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Another View -- Keith Howard: Leaving a job I love

February 28. 2017 9:16PM

A few weeks ago, I had an awakening. This revelation was not like Babe Ruth’s when he recognized that pitching 40 games a season wasn’t as rewarding as hitting and playing the outfield in 154 games. It wasn’t even up to the level of recognizing salt on caramel makes it tastier and unhealthier in a brand-new direction.

No, my revelation was simple. I was married to a job and father to 10 formerly homeless veterans.

I’ve been executive director of Liberty House for five years now. We’ve re-created Liberty House, transforming from an organization with a less-than-stellar reputation to a respected and regarded nonprofit. A partial list of what we’ve accomplished:

• Doubled our previous financial high, and more than tripled the donations of five years ago.

• Increased the resident success rate from 35 percent to 74 percent.

• Turned down all government funding, leading to the financial gains.

• Spearheaded an experiment in alternative housing, transforming an enclosed cargo trailer into livable space, a home in which my dog and I lived for a year.

• Repaired severed relationships with the Manchester Continuum of Care, the Veterans Administration and the nonprofit community as a whole.

• Brought all staff salaries to within hailing distance of median income at nonprofits.

We’ve achieved a lot. Liberty House is prepared for the future, a future that calls for a talented and dedicated board, a hard-working and creative staff and, perhaps, a pragmatic manager to guide this newly mid-sized organization. I am not that pragmatic manager. Now that I’ve led Liberty House through the desert, it is time for me to be replaced by someone down to earth, realistic and focused. As Dirty Harry taught us, “A man’s got to know his limitations.” I’m not the man to organize a village when the world has new hilltops to gaze over.

In light of the above, I’ve submitted my resignation effective Sept. 1. For the remaining six months of my tenure, I will work hard cementing Liberty House’s success, helping identify my successor and representing our organization. The past five years have been among the most rewarding of my life, and I am glad for the opportunity to have led Liberty House. A wise man told me, “The future is a big place,” so it may be our paths will cross again; regardless, my experience here has been positive, educational and fun.

So, why am I ready to move on and find a new challenge?

I’ve always been a writer, although not necessarily a successful one, with lots of essays published, three novels unpublished and a boxful of poetry. Thirteen years ago, I took nine months off from working and wrote two novels. If I hadn’t spent as much time drinking as I did writing, I might well have sold one of those novels and continued writing. Instead of switching careers to writing, though, I became a drunk and ended up another homeless drunk vet.

Luckily, I had a moment of clarity, got sober and began the journey to where I am today: a successful executive director of a growing nonprofit, respected by most and even adored by some. Still, that itch remains, the itch to write, to have my words be read by a larger audience. So, beginning in September, I will be writer-in-residence at Warriors at 45 North, a fine nonprofit in Pittsburg, about 15 miles from the Canadian border.

For the following year, I’ll be living in a 6-by-10-foot trailer specially designed for writing, eating, sleeping and living in the Great North Woods. Since 45 North is an outdoors retreat center for veterans, I’ll offer writing workshops for any visitors, write a book or two, walk my dog and clear my head. If the writing goes well, I may continue at 45 North or elsewhere. If it doesn’t? I am certain I’ll be found by another nonprofit needing a visionary and quirky leader with an ability to stir things up, get publicity and raise money.

Getting sober made all this possible. When I speak about Liberty House, I almost always quote Lou Gehrig’s retirement speech: “Today I feel like the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” That fountain of gratitude will flow in a different role on the same planet and an ongoing desire to see what’s over the next hilltop — now literally as well as metaphorically.

Keith Howard is executive director of Liberty House, a substance-free housing community for veterans.

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