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“You have to let go,” says TROSA founder Kevin McDonald as he steps aside

When Kevin McDonald woke up the morning after his first round of electroshock therapy, he couldn’t remember how to make coffee. He used to drink it every morning – strong with some cream. That Saturday he stopped. 

But the shock therapy continued, and so did his memory lapses. Scrolling through Facebook, he found himself staring at unfamiliar names and faces. And when he drove into the complex of TROSA, the Durham organization he founded 26 years ago, he couldn’t remember the security guard’s name. 

Eventually, McDonald, who served as the President and CEO of TROSA since its inception, decided he had a choice to make: hold on to the organization, or allow someone more capable to take over.   

In the decades since McDonald started TROSA (the Triangle Residential Options for Substance Abusers) with $18,000, an abandoned school building and a four-burner stove, the organization has helped hundreds of people recover from substance abuse and become a cornerstone of the Durham community. TROSA moving vans help Durhamites schlep their stuff to new homes, TROSA yard crews keep lawns trim and TROSA cleaning crews prepare Cameron Indoor Stadium before almost every Duke basketball game. 

But after 26 years running the organization, McDonald knew he needed to hand over the reins. On July 1, he stepped aside to a role as “founder” as Keith Artin, the organization’s longtime chief operating officer, became president and CEO.  

“I just knew in my heart of hearts that you have to let go,” McDonald said.  

***

When I called McDonald over Zoom recently, he appeared on my screen wearing a white button-down shirt that matched his large white beard. Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, McDonald, who is 72 and has trouble breathing, has worked from home. Despite the isolation, he’s enjoying life. 

“I’m drinking Coca-Cola instead of Diet Coke,” he chuckled. “I’m splurging, man.” 

McDonald is no stranger to letting go. Because his dad was an officer in the Air Force, McDonald never got to settle down. He was born in Winthrop, Massachusetts, but he grew up across the South – Alabama, Louisiana, Virginia and Florida. 

As a Yankee with a Boston accent, McDonald struggled to fit in, and developed feelings of shyness and social anxiety. His mother was also physically and emotionally abusive, he said. 

In 1959, when McDonald was 12, his family moved to Germany, where his father served as commander at an air base. His anxiety and lack of confidence continued to fester. 

He escaped with alcohol, frequenting local bars as a young teenager. “I wasn’t shy there, after I had some drinks,” he said. By the time he left Germany in 1963, alcohol had become a major problem in his life, he said. 

The family moved to California, and he started partying and drinking more. Eventually, his drinking problem became so severe that his dad delivered an ultimatum. “My way or the highway,” his father told him. McDonald took the highway. He was 17. 

After high school, he enlisted in the Air National Guard, in the hope of making it into the Air Force Academy. He started carting drugs from Northern California to Los Angeles, but wore a short-haired wig during his military training so he’d look clean-cut. 

McDonald didn’t make the Academy and then started snorting heroin, which spiraled into more trouble. Soon he was robbing pharmacies to get drugs. But he got caught twice in three months. The first time, he was bailed out; the second time, he received a sentence of 20 years in prison. (A defense lawyer found a way to reduce that to three months.) 

Instead of spending years in prison, 32-year-old McDonald headed to Delancey Street, a substance recovery program that would become the model for TROSA. At Delancey, McDonald began to learn how to care for other people, and—even more difficult—to accept other people’s care for himself.  

“The hardest thing for me was to receive, to let people care about me, get close to me. That started happening too,” he said during an interview with Frank Stasio on “The State of Things.” 

During his 12 years of working at Delancey, McDonald visited Greensboro, North Carolina to help set up a substance recovery facility. There, he met many of the people who would later invite him to set up a similar program in Durham. 

Inspired by his own treatment, McDonald decided to start one when he moved to Durham. He told his wife Sue about his plans during their wedding dance. 

TROSA soon took off, earning large donations from the Chamber of Commerce and support from the community, including volunteer work from a Duke fraternity. Combining work-based training, counseling and education, the program helped hundreds of residents recover from substance abuse problems. TROSA’s lawn care, thrift store and moving company have each won readers’ awards from Indy Week. 

Even as the program grew into a big success, McDonald kept his eye on the day when he would have to move on. 

“It’s what’s important for the organization, not the founder, not individuals in the organization, and I really believe in that,” he said during his 2015 interview on “The State of Things.”   

