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Groton man's struggles fuel his drive to help others

By Deborah Straszheim

Publication: The Day

Published December 25. 2013 4:00AM
Tim Martin/The Day
Alfred Gardner and John Haugabook of Stonington Institute meet Tuesday in Groton. Haugabook helped Gardner regain his independence when he was a client at the institute.
Alfred Gardner wants people to say, "'He wasn't just a drug addict. He did something.' I want people to know somebody will help them."

Alfred Gardner wants to give something back before he dies.

The Groton 54-year-old was diagnosed with liver cancer in February. He spent much of his life as a drug addict, but he's been clean for almost two years. Now there is something he wants to do: "When I leave this earth, I want to know that I made a difference in somebody's life."

Friends raised $1,500 so he could do something nice for himself. Gardner bought a pair of slippers, visited his family in Chicago, and used the rest to start a fund to help recovering addicts.

John Haugabook, off-campus coordinator for Stonington Institute, said he's called Gardner eight or nine times to help people in recovery who need T-shirts, socks or other personal items.

"The fact that he's battling cancer, but he makes it his business to be of service to all people" is unique, said Haugabook, a deacon at Shiloh Baptist Church in New London. "That's just Alfred. Sometimes I've got to tell him, 'Slow down. Take care of yourself.'"

Gardner is being treated at Yale-New Haven Hospital. His relatives live far away, he said, but he found family through his work, at Serenity Lodge in Groton and at Shiloh, where he is a member.

"I have been helped so much," he said. "I want to leave something for people to say, 'He wasn't just a drug addict. He did something.' I want people to know somebody will help them."

Gardner has a criminal history, including arrests in Chicago, where he grew up, and a half-dozen larceny charges in Bristol, where he used to live.

Mark Weber, head of Serenity Recovering Living Centers Inc., said Gardner applied for Social Security disability due to his illness and a background check discovered an outstanding arrest warrant from 1997 in Chicago. According to the Cook County (Illinois) Criminal Court clerk's office, the warrant is for violation of probation for failure to appear in court.

It is unclear why the 16-year-old warrant remains in effect. But for the past two years, Alfred Gardner has been to trying to make things right in his life.

Raised himself

Gardner is the oldest of 12, but he didn't know that growing up. Until he was 16, he said, he didn't know his mother.

When he was 3, his father took him and his toddler sister to their grandmother's doorstep in Arkansas and left them there. Gardner's grandmother later moved into the projects in Chicago.

Then one day, Gardner said, a woman knocked on the door.

"I opened the door and she said, 'My name is Amanda, and I'm you're mother,'" he said. "'I didn't come here to take you from your grandmother. I just wanted you to know you had a mother.'"

Gardner said he asked her why she left him but never got an answer. He learned he had five siblings he'd never met, that his mother had married and lived in a nice house in the suburbs.

Gardner said his father had been an alcoholic, but recovered and moved in with his mother, Gardner's grandmother, in Chicago. Sometime after that, at age 16, Gardner said, he ran away.

"... I started drinking and doing drugs, hanging in clubs that would let me in, sleeping in parking garages," he said. "I would steal, I would go to the soup kitchen, I would do all of that. ... I raised myself on the streets of Chicago."

By age 24, he said, he was booking strippers in clubs, then taking their money as part of the arrangement. For seven years, he worked almost like a pimp, moving from city to city.

According to the Cook County Criminal Court, Gardner pleaded guilty in 1997 to burglary, a felony. He was fined and sentenced to 20 days in prison, but was given credit for time served and two years probation. The clerk's office also said Gardner faced an earlier misdemeanor charge in 1989 that was dismissed.

Gardner said that after he got out of jail, he went back on the street but found he couldn't do it anymore. He asked his father for help.

"I had enough of destroying other people's lives," Gardner said. "Everywhere I went, I would take another victim."

Restaurant job

Gardner's father sent him to Teen Challenge in Pennsylvania, a faith-based residential program for addicts. Gardner met his future wife there, married and moved with her to Bristol.

He said he stayed clean for many years. Then he lost his job, his medical insurance and a pain control program upon which he depended. He turned to illegal drugs, began stealing to support his habit and ultimately wound up on the streets.

