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The Daily Tar Heel

Extra change to make a change

We’ve all heard the phrase: “Sir, how about sparing some change?” Those words often make people clutch their purses and ignore the jangling quarters in their pockets. We know the faces, the same characters we see day in and day out, peddling for small cash on Franklin Street. We all feel sorry, certainly, but thank God we won’t be in their shoes, right?

Chris Moran, executive director of the Inter-Faith Council says differently. “Honestly, people just aren’t familiar with poverty, or hunger or homelessness. They don’t realize that they too could find themselves in the same situation,” said Moran.

“I had two professional friends who were doing fine, and then months later they were using our food pantry.”

A long-time fixture in the Chapel Hill area, the IFC has provided countless services to our homeless and poor communities, including a local shelter (the Community House), a food pantry that serves 3,200 people and job counseling services. These services have benefitted hundreds.

These services helped give Gary Harwell one last chance.

As Harwell says, the IFC was “his last stop,” a turning point in a life plagued with troubles and addiction. He struggled with alcoholism for 40 years, losing his family and children, and eventually found himself dropped off at the Community House, where, he says, “something finally clicked.”

“I had used the bottle to hide from pain and loss … now I’m finding it much more rewarding to carry on without that drink. I don’t have to hide in the bottle anymore.”

Thanks to the IFC and Alcoholics Anonymous, Harwell is on a roll, sober now for 285 days straight, using his personal method — “AA is simple: Just don’t drink.”

He has also served as an inspiration for others struggling with addiction through his number one love: writing. Each day, as he has for more than 150 days, Harwell writes what he calls “sober seeds,” tiny inspirational messages for those struggling with addiction. They are simple, yet powerful, like: “I am thankful for the freedom to choose. Today I choose to be sober.”

Often confronted head-on with his former vices, Harwell relishes his new role as mentor, the sober guide to those falling down his former path.

“When I see people with their active addictions, it only makes me stronger, makes me want to give back to others what was so freely given to me. If I make a difference in one person’s life, I’ll know my life is done.”

And yet these same services that have helped Harwell advance are coming under fire.

According to Moran, recent cuts in spending both at the state and federal level are threatening to severely limit various service programs like the IFC, in addition to charity care for hospitals. Those patrons who frequent shelters, who are often ostracized by mental health facilities and hospitals, will find themselves even more limited in terms of support.

That, coupled with a severe lack of affordable housing in the area, is sure to leave both homeless individuals and low-income families in dire straits.

So the next time you walk down Franklin, know that there are people like Harwell — waiting for someone to make a difference in their lives.

Troy Smith is a columnist for the Daily Tar Heel. He is a junior public policy and Arab cultures major from Deep Run. Contact tgsmith@email.Unc.Edu.

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