***

Roughly the same time as that interview, McDonald began experiencing more severe bouts of depression, which had been a chronic problem. He had more trouble finishing tasks and getting out of bed. People who knew him well could tell that he was a little colder, a little harder.  

He went to a psychiatrist, who eventually recommended that he undergo electroshock therapy.

He ended up going through 19 rounds of the therapy before deciding to stop. He says the treatment left major gaps in his memory. He once had a knack for remembering names and faces. Now, when TROSA residents greeted him, he would have to say, “Hi, what’s your name?” – and he felt terrible about it. He used to be able to give speeches from memory, but now he had to write them down. 

Around that time, McDonald was also diagnosed with Parkinson’s, a brain disorder that can lead to physical decline and short-term memory loss.  

“It was scary,” he said. “It was like, I went inside myself. And, how am I going to adapt to this one? How am I going to beat this?” 

But as the memory lapses continued, McDonald realized that some things in life can’t be overcome – only endured. He decided it was time to step down at TROSA.

“Nobody realized but me where it was,” he said. “And so I just said, ‘July, I’m out.’ And it was the right thing to do.” 

McDonald’s voice cracks when he talks about the support he got from his staff, particularly after he announced he was stepping down. 

“I just was so emotionally blown away by people caring so much. I’ve cared a lot of about people in my life, and I’ve given everything I got for a lot of years, but I don’t expect people caring about me.” 

Does he regret stepping down? 

“Oh no,” he said. “I worked hard, man.” 

Actually, he’s quite happy. A person he trusts is in charge, and, as founder, he can still be involved. 

“I’m ain’t laying down, and I’m gonna help people.”

Of course, he’s had to adapt to his new role. With Artin in charge, he’s learning to follow orders instead of giving them.

“I don’t need to be a general,” he said. “Rank? I’m past rank. I’m Kevin.” 

9th Street Journal reporter Chris Kuo can be reached christopher.kuo@duke.edu

In photo at top: Kevin McDonald in his home. He now splurges and has a real Coca-Cola. Photo by Henry Haggart | The 9th Street Journal

Local partnerships help feed families during pandemic

On April 16, the Durham Public Schools Foundation, Food Insight Group, and the Durham Hotel began providing breakfast and lunch to local students in a new partnership called Durham FEAST. 

The announcement came after Durham Public Schools struggled to maintain a safe food distribution program.

Durham Public Schools had been offering free meals to students since March 23. But after learning that an employee at Bethesda Elementary School had contracted the coronavirus, the school system discontinued the program in early April.

Local families didn’t know where their next meal would come from. So several organizations stepped up. 

The DPS Foundation, a community-led nonprofit that supports the school system, took on the bulk of student food distribution. It ramped up its weekly food delivery program to deliver meals to 1,500 families, and then joined the Durham FEAST initiative.

A Riverside High School senior Elijah King also offered his own solution, partnering with local businesses to start the Durham Neighbors Free Lunch Initiative. They set up shop in front of Geer Street Garden and distribute sandwiches. 

And Catholic Charities and Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina continue their food pantries.

They don’t know how long school cafeterias and local restaurants will be closed, but these distribution services anticipate working for the long haul. 

“In any instance when something like the coronavirus is happening in Durham, the community comes together,” said King. “It’s like New York, but on a very small scale.”

A community FEAST

As Durham FEAST launched its partnership on Thursday, thousands of Durham families flocked to DPS schools — while staying six feet apart — to pick up free breakfast and lunch from Durham restaurants. The provisions are meant to serve all children under 18 years old for several days. 

The Restaurant at The Durham, Monuts, Spicy Green, Southern Harvest Catering, and Beyu Caffe were first to offer meals. Kids may have a buckle streusel, a banana muffin, or overnight oats for breakfast. Lunch options included quinoa chicken or vegetarian spinach alfredo pasta. Family-style casseroles and shelf ingredients were also available. 

Depending on the location, pick-ups are on Mondays and Thursdays or Tuesdays and Fridays. Some locations open at 11 a.m. and others at 12 p.m. Volunteers drive meals to families that are unable to pick up food.

“The main thing that we need right now is even more volunteers, especially with the new announcement,” said Katie Spencer Wright, communications manager for the DPS Foundation.

Over 900 volunteers pitched in during the DPS Foundation’s previous program, including Durham Bulls mascot Wool E. Bull and Durham City Council members Charlie Reece and Javiera Caballero.

