Jim Martin has been helping the homeless, addicted and otherwise indigent in Sussex County for eight years.
"I had a whole life before this, though" he said, "And it chewed me up and spit me out."
Martin's past life began outside of Philadelphia, where he grew up in a loving home. He later married and moved to Montgomery County, Pa., where he and his first wife had three children and spent 20 years together. Martin served as a commissioner in Upper Moreland Township for several years. On paper, his life looked good, but the train was about to derail.
"I basically became Mr. Mom, a stay-at-home dad," he said. That didn't sit well with him psychologically. "I started feeling really vulnerable. My wife owned the house, so she always had the upper hand. I just became this really weak person, and I started drinking."
Martin's wife eventually kicked him out and divorced him, leaving him with a child support bill of more than $2,000 per month that he's still paying off. Being a town commissioner put Martin in the public eye and added to the pressure that was building up. Losing face in the community, owing thousands of dollars, and feeling like he had no control over his alcoholism was all too much. He suffered a psychotic break in 2008 and ended up on the streets of Wilmington, shelter-hopping.
"I didn't want to go into the psychiatric system, I mean, who does? It's a scary place," he said. "So I self-medicated with alcohol. I wanted to be there for my kids, but I felt completely powerless. I wanted to kill myself, but I didn't have anything to do it with. I was completely isolated and very lonely."
However, in Wilmington, with winter looming, Martin was finally able to put down the alcohol - Sept. 2, 2008, specifically.
"I was approved for a 30-day stay at a men's shelter, provided I stayed sober and did my chores. It was getting cold and I didn't want to lose my bed," he said, and for those 30 days, he managed to remain sober.
After that, he took a bus south, where he was given a bed at a Sussex County homeless shelter for another 30 days. He spent some time in a tent near Route 1 and Old Landing Road in Rehoboth, where he was fed by Jusst Sooup Ministries.
"I continued to fight for my sobriety. I was attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and eventually, I was accepted into an Oxford House in Lewes," Martin said.
Oxford Houses are democratically-run and self-supporting sober-living homes; there are thousands of them across the country. At the Lewes Oxford House, Martin fell in with several other men, also recovering addicts, and quickly felt less isolated.
"And I had a place to sleep," he said, "That's key. When you're living outside you don't sleep. Even when you think you're sleeping you're not. You're always scared and your brain can't go into REM," he said, referring to rapid eye movement sleep, which is vital for human health. "My brain started to heal. I started paying attention to what I was eating and drinking a lot of water. Things started falling into place."
Martin got a job as a receptionist at an insurance company in Dagsboro and excelled.
"I wanted to get licensed and start selling insurance," he said, "But I'm living in this Oxford House and I just thought it was so awesome."
The concept of the Oxford House perplexed Martin, who had done some municipal planning in his time as a politician.
"I said, 'Why aren't the neighbors out here raising a fuss?' No one wants a halfway house in their neighborhood," recalled Martin. "But I had been in charge of municipal planning back in Pennsylvania for a while, and I knew about the Fair Housing Act."
The Supreme Court ruled in 1995 that Oxford Houses are protected under the Fair Housing Act, meaning a non-staffed sober living home, classified as a single family home, could not be discriminated against.
"I decided I wanted to replicate that house. I wanted to start my own. I didn't have a lot of support at first, but eventually I met a guy who had a few bucks and a house in Lewes. I told him I was a recovering alcoholic and I had this vision, and he believed in me. I started moving people in and after six months we had all our bills paid and $4,000 in the bank."
Martin's bank account, however, was still empty.
"I was cobbling jobs together, literally duct taping and caulking stuff people wanted done fast," he said. "Now I do the same thing in human services."
Martin went on to open 23 sober living homes in Delaware, a staggering number and an invaluable resource for addicts, but it was his ability to connect with people that ended up making him a living.
Five years ago, he was hired by Fellowship Health Resources in Seaford. Shortly after, Fellowship opted not to renew their state contract, and the Mental Health Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania took over, forming the Acceptance, Change, Empowerment Peer Resource Center.
According to Martin, ACE provides help in a variety of ways.
"Say a guy comes in and tells me he has an interview at Walmart and he needs a blue shirt. So we get him the blue shirt, then what's next? Needs a place to live, so we get him a tent. Gets a couple paychecks and we'll get him in sober living. That'll be a longer conversation. 'Have you ever played sports? Well, now you're in the game of life. Are you prepared? Where's your playbook? 'Cause it's gonna run you over.'"
The center recently partnered with La Red Health Center in a grant to help pay for things like state IDs and documents for individuals who can't afford the fees.
"We have a van now," Martin said. "I was just able to drive three people over to Georgetown to get IDs, then to Lewes to get Social Security cards. You can't even get a job without those things."
Linda Williams, one of Martin's two coworkers, said there is no other place like the center in Sussex.
"We're peer-run," she said. "People are here to get better and to help other people get better. Because, you know, when someone gets out of the hospital after a crisis, they can't live at their psychiatrist's, but they can support each other. They can come here."
Though the center isn't government-run, it is funded by a state contract, and sometimes serves as a connection point between people and government resources. The Mental Health Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania, which runs the center, runs hundreds of programs like it in Pennsylvania, and couple in northern Delaware.
"We all help each other out," Martin said. "We all use the same electronic record software to keep track of things."
And they do keep track of things. The center has assisted more than 850 people on a walk-in basis this year alone.
"That really adds up," Martin said. "Like this one couple, all they needed was dinner and a place to sleep. Sometimes people will go into crisis mode when they don't have these things and go to the hospital. So if we can feed them and find them a bed, and they don't end up in the ER, that saves a lot of money. Overall, it's much cheaper to fund places like this."
Though primarily funded through the state, they do occasionally fundraise themselves, and once in a blue moon, they get lucky.
"A woman from Laurel contacted me and said, 'By the way, I entered you in this contest with Stanley Tools,'" Martin said.
Stanley's "Build Your America" contest allows anyone to nominate and/or vote for a nonprofit to be awarded $10,000. In early December, five days before voting ended, Martin put out the call on Facebook and garnered more than 1,600 votes, beating out the competition by only about 20 votes.
They won $10,000 toward a new building or renovations and a Stanley tools set worth about $1,000.
"We're looking to open another ACE Center in Georgetown with the money," said Martin. "And since we won the contest, I've been picking up checks left and right. We've gotten so much publicity. It's like, whoa."
Since winning the contest, the center has received $2,500 from Del-One Foundation and $1,500 from Sussex Strong. Martin himself has been elected chair of the Governor's Advisory Council to the Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health and received a certificate of appreciation from the Delaware Division of State Service Centers.
Since getting sober and starting his new life, the 57-year-old has married again, to a woman named Cathy who he calls an "angel from heaven." His children are all doing well as adults, juggling careers and parenthood. His youngest, a son, attends the University of Pennsylvania. His Facebook feed is full of their faces. His five grandchildren call him "Jimmy Poppop."
He even has a plan for his own eventual retirement.
"My main goal is a nursing home and some Crayolas," he said with a laugh. "I just hope they take my SSI check!"
Posted Dec 15, 2016 at 11:00 AM Updated Dec 15, 2016 at 11:08 AM By Shannon Marvel of Hockessin Community News
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