PINELLAS PARK — They asked him to speak at the groundbreaking. He's still not sure why. In 30 years — his whole life — no one had ever asked Doug Hammond to speak in public.
So here he was, sweating in his new white T-shirt, pacing the parking lot of the place he said had saved his life.
A crowd was gathering. The staff had set up dozens of tables, draped them with white cloths, unfolded 200 chairs. They had invited the mayor, the public defender, all of the board members.
"I still don't know what I'm going to say," Hammond told his mom, Jane. "What if I can't do this?"
• • •
Hammond has doubted himself for as long as he can remember — ever since he got held back in kindergarten and kept flunking math and had to take special classes in school.
He grew up in Largo, sharing his room with a pet, a bearded dragon named Spyder. His mom said he's always been sad. He never had a group of friends, never joined the band or the chess club.
After high school, after trying classes at a small Christian college, then a technical school, Hammond seemed to sink inside himself. He wondered: Who is going to be mean to me today?
It got so bad that he started skipping work at the grocery store, holing up in his room for days.
For three years, his mom and his grandmom listened to him sobbing behind his closed door.
Sometimes, on Saturdays, he would let his mom take him to the movies. The rest of the week, he would just sit alone in his room, flipping through TV shows, playing war games on his computer, waiting for some stranger to message him on MySpace. His only "friends" were online. He'd never met or even talked to any of them.
• • •
Just before Christmas, Hammond threatened suicide. Everything was so awful, he just wanted it all to be over.
His mom took him to a doctor, who committed him to a psychiatric treatment center. Hammond's mom talked to counselors and nurses, trying to find some way to help her lost son.
A nurse referred her to Vincent House in Pinellas Park. It's a clubhouse for people with mental illnesses, where members learn to live with their sickness. Counselors help them find jobs and learn to live on their own.
Hammond's mom took him on a tour. He wasn't sure he wanted to go.
• • •
As he walked into the hallway that first time, everyone welcomed him by name. They ushered him around and asked whether he was hungry and showed him the cafe. They have a cafe! They said they knew he was good on computers, and they needed his help. Someone needed his help!
The next day, he couldn't wait to go back.
But there was a waiting list. Almost three months slid by before he got the call. He remembers the day as if it was his birthday: March 12.
He has cried only twice since then. Now, instead of waking up dreading the day, he wonders, "What do I get to do at the clubhouse?"
A couple of Saturdays ago, when Hammond's mom asked him which movie he wanted to see, he smiled and said he already had plans. He was going to see the new Transformers movie with his friends from Vincent House. He has friends.
So when he was asked to speak at the groundbreaking, where the founders would announce plans to triple the building's size, of course he said yes.
Now he wasn't so sure it was a good idea.
• • •
He sat with his mom at the edge of the crowd, listening to the dignitaries. They all were so good at talking in public. "I'm sort of scared," he told his mom.
"Me, too," she said.
Finally, he heard his counselor call his name through the microphone. "Doug, are you willing to come up?" He swallowed hard and stepped forward. Somehow, he managed to say something about how he loves going to Vincent House and how it has changed his life.
But that's not what he'll remember. What he'll remember is that the crowd started clapping. He heard people chanting, "Doug! Doug! Doug!"
In his whole life, no one had ever cheered for Doug Hammond.
Lane DeGregory can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8825.