Clean, sober and now a mentor

maryland scenes

Will Thomas has moved from homelessness and addiction to the staff at Paul's Place

December 28, 2008|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,scott.calvert@baltsun.com

It's not easy waiting in line outside in the rain or snow or cold, trying to get some services. I understand how it is to be treated with no respect because you look a certain way. I also understand there's hope. If I can change my life, I believe anybody can.

-- Will Thomas, staff member, Paul's Place outreach center, Southwest Baltimore

A cold rain is falling in Pigtown, a forever-poor part of Southwest Baltimore where recessions don't come and go; they just lessen and worsen. From the lunchroom at Paul's Place outreach center, huddled forms are visible on Ward Street - men and women trying to stay dry until the doors open for a free meal of beef-and-rice casserole.

Lunch is a ways off yet. The only folks in the room are a dozen volunteers called "ambassadors." Some have battled addiction; some cope with mental disability. In return for Safeway gift cards and the like, they help out at the nonprofit center. It's a way for them to do good, feel good, fill the hours and gain skills toward a possible paying job.

Will Thomas stands before them, a soft-spoken 50-year-old with a towering presence. A solid 6-foot-9, he still bears some resemblance to the college hoops player he once was, before his slide turned him into a homeless crackhead. More than anyone, he keeps Paul's Place humming.

On this wet morning, he's been lending a hand to Regina Sykes, 47, the Paul's Place receptionist. She is undergoing care for lung cancer but has no car, so Thomas picks her up at the University of Maryland Medical Center after her treatment.

In a hallway off the lunchroom, she confides that Thomas was the first person she told of her diagnosis. And he told her: "Anything I can do for you, I'll be there." She tears up at the memory. "Without him," she says, "I really wouldn't have anybody to do this."

Thomas, who is the ambassador volunteer coordinator, announces that it's time for the daily readings. Up walks Dolly Miller, clean nine months now. "I am my most important critic," she begins, aided by Thomas when a word like "opinion" trips her up. Miller, 50, counts on his support in other ways as well: He sponsors her at Narcotics Anonymous meetings.

"Who I see in my imagination will always rule my world," she concludes. "The powerful image I create will be the image I project."

"Good job," Thomas says quietly as the others erupt in applause and cheers. "Hey, Dolly," shouts one fellow ambassador, "you did it!"

I was 17 when I first started using illegal drugs. ... In my household, drinking was a big part of manhood. Most of the men in my family died young. They worked hard, played hard, drank hard . ...

In California [after college in the early 1980s] one of my first jobs was working at a Union Square parking garage. I would get tipped by a rich guy. I don't know how much cocaine . ... I was still manageable at that point, able to work. But it wasn't until I experimented with crack that my life took a fast downward spiral.

After the readings, Thomas introduces the group to a bubbly young woman, Keisha Friday. She has stopped by to tell Thomas she's graduating from Bowie State with a biology degree. Her mom volunteered at Paul's Place, which is how she met Thomas, a mainstay at the center since 1996.

In her freshman year, Friday couldn't afford all her books. When Thomas heard, he and Paul's Place executive director Bill McLennan got her $400 to buy the books and catch up on her studies.

"I'm proud of you, girl; I know it wasn't easy," Thomas says, and she smiles, clearly proud but embarrassed by the unexpected public praise.

I moved to Baltimore [in 1988], trying to start my life over. ... I stayed drug-free for a while, got a job and was able to function. Eventually I started using again. It got really out of control where I became homeless, living that lifestyle a lot of people in Paul's Place live. I was in a shelter, I was in soup kitchens, depending on social programs to survive day to day. ... I just decided I couldn't stop using. I might as well quit lying to myself and be the crackhead I thought I was.

One day they had a job fair. ... They asked me, did I want to get some help with my addiction. So they pointed me in the direction of South Baltimore Station. That was in March 1994. ... One of the counselors at the time told me I had a spiritual sickness and the only antidote for that sickness was humility.

Thomas has a short commute from the Sharp-Leadenhall neighborhood. He remarried in 2000, and lives there with his wife, Betty, a community activist he met while chasing and attaining sobriety in 1994. The two make a point of having dinner together because they're so often on the go. Thomas not only works full time at Paul's Place but has a second job as overnight manager of a group home. He jokes that he's tight with Starbucks.

Addiction is a tricky disease, man. ... If you don't do the things that helped you get better, you'll get sick again. I try to remain humble, try to remain teachable, and try to help people.

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