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Charity's turkey dinner transforms a life

Jerry DeBellefeuille, 48, works in the kitchen of the Rising Sun Cafe in Brooksville. He says he owes his sobriety and the stability of his life to John and Lisa Callea of Love Your Neighbor.

RON THOMPSON | Times

Jerry DeBellefeuille, 48, works in the kitchen of the Rising Sun Cafe in Brooksville. He says he owes his sobriety and the stability of his life to John and Lisa Callea of Love Your Neighbor.

Jerry DeBellefeuille arranged chicken fingers in a to-go box Tuesday afternoon and then turned to his other jobs, spreading brownie mix in a pan and pressing oatmeal-raisin dough into cookies the size of his hand.

Before he could clock out, he had to store the soups he'd made earlier, haul away an old stove that needed replacing, clean the kitchen counters, and sweep and mop the floor.

All of which, he said, he enjoys so much they don't feel like chores.

"I found out, if you love your job, you'll never work again,'' said DeBellefeuille, 48, a cook and dishwasher at the Rising Sun Cafe in downtown Brooksville.

Though I haven't seen any formal surveys, I sense a lot of people feel the way DeBellefeuille does this year.

We realize that in the past we spent too much time pursuing things we wanted, or thought we wanted — new houses and gargantuan pickup trucks for some of us, drugs for DeBellefeuille. And now, especially on Thanksgiving, we consider ourselves lucky to have what we need.

In a county where the unemployment has climbed to nearly 10 percent, steady, productive work is a blessing. So is sobriety. So is the love of family and friends.

That's especially true, DeBellefeuille said, considering he didn't have any of these things a year ago.

First, though, he took me further back, 19 years ago, when he worked on offshore oil rigs and fathered a baby girl.

The girl's mother, a registered nurse, had little interest in being a full-time mom. But DeBellefeuille said that the first time he saw his daughter, Tiffany, he knew he'd found something more important to him than cocaine or alcohol.

He raised her mostly by himself, even after moving to Spring Hill, in 2001, to be near his elderly parents.

But the problem with devoting yourself to a child, he found, is that there comes a time when the child become less devoted to you. As a teen, she started spending more time with her friends, DeBellefeuille said, which left him with more time to slip back into his old habits.

And when Tiffany returned to Texas two years ago to live with her mother and attend college, he said, he fell deep into addiction.

"I ended up homeless because that cocaine took hold of me,'' he said.

Now he knows the reason for his downward spiral: "I felt like I was losing my love. I felt that everyone I'd ever cared for was leaving me.''

But he didn't realize that last November, when he joined other homeless and low-income residents at the Veterans Day turkey dinner served by the Love Your Neighbor outreach group at American Legion Post 99 in downtown Brooksville.

John Callea, who owns Rising Sun and founded the charity outreach with his wife, Lisa, told DeBellefeuille about Brooksville's Jericho Road Ministries homeless shelter.

DeBellefeuille told him he didn't need it.

"I was broke, but I wasn't broken,'' he said.

He went on to get a well-paid job with a cable company, he said. But in April, as he knew he eventually would, he failed a random drug test.

He lost his job and faced the prospect of returning to live in the mosquito-infested woods. His daughter, disgusted by his drug use, "didn't want anything to do with me,'' he said.

His only hope, he said, was the memory of kind words he'd heard from Lisa Callea at the turkey dinner months earlier.

"She told me, 'There's something special about you.' I thought the whole world was against me, but, no, she had said something nice to me.''

He walked to Jericho Road, he said, where he devoted himself to Christianity and sobriety.

When he finished the first phase of the program, in August, the Calleas offered him a full-time job. A few weeks later, he graduated to full-time work as a cook and dishwasher.

One measure of the spreading poverty in Hernando County, John Callea said, is that the crowds at the weekly Love Your Neighbor dinners have more than doubled in the past year, to about 300 every Sunday. Even more than that, 450 diners, showed up on Veterans Day.

One measure of DeBellefeuille's recovery is that he needed a meal last Veterans Day. This year he was serving them.

He speaks regularly with his daughter on the telephone. He is thankful for that and for the people at Love Your Neighbor and Jericho Road, who he says saved his life.

He is thankful to be living in a rented house rather than in the woods, and to be earning money rather than begging for it.

"I'm thankful for everything,'' he said. "I'm thankful for the breath I breathe.''

Charity's turkey dinner transforms a life 11/26/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 26, 2008 6:33pm]

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