Today is November 10. Tomorrow is November 11. Today is the day before Veterans Day. Tomorrow is Veterans Day, the celebration of which began, when it was called Armistice Day, at the end of the First World War, at 11:11 a.m. on 11/11/17. Notice all the ones there? Armistice Day morphed into Veterans Day, so that instead of celebrating the end of the war to end all wars, we recognize the service of all veterans, who had prepared to fight the wars after war had been ended. But I digress.
Tomorrow is Veterans Day—in reality not in closed banks and post offices—making it the date of the Third Annual Liberty House Veterans Day Breakfast, this time at the Radisson in downtown Manchester, NH. Liberty House is a nonprofit that provides housing in a clean and sober environment for 10 formerly homeless veterans. Just as important, it provides food and clothing to about a hundred folks a week, veterans and nonveterans alike. Anyone who comes to Liberty House’s door is welcome to receive food, blankets, sleeping bags, tents, cold weather supplies and clothing. No records are kept, so people in need don’t need to worry about their names getting out. It is, honestly, the best example I know of making real Jesus’ injunction to take care of the least of these. If you’re free Veterans Day at 8 a.m., please go to the Radisson. If the breakfast is sold out, just make a donation to Liberty House—a place where human need is met.
Liberty House has a place in my heart as a formerly homeless veteran. Liberty House has a place in my heart as a recovering alcoholic, Liberty House has a place in my heart as a person who’s had to rely on food pantries for food—and had to live with the shame of seeing my name released. Most of all, as former director, Liberty House has a place in my heart.
For a bit more than five years, I ran Liberty House, resigning with the op-ed reprinted below. Today, Liberty House is run by Jeff Nelson, a smart, pragmatic and traditional leader. (At least two of those words have never been applied to me.) I am certain he will continue the tradition of supporting sobriety among residents, helping them to move back into the mainstream as quickly as possible so another veteran can take or her bed, and feeding and clothing anyone in need. I am also certain you will support Liberty House.
Reprinted from the Manchester Union-Leader (2/28/17)
Leaving a Job I Love by Keith Howard
A few weeks ago, I had an awakening. This revelation was not like Babe Ruth’s when he recognized that pitching 40 games a season wasn’t as rewarding as hitting and playing the outfield in 154 games. It wasn’t even up to the level of recognizing salt on caramel makes it tastier and unhealthier in a brand-new direction.
No, my revelation was simple. I was married to a job and father to 10 formerly homeless veterans.
I’ve been executive director of Liberty House for five years now. We’ve re-created Liberty House, transforming from an organization with a less-than-stellar reputation to a respected and regarded nonprofit. A partial list of what we’ve accomplished:
• Doubled our previous financial high, and more than tripled the donations of five years ago.
• Increased the resident success rate from 35 percent to 74 percent.
• Turned down all government funding, leading to the financial gains.
• Spearheaded an experiment in alternative housing, transforming an enclosed cargo trailer into livable space, a home in which my dog and I lived for a year.
• Repaired severed relationships with the Manchester Continuum of Care, the Veterans Administration and the nonprofit community as a whole.
• Brought all staff salaries to within hailing distance of median income at nonprofits.
We’ve achieved a lot. Liberty House is prepared for the future, a future that calls for a talented and dedicated board, a hard-working and creative staff and, perhaps, a pragmatic manager to guide this newly mid-sized organization. I am not that pragmatic manager. Now that I’ve led Liberty House through the desert, it is time for me to be replaced by someone down to earth, realistic and focused. As Dirty Harry taught us, “A man’s got to know his limitations.” I’m not the man to organize a village when the world has new hilltops to gaze over.
In light of the above, I’ve submitted my resignation effective Sept. 1. For the remaining six months of my tenure, I will work hard cementing Liberty House’s success, helping identify my successor and representing our organization. The past five years have been among the most rewarding of my life, and I am glad for the opportunity to have led Liberty House. A wise man told me, “The future is a big place,” so it may be our paths will cross again; regardless, my experience here has been positive, educational and fun.
So, why am I ready to move on and find a new challenge?
I’ve always been a writer, although not necessarily a successful one, with lots of essays published, three novels unpublished and a boxful of poetry. Thirteen years ago, I took nine months off from working and wrote two novels. If I hadn’t spent as much time drinking as I did writing, I might well have sold one of those novels and continued writing. Instead of switching careers to writing, though, I became a drunk and ended up another homeless drunk vet.
Luckily, I had a moment of clarity, got sober and began the journey to where I am today: a successful executive director of a growing nonprofit, respected by most and even adored by some. Still, that itch remains, the itch to write, to have my words be read by a larger audience. So, beginning in September, I will be writer-in-residence at Warriors at 45 North, a fine nonprofit in Pittsburg, about 15 miles from the Canadian border.
For the following year, I’ll be living in a 6-by-10-foot trailer specially designed for writing, eating, sleeping and living in the Great North Woods. Since 45 North is an outdoors retreat center for veterans, I’ll offer writing workshops for any visitors, write a book or two, walk my dog and clear my head. If the writing goes well, I may continue at 45 North or elsewhere. If it doesn’t? I am certain I’ll be found by another nonprofit needing a visionary and quirky leader with an ability to stir things up, get publicity and raise money.
Getting sober made all this possible. When I speak about Liberty House, I almost always quote Lou Gehrig’s retirement speech: “Today I feel like the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” That fountain of gratitude will flow in a different role on the same planet and an ongoing desire to see what’s over the next hilltop — now literally as well as metaphorically.