The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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October 21, 2012

A nice day for starting over

She’s beginning at the beginning.

 A woman sits crying on the porch of the Storm Haven shelter on Croft Street in downtown Beckley, comforting herself with a cigarette.

She is overwhelmed at trying to pick up the pieces from a felony drug charge. Employers stop reading her application at the conviction disclosure, trapping her back at “go” on the pathway to a new start. While she may be stone cold clean now, her past is a powerful poltergeist.

At least she’s not alone. There are six women at the shelter this day, a house shared by all where the tenants are received without judgment, but expected to make their own way. Storm Haven Inc. is a shelter from tempests of bad choices and resulting circumstances. The captain at the helm of the ship tossed to and fro is Board Treasurer Sharon Muncy.

“She ripped us off before,” Muncy is heard saying, talking on the phone to an agency attempting a referral for another woman who had stayed previously at the shelter, but who secured a job and skipped off without paying. Storm Haven provides room, board, food, laundry and a host of additional necessities for $300 per month, once residents have a job and can pull their own weight. Still, it’s on the honor system and some have forgotten their honor.

Women and men who come to each of the separate-sex shelters (the men’s facility is located on Burmeister Avenue, Raleigh) are offered a supportive 12-Step program environment and the essentials for starting over.

“We don’t kick people out, but we do expect them to pay their way when they get a job,” relates Muncy. Of the six residing in the women’s house at the time, only three are able to pay rent.

Muncy possesses a limitless capacity for compassion toward recovering addicts and alcoholics. She admits her powerlessness to believing every story and a weakness for finding herself wrapped around the finger of an addict or alcoholic. She was not in as dire circumstances as those she now supports, but she considers herself no better for it. A rental property owner, Muncy is also a recovering alcoholic, 21 years sober.

“None of us take a salary here. We are all volunteers.” Drunks leading drunks, she likes to joke. Laughing is important. Sometimes, it is the only relief on those initial laps toward reaching sobriety, a journey where miles are measured in days and days turn slowly into years.

Many times, when the money to help with room and board doesn’t come in, Muncy reaches into her own pocket. Any benefits to her are returned in intangible currency.

“The thing that works is, if you are of service to other people, you keep yourself sober.”

Reflecting on her experience, Muncy calls herself “a good little alcoholic who came in at 7 a.m. (to work) and went home at 8 p.m.” and who tried to get out of the parking lot without throwing up from withdrawal.

“I could do that in my 20s,” she states. “But by the time I was in my 40s, I couldn’t drink half a bottle of wine without the room spinning.”

The only way she felt her life had any purpose, like she could do something, was “after a few glasses and a couple of shots.”

Lee Brice provides background music on CMT from the television in the ladies’ temporary living room. The lyrics ring true for the moment. “I’m hard to love, hard to love. I don’t make it easy.”

Each is expecting a return call from a potential employer, or a family member who wants to help, anything and anyone who might take into consideration the people they were before the wheels fell off. It’s a tenuous time.

No jobs. No support from the system, Muncy explains. “Sex offenders can get food stamps, but not a convicted drug felon.”

Her modest kingdom for a van.

Muncy sits at a new dining room table donated to the women’s shelter by the Beckley Chapter of Quota International. The local Rotary Club also provided computers, essential to job searches and other resources for the women and men. A van or other passenger vehicle would be like hitting the lottery to the group right now, the ability to transport the men and women to and from work and doctor’s appointments until they become solidly independent.

One man housed at the men’s shelter is refurbishing bikes for transportation. Small beginnings.

Birth certificate. Driver’s license. Food stamps, if available. A job would be better. The checklist for the first 10 days of being sober seems trivial to the settled, near insurmountable to the recovering.

“You’ll find an inroad. You’ll get back to your field and then you can petition the board to get your license back.” Muncy voices encouragement to a former respiratory therapist down on her luck. A drug conviction stole her career.

There are silver linings to even the darkest clouds. One man Muncy tells of lived for two or three years under bridges, just walking up and down the railroad tracks. Today, he has a family and owns his own business.

At the old white and hulking Black Knight Country Club in Raleigh, where the success story once stayed, two men also wait inside for their new beginnings, part of the 15 total current residents between the main building and an adjacent one called the Serenity House.

The men help take care of their shelters in the form of minor repairs, but there are blaring needs: a crumbling awning, old gutters and windows and a furnace installed by a former resident back in the ‘90s.

Muncy explains Storm Haven founder Doug Stanley, many years sober, established the organization in 1995 and bought the building as the first shelter, which originally housed men and women together.

“They were hooking up everywhere,” admits Muncy, recalling a steep learning curve.

“Doug would take in any stray puppy,” she recalls, remembering a time when he would literally carry people in off the streets to help them.

The two residents present are young, each in their 20s. One is working and another is attending college. The building is quiet on this afternoon, emptied of the other males, all of whom are out working. They are taking steps toward a promotion to sanity, free from alcohol and drugs, where things like saving up to get a car and getting a degree supplant any good to be imagined in a chemically-altered reality.

“Every day I want to stay sober,” says one, who was just released from prison for a drunken spree in which he stole a car — his first of any recorded offense. “I want to be a hotel manager,” he explains. “If I could go back and change anything, it would be my choices.”

“Three out of every 100 make it,” a statistic that haunts Muncy but doesn’t deter her. She and others like her do it because it has to be done, because someone did it for them and because there are no bad investments in humanity.

“I’m getting tougher, but I believe these people when they say they love me. I spent most of my life telling people I loved them when I didn’t mean it,” she says. “I’m not going to do that anymore.”

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