"I was living in crack houses, in the shelter when I could get in, drinking all day and smoking crack all day," he said.

Connecticut court records show that Gardner pleaded guilty to a half-dozen misdemeanor larceny charges and one failure to appear charge in Bristol between March 2010 and February 2012. On March 29, 2012, Gardner was sentenced to 30 days in prison.

He said it was then that he straightened out his life. He realized the judge had given him a break, and he could do something to change.

He went through detox, to Stonington Institute, then to Serenity Lodge in Groton, where they told him he'd have to pay rent. In three days, he had a job.

Sherrie Segerstrom, kitchen manager of the Ninety Nine Restaurant in Groton, interviewed him.

"I hired him from my heart," she said. "I just wanted to give him another chance."

She said he worked hard. He washed dishes, cleaned and tried to cook, though he had trouble with that, she said.

But he was so helpful, she said, that she kept him even though everyone in the kitchen is supposed to cook.

"Everything he did, he did well," she said. "We didn't want to lose him. The entire staff just fell in love with him."

The restaurant offered him a job cleaning at night and washing dishes instead.

Undiagnosed pain

Gardner said he struggled with cooking, partly because he was tired and in pain all the time. He felt like there were knots in his stomach.

It had been bad for a while, he said. At first, he figured it was the drugs. Then he thought it was the detox. Then he decided it was his body's reaction to drug abuse, even though he'd stopped.

He kept working, but by the fall of 2012, he knew something was really wrong. He threw up. Sometimes, he coughed up blood.

A doctor in New London sent him for blood work, a CT scan and an ultrasound, and then to Yale. A stomach doctor at Yale found the tumor, Gardner said. "He said, 'Albert, I don't want to tell you this, but you have cancer. It's malignant, and it doesn't look good.'"

Gardner didn't quite grasp the gravity of it. He wanted to know, could they take it out? The doctor sent him to a colleague who deals with liver cancer. He took his sister and Weber, the head of Serenity Lodge, to the appointment.

The doctor told him they couldn't fix it; all they could do was "palliative care" to ease his suffering.

"So I asked them, 'What's that?'" Gardner said, then cried, recalling the story. The doctor told him he would die, he said.

In February, he took a letter from Yale to Segerstrom at the Ninety Nine Restaurant and resigned from his job.

Segerstrom said she read the first sentence and burst into tears. "It said, 'Please excuse Alfred from his duties to let him get his affairs in order ...'"

Memorial fund

Segerstrom said the staff was so upset they wanted to do something to help. They threw a benefit in his name and raised $1,500. Gardner had just started chemotherapy and was weak.

"People were just handing him money," Segerstrom said.

His co-workers gave him the money so he could do something on his bucket list, she said.

Instead, after the trip to Chicago to see his family, he set up the A.R. Gardner Memorial Fund at Webster Bank in Groton, to help people recovering from long periods of addiction. The bank confirmed that the fund is registered among its memorial funds, which means a donation can be made at any Webster branch, said Danielle Chandler, assistant manager of Webster's Long Hill branch. She said Gardner set up the fund with her, and discussed nonprofit status, but does not have it yet.

Gardner said he wants to help people by paying their initial one to two weeks' rent at a sober house, and providing clothing and basic provisions like toiletries. Gardner said he has two members for his board of directors but needs help applying for nonprofit status and handling finances.

Juan Torres, who owns two sober houses in New London, said the fund paid the initial rent for three people at his houses and also helped two others.

"Most people in his situation that I know of would never put the time and commitment that he does into helping other people," Torres said.

Jeff Wells, owner of Village Bake House in Groton, keeps a can out in his store for donations to the fund.

"I know he's been through a lot in his life," Wells said. "Instead of being someone who wallows in it and uses it as an excuse, he seems to be trying to help other people who find themselves in a bad situation, regardless of how they got there."

Gardner said he wants people who are struggling to know that it's not hopeless, and they can change their lives. "Everybody needs a chance. That's why I want to put my story out there, to let them know it's possible."

d.straszheim@theday.com

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