl Lillard have been traveling the same path; where they’ve been and where they are going. However, the biggest difference for the two is all in the timing of their journey.

Melvin and Carl met thirty years ago at the Nashville Rescue Mission, where they were both staying. The two became fast friends, working together, and getting high together. Because of his violent behavior, Melvin often found himself kicked out of shelters and other places. When Melvin couldn’t get help, Carl would make sure to bring him food and be sure he was taken care of.

About 15 years ago, Melvin turned his life around. He found God, got involved in church, got married, bought a house, and eventually became a member of the staff at Room In The Inn, where he serves as a care coordinator at the Guest House, a place of recovery for those with addiction issues. Carl says he remembers hearing about Melvin’s turn around, and, laughing, simply says “I didn’t believe it.”

While Melvin’s life looked completely different, Carl’s life continued in struggle with chronic homelessness, addiction, and life on the streets. In June 2015, however, Carl entered the Guest House, where his friend Melvin works. Carl completed a 30-day recovery program, and has spent time working on his sobriety. His goal is to get his life back, get clean, and develop a better relationship with his family. Another Room In The Inn staff member talked to Carl one day when he was drunk and encouraged him to look for a better life. Melvin says, “I’m so glad somebody took the initiative to talk to him. He had to be the one to do it, though.”

“It’s his season. It’s his time now,” said Melvin, “I’ve seen him come from one end to the other. He’s always been a part of me. Helping him is helping me. I’m watching him win.”

One of the lessons Melvin tries to impart on people who come to the Guest House for recovery is to take advantage of the help others offer. “When somebody puts their hand out to help, grab it,” he says.

Now Carl has joined Melvin in offering help to others. Carl has taken the lead in offering hospitality to guests who are often intoxicated and difficult to care for. The two men share a bond from living on the streets with one another that makes their working relationship special. They have a direct understanding of the suffering and pain of addiction, but also the great freedom of sobriety. They each credit the other with teaching the lesson of patience. Carl says, “You have to see the good things that are coming. You’ve got to be patient. Slow down and wait.”

Melvin and Carl’s eyes light up when they think about the work that is still in front of them. They look forward to inspiring others they know to start the journey of recovery. Melvin says, “I just thank God for looking over both of us. There will be more.”