Traverse City Record-Eagle

November 23, 2012

Holiday goodwill


TRAVERSE CITY — Danny Wilbert is homeless and jobless, but he often hears questions about his ready smile.

Wilbert sat alone at a table on Thanksgiving Day, his celebration a meal at the Goodwill Inn homeless shelter in Grand Traverse County, where about 30 other residents quietly ate turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy.

Wilbert smiles because he's thankful to be alive after a serious auto accident in 2009.

"I was pronounced dead at one point, and people who are pronounced dead usually stay dead," he said. "So it's easy to smile when you know what you've overcome."

Back then, before the car crash, Wilbert, 23, had a good-paying job, a girlfriend, and attended school part-time in Lake City. But he lived on the wild side, and said he often got into trouble and made poor decisions.

One of those decisions, drinking and driving, led to his crash and downward spiral. He fell asleep at the wheel and a tractor semi-trailer struck him broadside.

Wilbert awoke two months later at Munson Medical Center. Doctors told him he had been pronounced dead at the scene but rescue workers revived and transported him to Munson where doctors induced a coma.

"I was given a 7 percent chance to survive, so I'm thankful that I was given a new shot at life," he said. "But it's not all peachy keen and gum drops all the time.

"I'm so tired of being institutionalized, but I know it just takes time," he said.

He spent two more months in the hospital recovering from his physical injuries, than four months at a rehabilitation center for treatment of a closed head injury. "I had to relearn everything, how to make my mind work," he said.

Wilbert has lived at the Goodwill Inn for about five weeks and joined about 80 others there on Thanksgiving. Many headed over to a community meal at Trinity Lutheran Church in Traverse City, while others gathered with family or friends, said Cecil McNally, executive director of Goodwill Industries, which runs the shelter.

McNally said Willard is not an atypical resident; there no longer is such a thing as a typical client, he said.

"Since 2008 the only thing in common is their economic situation," McNally said. "We've seen people with master's degrees here. There's just no average profile."

The number of homeless Goodwill housed for its fiscal year that ended Sept. 30 was up 5 percent over the previous year, McNally said. And that year was 11 percent higher than the year before. The average stay at the Inn is 45 days.

Wilbert said talking to fellow residents changed his outlook on homelessness.

"I used to think people who were homeless chose to be homeless, but it's not always the way things worked out," he said. "You get a perspective of how many situations could happen to me and you just don't know."

Wilbert said he can't go home to Lake City, holiday or not. He had more problems after the crash and ended up on probation for two criminal misdemeanors, he said. A judge sent him to the behavioral health center at Munson for a two-week program. Once discharged, he didn't want to go home, not even for Thanksgiving.

"I lived in that town my whole life and developed a lot of destructive influences in my social circle," he said. "That's why I'm really thankful. Goodwill took me in."