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December 3, 2004
His dark clouds part, thanks to The Doe Fund

by Clem Richardson
Keli Medlock last week celebrated a very special Thanksgiving.

He piled onto a chartered bus with his four children and dozens of relatives and headed into the Poconos, where they shared a huge holiday feast.

It was Medlock's first holiday with the family in some time, one the 38-year-old enjoyed courtesy of the Peter Jay Sharp Center for Opportunity in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and the Doe Fund.

Medlock spent years on the street and years in prison, propelled into each by drugs and personal traumas - he left his father just minutes before his dad suffered a fatal stroke.

But now Medlock is on the straight and narrow. Living at the Sharp Center, he has worked his way up through the kitchen staff there until he is now one of its managers.

"I know that there is a higher power out there that brought me to the Doe Fund," he said. "For a long time, I did everything I could to put my life at risk. I know someone was watching over me, something larger than me, that brought me here."

It was a long road.

Medlock grew up in Jamaica, Queens, with his parents, Willie, a truck driver, and Lena, a keypunch operator, and his brother, Willie Jr. He attended Public School 121, Marie Curie Middle School and Hillcrest High School.

Hanging out with an older crowd of cool guys, Medlock began smoking marijuana at 15 and graduated to angel dust at 18. Shortly thereafter, he was in trouble with the law.

The charge was attempted robbery. Medlock said he barely remembers the incident. "I was so high at the time, I didn't even remember it," he said. "First thing I remember was when I woke up in the holding cell in the precinct."

The charge was robbery, and in one of those stupid crime twists, the man he robbed was holding drugs when the cops came and ended up in the holding cell with him.

Medlock got a year on Rikers Island. That was in 1986. Released to a drug program, he did another 36 months at Phoenix House.

It was not time well spent, but not because of the program.

"I was 18, and they sent me to an adult facility," Medlock said. "I was not very comfortable. I didn't really want to be around anyone. I got in trouble all the time."

Medlock says he now realizes he had built a wall around himself and would not let anyone in. That is, until a counselor took a personal interest in him, on occasion letting him chauffeur her to meetings around town.

"I started to listen to what she had to say," Medlock said. "I started getting myself together."

Released in 1989, Medlock was doing well until his father's death in 1991. The two had been deep in conversation before jumping into their respective cars and heading away from the family home.

"I got to the corner and turned left, he turned right," Medlock said. "He had a stroke two blocks away."

"There were so many things I wanted to say to him that I never got to say," Medlock said. "My life was turned upside down."

This time Medlock took to the bottle. Counselors would say he was self-medicating. Either way, he noticed he could joke and have fun with his kids only when he had been drinking, and was standoffish when he wasn't.

Though he worked, he never held a job for long. In 1991, he married his high-school sweetheart, but the relationship fell apart despite a move to the Poconos in an attempt to get away from the evils of the city.

By 1996 they had split, sending two pairs of kids to live with their respective grandmothers. That same year, Medlock ended up back in prison; this time it was a two-year stint for selling crack.

Released in 1998, Medlock realized he had a problem and started making the rounds of treatment programs. "I felt totally responsible for what had happened to me and my family," he said. "I saw how I was living. I knew I had to change my life."

He was in another program when someone told him he would be a good candidate for the Doe Fund.

He entered the program in September 2003, and has been clean since. "The people here help you deal with your addiction," he said. "They care about you."

After starting as a dishwasher in the kitchen, he's now on staff there, saving his salary and trying to find a place of his own.

"Within the last 14 months, my life has changed," Medlock said. "I don't know where I would be today without the Doe Fund."

Since 1985, the Doe Fund has operated myriad paid-work programs designed to give homeless people an incentive to take responsibility for themselves and become reestablished in mainstream society.

One of the most visible and successful of the programs is Ready Willing & Able. Started in 1990, the program provides homeless people with paid work while they live in transitional, drug-free housing operated by The Doe Fund. They undergo drug treatment, take life-skills and job-training courses and learn to manage their money, all within a unified system at a Doe facility.

Part of their salary goes toward their living accommodations, and another portion goes into savings. When they are ready, participants get assistance in their job search. All graduates are required to have secured a job and permanent housing in advance of graduation.

The Ready Willing & Able model has proven very successful. One year after graduation, 64% of program graduates remain housed, employed and drug-free. It is different from others in that all the components of the program - drug testing, drug treatment, housing, job training and life-skills training - are streamlined into the fund's own facilities.

While living in a Doe Fund facility, participants voluntarily submit to drug tests, sometimes administered unannounced.

"When I first started this, people told me that paying our trainees wouldn't work," says George McDonald, founder of The Doe Fund. "They thought that giving money to recovering drug addicts would be like handing them a bag of crack. But we've now had 1,700 people successfully complete the program and move on to permanent housing and full-time employment, so we're doing pretty well."

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