Letters

Letters 10-20-2014

Doctor Dan? After several email conversations with Rep. Benishek, he has confirmed that he doesn’t have a clue of what he does. Here’s why...

In Favor Of Our Parks [Traverse] City Proposal 1 is a creative way to improve our city parks without using our tax dollars. By using a small portion of our oil and gas royalties from the Brown Bridge Trust Fund, our parks can be improved for our children and grandchildren.

From January 1970 Popular Mechanics: “Drastic climate changes will occur within the next 50 years if the use of fossil fuels keeps rising at current rates.” That warning comes from Eugene K. Peterson of the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management.

Newcomers Might Leave: Recently we had guests from India who came over as students with the plan to stay in America. He has a master’s degree in engineering and she is doing her residency in Chicago and plans to specialize in oncology. They talked very candidly about American politics and said that after observing...

Someone Is You: On Sept 21, I joined the 400,000 who took to the streets of New York in the People’s Climate March, followed by a UN Climate Summit and many speeches. On October 13, the Pentagon issued a report calling climate change a significant threat to national security requiring immediate action. How do we move from marches, speeches and reports to meaningful work on this problem? In NYC I read a sign with a simple answer...

Necessary To Pay: Last fall, Grand Traverse voters authorized a new tax to fix roads. It is good, it is necessary.

The Real Reasons for Wolf Hunt: I have really been surprised that no one has been commenting on the true reason for the wolf hunt. All this effort has not been expended so 23 wolves can be killed each year. Instead this manufactured controversy about the wolf hunt has been very carefully crafted to get Proposal 14-2 passed.

Home · Articles · News · Features · The Book Angel: Margaret Kelly...
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The Book Angel: Margaret Kelly

Anne Stanton - November 22nd, 2010
The Book Angel: Margaret Kelly created a book club for the region’s homeless
 By Anne Stanton
About a year ago, an energetic librarian bustled up to Tom Ockert, a
59-year-old homeless man, who spent most of his daytime hours in the
Traverse Area District Library -- not only because it’s a warm place
to stay, but also because he loves to read.

Margaret Kelly knew the homeless man’s name was Tom, but not much
else. Would he be interested in joining a book discussion group on
Wednesdays, she asked him?
“I can’t,” Ockert told her. “I have meetings on Wednesdays.”
Kelly immediately assumed he was referring to an Alcoholics Anonymous
support group. And then he explained. “That’s the night I meet with
my
Buddhist group.”
So Kelly switched the night to Tuesdays and arrived at a church
shelter, carrying a white and blue Horizon Books bag filled with
paperbacks.
Kelly rounded up several people to her book table, including Ockert.
“I was immediately interested,” said Ockert in an interview at the
library. “I have enjoyed reading since I was a young guy. It varies
from war stories, detective fiction, fantasy, business. I like reading
about the contrast between the Japanese and American approach to
business.”
During the discussion of the book a couple of weeks later, Kelly
noticed that Ockert was reading in an odd way. He held the book very
close and cranked his head to the side to read.
In the next few days, Kelly kept a close eye on Ockert, who often
spends long hours in the library’s computer room. He had this habit of
looking sideways and closely at the screen. One day, she asked him
what was up.
“He told me that he thought he was going blind. He had cataracts, and
was having problems getting seen at the V.A. hospital, and it would
probably take another six months to a year for him to get it taken
care of.”
Kelly worried that six months would be too late for him. She went into action.

INSPIRATION
Kelly admits that she had certain notions about homeless people before
creating her book club. They were often at the library, but before she
started the book club, she didn’t really know much about them, other
than their first names. She did know, however, the transformative
power of reading, and was inspired by a People Magazine article that
described the tight friendship between a high-powered lawyer from
Boston, Peter Resnick, and Rob, a homeless man. The unlikely pair
began talking about sports, the daily news and books. Their
conversation ultimately evolved into the creation of a book club for
the homeless. Kelly immediately saw the possibilities for Traverse
City.
“There’s a phrase by Gandhi,” she said. “‘A nation’s greatness is
measured by how it treats its weakest members.’ I had just gone
through a really horrible divorce, and I had to do something good in
my extra time.”
Kelly thought the best way to reach the homeless was at night. The
homeless are sheltered in the colder months by area churches in a
program called Safe Harbor. The program was started seven years ago
after two homeless men died of exposure in the cold weather. Kelly
thought she’d start off with Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” a
science fiction novel about the homeless elite of professors and
educators, led by Guy Montag, a fireman-turned-homeless hero.
Kelly bought the books from Horizon Books, which extended her a
discount after learning of her altruism. Kelly said she felt it was
important that her book club members own a crisp new book instead of a
hand-me-down.
Lauri, a homeless woman at a book club meeting at Grace Episcopal
Church last week, said she’s grateful for the opportunity to talk to
others about the same book
“I am a big sci fan. I’ve always read voraciously,” she said, adding
that she first read ‘Fahrenheit 451’ when she was a kid. “Fifty years
later, it’s relevant and scary. The book is about people not really
knowing what’s going on with their government and what it’s doing in
the world. They can’t affect it and can’t change it. They know a war
is occurring; the government says it’s going fine, and then people
find out it’s not really going fine, just before they’re blown to
smithereens.”
The tastes of the book club vary. A young man by the name of Tuna,
said he goes for “lawyers, cops and whodunnits. ‘Who killed that
person?’ I love that.”
A young mother, Stephanie, confessed that she could only read at a
third-grade level and was unsure she could tackle any of the books.
Lauri and Kelly were immediately encouraging.
“‘A Wrinkle in Time!’ You’d love that book, and it’s easy to read,”
Lauri told her.
Stephanie wasn’t convinced and shook her head. Kelly started asking
her about her life. Stephanie, 22, said she had lost custody of her
15-month-old boy and had to reach certain goals to get him back. Kelly
recommended that she ask her counselor for books to help her do that
and promised to find them for her at the library.
Kelly said that her mission, when forming the book club, was to offer
a night of intelligent and lively discussion, not to solve personal
problems or to forever change lives. One might say she’s had arguable
success.  When it came to Ockert, for example, she felt compelled to
get involved.

