Well, I grew up in the 1960s in the east side suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio — a place I like to call “The Jewish Capital of Ohio.” Jewish families (like my own) lined the streets of my neighborhood, the next neighborhood, and so on. My parents, two older brothers, and I had a solid relationship, with all the vacations and activities most middle-class families enjoy together. Life was pretty simple. Growing up, I saw myself as a “good kid.” I was compliant, not really rebellious — a “Mom’s helper” kind of son.
At 12 years old, my father passed away. No one really saw it coming. Losing a parent so early leaves the heart raw, with no tools to soften the blow or to even understand how to heal. The vulnerability was unfamiliar and it was much easier to attach myself to…anything, really. I basically turned to myself. I did what I wanted, whenever I wanted.
And my mother, the essence of kindness and compassion, was just trying to keep her head above water. She became a young widow and a single mother to three boys who began gravitating away from “easy street.” My brothers began to walk in and out of trouble; I followed their lead. She didn’t ask and we didn’t tell. She just wanted us alive and safe.
Whether it was to cope with my father’s death or to be accepted in the crowd I wanted to travel with, I don’t know. Here it is, I began to sell drugs when I was about 12 years old. I saw the people around me do so, and it was just…what it was. While I must say that I did learn some business principles from that endeavor, the choice to sell drugs was no moral dilemma. I didn’t really have that sort of compass at the time. Life was a drag and dealing was a sort of thrill.
I continued to stay in the Synagogue, and yet, also sell drugs (a sort of interesting antithesis: the Jewish drug dealer). But as I progressed deeper into the drug culture, my whole sense of morality had collapsed. Once, in the winter of 1973, I got drunk and decided to take the family car for a spin, put it into reverse, and stepped on the gas, and promptly pummeled a tree. I totaled the car and wore the bruises for weeks.
I’m honestly surprised I made it out of my teenage years.
It wasn’t until my mother remarried and my family moved to Dayton, Ohio that my life began to change. Though I was defensive and all kinds of reckless, I met teachers, mentors, and friends who just took me in. They disregarded my hostility and spoke to me with kindness. They taught me about Jesus simply through love and the gospel. I’d never even met a Christian for the first 16 years of my life, and there I was, giving my life to serve Jesus. A changed man. My mom was the first to notice when I came home from church on my first “spiritual high.”
She asked, “What did you take?”
Nothing mom, nothing.
From the outside, I was the same kid, different town. Yes, my grades still reeked of negligence, but I wasn’t the same on the inside. My old habits died off. I was new. There was no turning back to whatever vulnerabilities I’d attached myself to. From then on, I didn’t dwell in the past so much. It was like waking up to the first day of spring. The winter was over and forgotten.
I graduated high school — one of many miracles in my life — and attended Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. For the first year, I wandered through my classes, shocked to find that midterms began before I could absorb what the first lecture was about. I’d never figured out how to study or do well in school, so if you can imagine, I was frustrated. I remember walking on the train tracks one evening after a long day, considering all that I could run back to.
Funny though, when I looked back, the door was closed. I mean, it was bolted-down-locked-up-key-thrown-away closed. Where could I go? I made another pact with God. I would walk through whatever door was ahead — no matter what was inside — so long as it was opened for me.
During my freshman year, I was involved with a local Christian group that helped shape my sense of direction. We were students who just wanted to spend time together and figure out how to love others. Nothing fancy. Turns out, when passion meets young minds, a fire is started, and it spreads. That’s when I found out where I fit in the world.
Then, during my senior year, I turned 21 and received a small inheritance from my father’s passing. What does a 21-year-old do with a few thousand dollars in a college town? Well, this one bought a house. This was the door for me to walk through. And when it was opened for me, you can bet I left it wide open.
Through my friends, I met Darlene in 1977 when her friend had invited her to our Christian fellowship group for a get-together. When Darlene walked through the door I said, “Such a face.” I don’t even know why I said that, honestly, but I was very drawn to her from that moment, even though she was what they call a “goody-goody” and I was not. After a little more than three years of friendship, we started dating and got married in 1981. I tell you about my wife because even before we tied the knot, the three of us were married (that being Darlene, myself, and Good Works).
Wait, what’s Good Works?
Well, when I realized I wanted to do something missional with my life, I chose to study in the field of mental health. In the context of an incredible internship with a local shelter and outreach for women in danger of domestic violence, I had visions and dreams of what I was going to do with the house I had bought. I had a carpenter friend who remodeled the basement of my home so that I could take in adults and children with no place to sleep.
Anyway, in January of 1981 I opened up my home, and it became the birthplace of Good Works Counseling and Outreach.
The first person that came to stay with us made us so unbelievably excited. I think my jaw almost fell off with how much I smiled that day. I mean, we had this thing that we created, and someone was actually going to be here — it was a nervous feeling all around. Her name was Carol, and she was from this area of the world that I was not very familiar with, it was so interesting. She spoke in this language that sounded like English, but different. When she called ahead, I remember thinking, where is she from ’cause I’m only getting like half of this! Well, she was from Appalachia, from the same place I’d been living for four years. My bubble had been burst! Her Southern accent became one of a million I’d meet over the next 38 years.
Since opening up my basement with two twin beds, Good Works has grown to three locations in Athens, Ohio. We’re one of the oldest shelters in rural Ohio, and we’ve serviced hundreds of those in need — some of whom are on staff now. With the exceptional support of our community, we have a place to invent roadways in the wilderness.
Good Works is different. It’s a place for our staff and community to build better relationships with people who are struggling in poverty. It’s a place for the fatherless, the widowed, and the stranger. It’s a place for the broken, and sometimes the hostile. Haven’t I known that in my life? Haven’t you? Going forward, I want to continue to love those who need it (and that’s everyone).
Our lives don’t have to remain reckless, but I think our love should. In the end, nothing else really matters.
This is the story of Keith Wasserman
Keith Wasserman, founder and director of Good Works, Inc., currently lives in Athens, Ohio with his wife Darlene. Growing up, Keith dealt with the absence of his father by using and selling drugs, until he was shown another way to live. Once Keith graduated from high school (one of many miracles, says Keith), he decided to give in to a seemingly random desire of his heart: convert the basement of his home into a place for people without a home to stay. In the following years, Keith has had the opportunity to grow this act of service into a multi-location community for people who are struggling with poverty and homelessness. In his ministry, Keith spends time each year reevaluating and aligning himself with how he can best serve his community by being “homeless by choice.” You can read more about his experiences here: http://good-works.net/keiths-homeless-stories/
Additionally, Keith is known to carry and entertain with a Kermit the Frog puppet — complete with a (you guessed it) spot-on impersonation — and enjoys bringing him in and out of different contexts.
If you would like more information regarding Good Works Inc. or would like to find ways to help this cause, please visit http://good-works.net/.
Additionally, please enjoy some of Keith’s words of wisdom:
Life Log #224
This story first touched our hearts on October 29, 2018.
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