Ornament Prompts Memories of Hope, Despair, and Gratitude


by Mike Strzelecki*

This is my most meaningful ornament, because it reminds me of Steve. Steve was a young drug user, heroin dealer, convict, former NBA basketball player, and one of the friendliest guys I have ever met. Steve drifted into my life for a few months in the early 1990s and left an indelible impression on me. The lessons he taught me over such a short time were immeasurable.

Steve was a homeless man who my wife and I met while volunteering at the South Baltimore Homeless Shelter. Our homeless shelter was set up as a transitional drug rehab facility for homeless addicts. Steve was there trying to shake his long-term drug addiction, once and for all. He told us that the shelter was his last chance to reclaim his life.

South Baltimore Homeless Shelter is buried deep in the city’s Sharp-Leadenhall neighborhood, where abandoned brick rowhouse shells have plywood windows, and petty crime is not only accepted, but expected. It could be dangerous, not a place to wander through. Once, while chatting with a homeless shelter resident on the sidewalk outside the building, the gentleman got shot while standing next to me. A stray bullet discharged from two blocks away tore through his bicep. There was a clean entry wound and a clean exit wound, and oddly no blood. It remains the only time I have ever witnessed someone shot.

Steve was a short-time resident of this shelter. My wife and I became friends with Steve while volunteering there, and through our friendship, we learned his life story. He told us that his father had him running heroin when he was 7 years old. His elementary and middle school years were spent drug running and dealing, the family business. His formative high school years were spent in and out of juvenile detention. The stories from his youth were horrific.

What saved Steve - for a while, at least - was his gift for basketball. He was able to pull his life together enough to make a run at a basketball career. He made it all the way to the NBA, playing for the Golden State Warriors. But the gravitational tug of drugs was too strong, and he began using and dealing again. He ended up in prison. I remember Steve telling us that, in his prison complex, he could put together a basketball team that could compete against NBA teams. Such wasted talent, I thought.

Steve was trying to clean himself up again after his release from prison. The homeless shelter was his salvation. Steve was gregarious and curious, and I remember him laughing a lot. He was not sullen and distant like so many of the other homeless men. We sought out Steve during visits. Soon, we began running with Steve, exploring the backstreets of Baltimore’s most hidden communities on foot. Two, sometimes three miles at a time - two or three times a week. Steve was an athlete, and an outstanding runner. This continued for a few months, and other homeless men soon joined us. Regular runs lead to races. We once drove Steve and a few other shelter residents to Washington, DC, to run a 5K race together. Steve completed the race and we loved sharing in his excitement and his new-found passion for running and for life.

The next week, we showed up to meet Steve for our regular Tuesday night run. He was not there. No one had seen him in three days. At the shelter, that only meant one thing: Steve was back on the streets using and dealing drugs again. Back to lurking in the violent shadows of the side streets and alleyways of inner-city Baltimore. The monster snatched him back. We never saw Steve again.

This ornament is a metallic impression of the facade of the South Baltimore Homeless Shelter, where we met Steve. Every Christmas, when I pull it out, I am once again reminded how fortunate I was to grow up in a small, cohesive, intimate community. To have parents that loved me, respected me, encouraged me to play recreational sports and to study for tests. Steve taught me, in painful fashion, that not everyone was blessed to have such an ideal and supportive childhood as I did.

This ornament reminds me that I was given a gift in life, and as such, I must live my life with grace, dignity, and compassion for everyone.

Mike Strzelecki is a freelance travel and outdoor writer, and 1981 graduate of Boyertown Area Senior High School. He writes from his house in Baltimore, Maryland. In his spare time, he joins his wife on adventures around the country observing and photographing birds.

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