Grass Valley’s Hospitality House helps veteran through tough times
Special to The Union
In 1972, Terry Keessell dropped out of high school and enlisted in the Air Force as soon as he turned 18.
“I was a Minuteman missile mechanic, with top-secret clearance,” he said. “It was exciting. I ended up leading an eight-man Periodic Inspection Team.”
The team’s job was to inspect, repair and maintain the launch readiness of 200 nuclear-tipped Minuteman missiles in underground silos scattered “all around Montana.”
Keessell was honorably discharged in 1976 with a high school diploma he’d earned in night school. His military service was to be the longest and most important job in his life.
Things went “sideways” after the Air Force.
The next 40-odd years of his life were a drug-infused (methamphetamine and alcohol) series of mistakes. “You do some strange things when you’re high. It’s pretty bad … pretty bad,” he said, shaking his head.
In 1995, his problems got worse when he was hit by a drunk driver, severely injuring his neck and back. Although he was able to return to work after a few years of physical and vocational rehabilitation, he quit or got fired from every job he got, including four different Harley-Davidson dealerships.
Keessell makes no excuses and blames nobody for what has happened to him.
“If I hadn’t done all those drugs … things would have been different,” he said. “How many years does it take for a person to get off drugs?
“As many as it takes.”
Although he doesn’t give himself credit for much, Keessell does credit himself for quitting drugs on his own, without the help of a program.
A SAFE SPACE AT UTAH’S PLACE
While drugs consumed years of his life, what brought Keessell to Utah’s Place, Nevada County’s only homeless shelter, was the lack of affordable housing.
“I just couldn’t find anything,” said the Air Force veteran. “I went on a lot of look-sees, and I couldn’t believe what people were charging for just a room.”
At first, it was “weird,” Keessell recalled when he came to Utah’s Place. “I was a little skeptical. I probably thought I’m unique.”
“By the time I left, I’d gained a different perspective on the whole damn thing. I realized how important it is that homelessness needs to be dealt with.”
Despite disliking all the rules and regulations, Keessell not only adapted, he worked his way up to the coveted position of caretaker.
“I needed less restriction,” he explained. “So I really strove for that job. Yeah, I got some privileges, but it was a ton of work.”
Keessell was an “exemplary” guest, said his case manager Fred Skeen. “Delightful and charming.”
His stay at shelter was not without heartache, however. Keessell had to give up his beloved dog Brandy.
Worse, he became close friends with Robert Madden, a fellow guest — only to lose Robert to liver cancer.
“”I ended up being in the hospital with him when he died,” he revealed with deep sadness. “That really, really hurt.”
In recounting his life, Keessell often uses the expression “I ended up.”
After an eventful stay at Utah’s Place that also included getting his driver’s license back and buying a truck, Keessell has ended up in a safe, sober and supportive group home in Grass Valley, according to Nicole Lescher, his housing case manager.
“Terry was the heart and soul of this place for a while,” Lescher said. He was known for “singing and whistling” as he worked as the caretaker.
When Lescher brought up the subject that he was going to have to leave, “He teared up and said I don’t want to leave.”
“I teared up too,” Lescher recalled. Then she told him. “There’s a part of us that we don’t want you to leave either. We’ll miss you dearly, but we want you to have your own life.”
Although he misses Utah’s Place, Keessell is happy where he is. “I like the folks that live here, and they seem to like me.”
THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVICE
Although everyone gets treated the same at Utah’s Place, veterans are tracked and acknowledged for their service, said Ashley Quadros, development director of Hospitality House, the nonprofit organization that runs Utah’s Place.
In fact, the late Bruce “Utah” Phillips, the legendary folksinger who co-founded Hospitality House, was a Korean War veteran himself.
Quadros reported that 12 veterans were among the 120 people Hospitality House programs placed in permanent housing in 2018.
Two of the vets were brought in from the cold by outreach. Another two were placed through the rapid rehousing program. And eight went into permanent housing from Utah’s Place, she said.
In February, Keessell became the first veteran housed by Hospitality House in 2019.
“I owe everything to them,” he said.
Keessell said he even hopes he can return to Hospitality House one day — as a shelter advocate employee.
As a veteran of Utah’s Place, “That might be something I’d like to do.”
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