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.