SOUTH BEND -- Ed Denny, a Broadway Christian Church volunteer, gently coaxed a woman to finish her plate of biscuits and gravy one morning at the church's daily breakfast for the homeless.
"You need to put on weight," he congenially reminded the wispy woman, who smiled, though she stirred the food on the plate restlessly with her fork.
Her face shows signs of the streets, with weathered skin and many missing teeth. Yet she grinned and swapped jokes with Denny like old friends while he persuaded her to finish at least half the plate of food, per her doctor's orders.
During a busy morning at the Carroll Street church, Denny made the rounds at the breakfast tables as if he were at a cocktail party -- shaking hands, hugging friends and sitting for a short chat as he moved around the room.
The 57-year-old man volunteers at the church Monday through Thursday, where he counsels recovering addicts.
After all, he said, it takes one to know one.
"I was cross-addicted to alcohol and crack cocaine, heroin, marijuana, acid. You name it, I've done it," Denny said.
The Vietnam veteran started using drugs in the 1970s, and eventually dealt cocaine in South Bend, which landed him in prison.
His recovery took 20 years, marked by attempts to change and then lapses.
"My main priority was being in the streets, hustling and getting high," he said.
His attempts to change grew serious when his lifestyle took him away from his three children, Denny said.
He enrolled in a 12-step program, took himself out of the environment he was in and made a five-year plan for success -- a plan that is still unrolling now.
After spending several decades working at the post office, Denny enrolled in Ivy Tech Community College, where he is working toward an associate degree in human services. He then hopes to get a bachelor's degree in social work from Bethel College or Indiana University South Bend.
He also became a preacher and a state-certified mental health peer counselor.
Denny first began volunteering at Broadway two years ago as part of an internship for his course work at Ivy Tech, though he never left.
He meets people suffering from their addictions when they come in for food at Broadway. They are often homeless or recently out of prison.
"When I first came there, Pastor Nancy told me, 'You really have to be here and they have to get to know you before they trust you,'" Denny said.
So he began eating breakfast with them Monday through Thursday.
Now, he knows many of them intimately, like the woman he persuaded to finish her biscuits and gravy.
Over time, he built trust with many of those who come through the church for food and helped those who sought it.
For some in the throes of the worst addictions, he tries to persuade them to seek help from an inpatient program.
"Sometimes I have to tell them a little bit of my story," he said.
For others, he offers counseling in an office at Broadway, at times taking them through the same 12-step program that saved him, and others, just lending an ear to someone who needs to talk.
For those who are close to full recovery, he focuses on resources to rebuild a life.
That may be proof-reading a résumé, handing out bus passes, showing someone how to enroll at Ivy Tech and research financial aid options or helping a recovering addict study for the GED.
"I use all the savvy and stuff I've gotten from the streets," Denny said.
It almost takes a sixth sense to know how to help people, and who is ready to recover, he said. He is not always successful.
"I can recognize the game," Denny said. "I can see through you when you are trying to BS me."
Recalling his own tiredness with his life when he turned it around, Denny said he can sense an addict's exhaustion with his circumstances, signaling a readiness to change.
"Everybody has their own road to travel as far as where their bottom is, and what it takes for them to eventually have enough," Denny said.
Denny's work with addicts is somewhat unofficial now. He uses his own experiences to refer addicts to treatment centers, counsel them and offer them resources when they are hunting for a job.
But he hopes to receive state certification to broaden his work at Broadway with funding to reach beyond the church community.
Agencies can apply to be part of the state's Access to Recovery program, which uses a comprehensive program to treat people battling substance abuse problems.
For now though, Denny continues to circle the church's breakfast for the homeless each day, trading friendly remarks and building relationships to help those he can.
"I get as much out of it for my personal mental and stability as I'm giving," Denny said. "It really helps me. I need them as much as they need me."
Staff writer Madeline Buckley: