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 its a warm place
to stay, but also because he loves to read.
Margaret Kelly knew the homeless mans name was Tom, but not much
else. Would he be interested in joining a book discussion group on
Wednesdays, she asked him?
I cant, Ockert told her. I have meetings on Wednesdays.
Kelly immediately assumed he was referring to an Alcoholics Anonymous
support group. And then he explained. Thats the night I meet with
So Kelly switched the night to Tuesdays and arrived at a church
shelter, carrying a white and blue Horizon Books bag filled with
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
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 librarys 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
Kelly worried that six months would be too late for him. She went into action.
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 didnt 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
Theres a phrase by Gandhi, she said. A nations 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 shed start off with Ray Bradburys 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
Lauri, a homeless woman at a book club meeting at Grace Episcopal
Church last week, said shes grateful for the opportunity to talk to
others about the same book
I am a big sci fan. Ive always read voraciously, she said, adding
that she first read Fahrenheit 451 when she was a kid. Fifty years
later, its relevant and scary. The book is about people not really
knowing whats going on with their government and what its doing in
the world. They cant affect it and cant change it. They know a war
is occurring; the government says its going fine, and then people
find out its not really going fine, just before theyre blown to
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! Youd love that book, and its easy to read,
Lauri told her.
Stephanie wasnt 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 shes had arguable
success. When it came to Ockert, for example, she felt compelled to
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 wouldnt 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.
Ockerts 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 its hard to navigate a hill
in the middle of winter when youre nearly blind. So I had to
reschedule. I would call every week, every two days, but I wasnt
making any progress. When youre at the Goodwill Inn, you have to do a
certain number of things to get a place or a job. I wasnt making
progress, partly because I couldnt read. It was a spiral. Eventually
I was exited from there and I went to Safe Harbor.
He asked for help at the Lions Club, which said they could help, but
hed 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
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 doctors 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
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
thats what hes 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
This story doesnt 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
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
The irony of the story? No longer homeless, Ockert doesnt get to many
book club meetings anymore. But youll still find him at the library,
talking to and helping the ones who do.