November 30, 2018

On the comeback trail: Catholic couple and former homeless man make strides to change lives on the street

A running program designed to help the homeless transform their lives has connected Whitney Hamilton, center, with Tom and Deb Gardner, members of St. Pius X Parish in Indianapolis, leading them all to a deeper relationship with God. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

A running program designed to help the homeless transform their lives has connected Whitney Hamilton, center, with Tom and Deb Gardner, members of St. Pius X Parish in Indianapolis, leading them all to a deeper relationship with God. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

For 67 days this past summer, Tom and Deb Gardner rode their bikes across the country, traveling more than 4,000 miles from the state of Washington to Maine.

The husband and wife, both 59 and members of St. Pius X Parish in Indianapolis, have also run marathons—a distance of 26.2 miles—in each of the 50 states.

Yet as the Gardners sit next to their friend Whitney Hamilton and listen to the details of his life story, they know in their hearts that he has traveled much farther and endured much more than them.

Now 63, Hamilton ran down the long, dark road of drug and alcohol addiction for about 30 years. It’s a path that even led him to thoughts of suicide before he took the first challenging steps to put his dead-end existence behind him.

It all leads to a story of restoration—the restoration of hope, faith and a sense of family that connects Hamilton, the Gardners and others who are seeking something deeper, something more from their lives.

‘Jump in, and God will do the rest’

The story has its beginnings in early 2011, a time when Tom Gardner prayed every morning to find a way to connect his consulting and staffing business with an organization that promotes healthy living in the Indianapolis area. A short time later, he received an e-mail from the store where he and Deb buy their running shoes.

“The e-mail came out of the blue,” Tom says, recalling how the note mentioned that an Indianapolis chapter of a national, non-profit organization was just starting.

The organization, Back On My Feet, tries to help the homeless reclaim their lives through “the power of running, community support and essential employment and housing resources.”

“God led me to this organization,” Tom says.

He and Deb were intrigued by how the organization uses running to try to transform the lives of people who are homeless. They were soon coming to downtown Indianapolis four days a week at 5:45 in the morning, walking and running with homeless people who hadn’t been involved in physical activity for years.

“I’ll never forget the first day,” Tom says. “There’s this guy, Ron. He doesn’t like being around anybody. I asked him when the last time he ran. He said, ‘Thirty years ago, in boot camp.’ I started building a relationship with him. Three months later, Ron ran a half-marathon. He lost 35 pounds, and he was a completely different person.”

Deb adds, “It’s more than just the running. It’s about the relationships. You just jump in, and God will do the rest.”

At the time, Hamilton’s relationship with God and others was at a far more desperate point.

‘I’ll be forever grateful for that’

“I was an alcoholic, a drug addict,” Hamilton recalls. “I kept trying to find ways out, but I kept going back. Everything I owned was on my back or in a small bag. My family had disowned me. I was a hot mess. The only person who didn’t give up on me was God.”

That belief gave Hamilton enough strength to resist the thought that suicide would end his addictions and his problems.

“Never give up because you never know the next day when God will bring you out of it,” he says. “Sure enough, that day came for me.”

It came in 2014 when he was connected to Wheeler Mission in Indianapolis.

“People talked about Back On My Feet. I said, ‘That’s what I’m trying to do.’ They said it was about exercise. I thought it would be healthy. When I started going, I had fun. And the people were cheering me on. I got addicted to that instead of drugs and alcohol.”

He began the program by walking. Soon, he was running two miles. The distances he ran continued to increase, eventually leading him to earn medals in the races he finished, including half‑marathons of 13.1 miles.

“I just wanted to do it because it seemed that everything else in my life I had never finished. And I wanted to finish something. When I did, it was a sense of accomplishment.”

Still, that sense of accomplishment didn’t match the powerful emotions that came when his transformation led to the beginning of his reconciliation with his family.

“Before I became clean, my son Whitney Jr. wouldn’t let me take my grandson across the street.”

Yet when Hamilton won a contest to go to Disney World in Florida to run a 5-kilometer race, Whitney Jr. let his father take Whitney III—Hamilton’s 5-year-old grandson at the time—with him.

“I’ll be forever grateful for that,” Hamilton says. “Medals are not as good as being connected with family.”

‘It all helps’

Hamilton’s definition of family now extends to the volunteers and staff members of Back On My Feet who have been there for him, including the Gardners.

“Seeing people treat you as an everyday person, an individual; saying ‘good morning’ to you or telling you a joke—it all helps,” he says. “And they stay connected. If they don’t see you, they come looking for you. That helps, too. These people are real. They’re concerned about your welfare. They want you to make it. It’s like a family.”

The Gardners have experienced that same sense of family so deeply that they used their cross-country bike trip this past summer to raise funds for Back On My Feet and another effort that helps people in vulnerable situations—the St. Vincent de Paul Society food pantry in Indianapolis. The couple volunteers there, too.

“It’s wonderful to connect with people with very different life experiences,” Deb says. “It’s helped me understand that homeless people aren’t scary or dangerous.”

Her experience in checking in people at the food pantry has also left its mark on her.

“They definitely need help,” she says. “When they hand me their photo ID and their shopping card, every single hand I touch means something to me.”

She shows that same warmth toward Hamilton when he talks about the transformation of his life.

“I’m amazed at what he’s done,” she says. “I love the way he truly relies on God for restoring his life.”

‘God is using them’

One of Hamilton’s favorite parts of participating in the Back On My Feet program is that each running session begins and ends with the group in a circle saying the “Serenity Prayer”:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

“I believe in prayer,” Hamilton says.

He believes it has helped him reconcile with his two sons.

He believes it has helped him turn around his life—to live in the house he rents, and to work with Whitney Jr. in their business of selling and repairing cars.

He believes it has motivated him to be there for others who are in the same situation as he once was.

“You know everybody you meet isn’t going to make it,” he says. “We’ve had members die. But if you help just one.”

He then shares the story of someone he has helped, Gary.

“He said, ‘I see what you’re doing and what you got.’ He made me tighten up my game. He grabbed ahold of it, and he’s doing great now.”

So is Hamilton. Still, he’s learned to not to take anything for granted, especially the presence of God in his life.

“I look at my life now and say, ‘How did this happen?’ It’s only been four years. I can’t say how God does things. It’s in his time.”

Hamilton looks at the Gardners and thinks of the other people who have touched his life in the past four years, even in small ways.

“God is using them. It doesn’t hurt you to help somebody. It doesn’t have to be monetary. A smile can go a long way. They’ve heeded the calling for their life. It’s made me do the same thing.” †

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