It’s a fine line that separates his Service from his Need

Eric Webster says he would not presume to know the life circumstances that bring guests to Lazarus House for help with food, shelter or clothing, but it is certain that very few of our volunteers share his life story of knowing first-hand the support that is offered.

Webster, 49, one of six children, remembers “growing up in rough Lawrence neighborhoods,” relying on food pantries, and at one point in his childhood, turning to the Lazarus House shelter. “We had to move into a shelter because we had been evicted,” said Webster. “I felt sad that I was living in a shelter, but I knew we were out of the cold. I knew they would help us.” During that time Eric was forced to quit high school at 16, a special needs student and a victim of bullies, though few who meet him would ever know its impact and how precarious and challenging his life has been.

He tells of year after year when he and his family were continually one step away from losing their housing, but a quiet modesty leads him to tell of a difficult life story with a refreshingly upbeat attitude. In fact, nearing middle age, he is able to live on his own for just the second time, and he was laid off from security work when a plant closed last Thanksgiving Eve.

“Losing that job put a lot of pressure on him,” said Ken Campbell, who runs the Lazarus House Food Pantry and stills helps him with food and necessities. “However, he always seems positive and does not focus on limitations.”

Webster has been volunteering at Lazarus House, which he calls “my second family,” for 23 years in the food pantry, thrift shop and shelter. Because he continues to receive assistance, one quickly realizes just how fine the line is that separates him from those who wait for weekly food distribution.

“As a child, I went to a food pantry with my mother,” said Webster. “I don’t know what our guests are feeling. I don’t know what they are thinking, but I know what I was thinking. I was fairly embarrassed – so I smile, say hello and try to make our guests feel welcome.”

When he sees people on the streets who are hungry, he tells them about the Lazarus House Soup Kitchen. When meets those needing food, he tells them about the food pantry.

“He is very well-liked and respected around the city,” said Campbell.

While others might want to try to turn the page after what he humbly downplays as “my struggles,” he says he feels a debt to Lazarus House that keeps him coming back week after week.

“I like being here. I like giving back,” he said. “It’s the people. Our guests, the volunteers, but mostly our guests. It’s their smiles.”

Finding the Light: Debt to Lazarus House Repaid

Jon Harkings

Jon Harkings spent many years living in the dark world of addiction, disease and loneliness.

Heroin hooked him, his girlfriend abandoned him, and infection nearly killed him.  He has learned both the hardest and most-heartwarming lessons about life.

“I have had to hunt through that darkness to find the light,” said Harkings, 40, who often returns to Lawrence to remind himself both of his past and the role Lazarus House played in his recovery.

And most recently, he was there to literally repay the generosity of the Lazarus House staff.

“I had never used the needle before, until I met my (now) ex-fiancée,” Harkings said.  “She was a recovering heroin addict and I fell in love.  I felt the only way to get closer to her was to try it.  And I regretted it.”

When the two came to Lazarus House two years ago they needed food, clothing, personal items and kindness. They also needed money for a need likely unusual for the Guests we serve.

“In our mind we wanted to have a baby, even though we were addicts and we really had nothing,” Harkings said. “We wanted a child, but my blood type is O-negative and hers is O-positive.”  They came to Lazarus House for food, personal care items and hoping to get the $20 needed for a medication that would protect the baby from what is called Rh incompatibility.

“They are just big-hearted and warm people and it didn’t matter the condition we walked in with or why we were there,” Harkings said.

“I gave them clothing, showers and meals,” said Community Resource Specialist Miguel Cruz.  And for the sake of an innocent child, Cruz reached into his pocket and gave the $20 with few questions asked.

But there is no quick, simple end to addiction.  Like many, he found himself near the bottom when he first came to Lazarus House, and for a time he only descended further into what he calls “last place.”

His fiancée became pregnant but had a miscarriage.  Their relationship fell apart and, in a fight, he said, she stabbed him with a needle. The resulting abscess brought him near death.

Jon Harkings

“They were giving me last rites,” Harkings said. “She called me and said I am never coming back.  I burst into tears.  Nobody was there for me.  I know what loneliness is.”

It took time until, as he puts it, “I lit a fire under my rear.”  He eventually returned to Lazarus House and began the slow journey toward sobriety.

“I steered him in the direction of a recovery center, got him into a shelter and gave him a lead on a job possibility,” said Cruz.

Today Harkings is sober, employed and has a bank account.  He also has a need to repay.

“He had a day off and did not know what to do with his time,” said Cruz.  “He thought ‘Why not visit someone who gave him a helping hand.’ He said that was me.”

“He went into his wallet and said, ‘Here is the $20 we borrowed.’  He shook my hand three times and said, ‘Thank you, you saved my life’.”

That is why Harkings felt the need to show up and pay back.

“We are supposed to be kind to each other,” Harkings said.  “And it’s not always there.  Kindness is hard to find, but it is out there.” It’s at Lazarus House.