A LEAP OF HOPE
Ockert, 59, said he became homeless in 2004 after he was struck with
MRSA, a virulent staph infection that resists antibiotic treatment and
is sometimes deadly. Although he survived, he was unable to use his
arm and lost his clerk job and then his home.
Ockert said he served in the Vietnam war after a one-year stint in
college. He served in the Army — his helicopter shot down twice — and
finished off in the Air Force after getting injured.
When he returned to the states, he initially numbed the pain of his
experience with alcohol. “I drank so I wouldn’t get nightmares at
night, but I realized I was creating a nightmare for myself in the
day.” So 26 years ago, he quit drinking and became a Buddhist.
Ockert’s spirituality has been a source of stability through the ups
and downs of his life. After he was cured of MRSA, he discovered he
had a tumor growing in his nostril. “I called myself the snot-nosed
kid,” he said laughing. “It looked like I always had a bloody nose.”
The cancer was discovered after his roommate punched him in the nose,
prompting a trip to the emergency room. The cancer treatment cost in
the tens of thousands, but his former employer, Paul Deering, took him
to the financial aid office at Munson Medical Center, which paid the
bills with funds set aside for the indigent.
Ockert said his sight was the next big hurdle. One day while walking
to the Goodwill Inn on Keystone Road from downtown Traverse City, he
lost his footing on a snow bank and his glasses went flying onto South
Airport Road and were crushed by a passing car. With no money, he just
went without glasses for four years, operating in a haze. Last year,
the excruciating headaches began.
Using the phone at the Goodwill Inn, he made an appointment at the
V.A. Hospital in Saginaw. His morning appointment required that he get
on the bus on LaFranier at 4:30 a.m. He arrived to the bus stop on
time, but there was no room for him on the packed bus.
“I should have gotten there earlier, but it’s hard to navigate a hill
in the middle of winter when you’re nearly blind.  So I had to
reschedule. I would call every week, every two days, but I wasn’t
making any progress. When you’re at the Goodwill Inn, you have to do a
certain number of things to get a place or a job. I wasn’t making
progress, partly because I couldn’t read. It was a spiral. Eventually
I was exited from there and I went to Safe Harbor.”
He asked for help at the Lion’s Club, which said they could help, but
he’d have to wait for a year.
“Apparently, Margaret had a different timeframe,” he said dryly. “She
told me, ‘This is just not right.’”

SURROUNDED BY HELP
Kelly found an ophthalmologist, Timothy Hanley, who offered to do the
surgery for about $3,000. Kelly also rallied others to help him out.
As a condition of the operation, for instance, Ockert had to find a
warm, dry place to recover for one week. Julie Greene, who works at
Bay Pointe Church as director of the compassion ministry, donated the
money for Ockert to stay at the Waterfront Inn. The Buddhist group
volunteered to drive him to his appointments (and chanted in support).
The Traverse City Lions Club paid for his examinations and his
glasses.
“He was surrounded by people who wanted to help him. At one point in
the universe, we were all on the same page,” Kelly said
Kelly, who had promised not to get involved, in fact, picked up the
entire doctor’s fee.
“Yes, she paid all of it. She gave me a great leap of hope and a big
debt of gratitude,” said Ockert, tearing up, as he told his story in
the library.
After the surgery, Ockert began standing taller, tucking in his shirt
and walking with confidence. He was finally able to see well enough to
complete the paperwork for affordable housing and now lives
comfortably in a Riverview Terrace apartment for $71 a month.
What Kelly asked for in return was for Ockert to pay it forward, and
that’s what he’s doing. He is trying to help other homeless people
develop enough skills to find a permanent home like he did.
Ockert also buys bags of caramel nips and passes them out to people to
give them a taste of cheer, although he admits some people find it
strange.
This story doesn’t end with a pat happy ending. Kelly said the
government is still struggling with the issue of health care.  She
argues that it should be a public right for all and people are
suffering.  Ockert, for example, has no molars, with just a handful of
teeth on his bottom jaw. “Eating is hard. I have to take my time,” he
said.
And the MRSA left his arm too weak to do most jobs. He lives on $272 a
month, but he is happy.
“The life philosophy of Buddhism is we promote happiness in others. I
have kept happiness in my mind and my heart even in the worst times,
and people see me as a happy-go-lucky person. During all the
struggles, people were observing me as a Buddhist, and I had to
promote my countenance as a Buddhist.
“To me, homeless people are not digits. They are human beings. They
have a course and a destiny and problems that put them in their
situation. Some fellas and gals got beat up and lost in the struggle
to make it, and decided they just wanted to drop out of that kind of
life.”
The irony of the story? No longer homeless, Ockert doesn’t get to many
book club meetings anymore. But you’ll still find him at the library,
talking to and helping the ones who do.

 
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