Goat's milk of human kindness

Addict befriends goats after owners befriend him

July 31, 2008|By Julie Scharper | Julie Scharper,Sun reporter

At night, when Stephen Elliott can't sleep - a consequence of years of shooting heroin - he leaves his mattress in the barn and walks to the pen where five spindly-legged goat kids live. They crowd around him, jostling for a scratch behind the ears, and sometimes Princess and Jasmine settle into his lap. He strokes their heads and thinks about the unlikely journey that brought him here.

After years of drug abuse and months of homelessness, he has found solace, perhaps salvation, among a family of goats. Thanks to them - and their owners - Elliott, 47, has enjoyed his longest period of stability in years.

Since early June, he has lived in a barn behind the Reisterstown home of Deanne Callegary and L.R. Wagner, volunteers at the shelter where he stayed during the winter. He shares meals with the family, helps around the house and tends to two nanny goats and the endlessly inquisitive kids that now prance behind him, nibble his buttons and eat tree branches from his hand. For the first time in years, he actually feels hopeful.

Little did he ponder the consequences when tried heroin at a party 30 years ago. The youngest of seven children raised by a single mother in Hampden, Elliott was bright, but shy and eager to fit in. Afraid to inject himself, he asked a friend to do it.

His squeamishness around needles didn't last long. Soon, he was sticking needles in his veins without a second thought. He was hooked, the pursuit of heroin his sole preoccupation.

"The dope makes your life really simple," he says. "Every day you've got one problem - how to get the dope."

At 23, Elliott married, which, he says, prompted him to quit heroin. He and his wife had a daughter and son and stayed together for 14 years. After they split, Elliott picked up a needle again.

"When I went back, it felt like it had been yesterday," he says.

He says he was a functional addict who managed to work. But he contracted hepatitis-C, spent most of his money on drugs and was far from an ideal father.

After more than a decade, Elliott managed to kick heroin again and began a methadone program. His life appeared to be improving until, he says, a group of kids attacked him on Halloween 2006 and injured his leg. He lost his job and couldn't pay rent. A few days after last Thanksgiving, he was evicted and lost most of his belongings. His son, now 16, went to live with his 21-year-old sister, but there was no room for Elliott. He was homeless.

Some nights, he slept at Heart's Place, a shelter run by St. John's United Methodist Church. Other nights, he sat in shopping center hallways or hunched on a bench in the Wyman Park dell. He noticed dog walkers clutching their bags as they hurried past. For days no one spoke to him.

He couldn't pay to continue the methadone. With the shelter closed for the summer, he suffered through withdrawal outdoors. Thunderstorms left him shaken and damp for days.

By this spring, he was desperate and confided in a couple with whom he had struck up a friendship at St. John's and its shelter.

Callegary and Wagner traveled from their home in Reisterstown to the city church, drawn by its progressive atmosphere and emphasis on social justice. When they volunteered at the shelter, they chatted with Elliott over meals.

Callegary sat near him at church, and they sang together, loud and off-key. When he needed a haircut, she brought scissors to the shelter and trimmed his gray curls.

In late spring, they approached him with an unusual offer: Would he like to sleep in their barn and help out with their goats?

They didn't make the offer blindly. A background check revealed no criminal record. They brought him to their house to make sure that they could trust him around their grandchildren. It was the first time he had been in a home since he lost his own.

Elliott did some checking himself, surveying the barn and the goats. He took to them immediately, the fur that was surprisingly soft, their curious snouts and need for affection.

After the visit, he went back to his bench in the park to think. He was a city boy, he knew nothing about goats. The only time he had even seen goats had been at a petting zoo. But he knew he needed support to deal with methadone withdrawal and to put his life back together. And the couple had always been kind to him.

A few days later he called them: Could they pick him up and take him home?

Callegary and Wagner's property is nearly hidden from the road, tucked between the Reisterstown Post Office and an apartment complex. They have lived there for 29 years, raising three daughters and now two grandchildren in the home. Several trucks and pieces of heavy equipment sit in the yard, vestiges from Wagner's dirt-moving business. Baby swings and toys remain from the day care that Callegary used to run.

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