“Everyone is happy to be out of the house and enjoying working together on this, which is what we need to do,” said Spencer Wright. “We need to have each other’s backs.” 

Community donations are also essential to support the ongoing program. Funds go toward meals and paying restaurant employees’ wages.

Over 1,100 Durham community members have donated funds to the meal program. Mayor Steve Schewel announced he’d match all donations up to $10,000 to the previous initiative. Durham songwriter and DPS dad Hiss Golden Messenger pledged all proceeds from his new record to the meal effort. (Spencer Wright says it’s “great quarantine music.”)

Federal school meal funding and Durham County also back the initiative.

A student-run initiative

As the coronavirus escalated in Durham, King, a Riverside High School senior, became concerned about small businesses. He wondered how he could support local restaurants while addressing community food shortages.

He presented a couple ideas to friends and businesses: An ad campaign? Business partnerships?

“Everyone shot them down,” he said.

Then, he thought of Grant Ruhlman, the owner of Homebucha Kombucha. Ruhlman had heard King speak at a climate strike and told King to reach out if he ever needed help.

Together, Ruhlman and King decided to work with local businesses to provide free lunches. Homebucha Kombucha, Lil Farm, and Geer Street Garden joined in the effort, which they named Durham Neighbors Free Lunch Initiative.

Every weekday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., they set up outside Geer Street Garden and distribute about 100 meals. Community members wait for food, standing in distanced lines and listening to amplified music. 

Lunch selections vary day-by-day, including pimento cheese, turkey, or BLT sandwiches. Sides may be yogurt, bread, fresh fruit, or veggies.

The initiative runs on monetary donations to provide food from the farm and restaurants. 

Within a week of announcing the initiative, their GoFundMe campaign burgeoned, reaching nearly $35,000 in donations. That would cover sandwiches, masks, water bottles, and four employees’ wages for a couple weeks. 

“But as soon as we pay all of the bills this week, that money is going to be gone,” King said. 

He needs to raise more money to keep the initiative running until May 15. If he runs into trouble, he’ll consider decreasing the production cost of meals.

“No matter what, we are going to continue paying living wages. That’s what they made before, and that’s what they’re going to be making,” King said.

Other resources

Local food banks continue offering meals and accepting donations during the pandemic.

The Durham Community Food Pantry reopened April 10 after issuing new guidelines to protect volunteers and clients from the virus. The pantry, run by Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Raleigh, operates from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.

As of April 9, the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina had distributed 11,132 boxes of 20 meals each during the coronavirus outbreak. They operate in a 34-county region and work with local nutritionists to determine needs.

At top: Volunteers distribute meals at Glenn Elementary School as part of a new DPS Foundation initiative to address food insecurity during the coronavirus pandemic. Photo by Corey Pilson, The 9th Street Journal

‘Welcome home’ program helps residents returning from prison

Chuck Manning Sr. says the new program provides support at a critical time. Photo by Katie Nelson

On his first day of freedom after a 13-year prison sentence, Reginald Mumford received a care package with a letter from Mayor Steve Schewel and met the peer support specialist who would help him adjust to life in Durham.

People who have been incarcerated are often neglected by policymakers, but Durham wants to send a clear message to people like Mumford: “Welcome home!”

Roughly 700 people return to Durham each year after doing time in a state prison. Often, they arrive without a job or stable housing. And, if they don’t have family in the area, a probation officer may be their only support system.

A year ago, the city directed its Innovation Team with finding a way to increase upward mobility for formerly incarcerated residents.

After spending months conducting interviews and collecting data, the Innovation Team created Welcome Home, a program that serves – and empowers – Durham residents returning from prison. The initiative works closely with the Local Reentry Council, a government program that helps them with job opportunities and other services, and other local organizations that provide assistance.

The program gets participants from three state prisons — Polk, Wake, and Orange — but organizers plan to expand to more and eventually include women’s prisons, too.

“Sometimes you can feel as if the world is against you,” said Chuck Manning Sr., the community outreach coordinator for the Innovation Team. He is one of the architects of the program and its peer support specialist.

Welcome Home helps people at a critical time. The first few weeks after being released can be especially difficult, and that’s when people are particularly at risk of slipping back into crime. When Manning returned home to Durham from prison five years ago, he remembers that there were no opportunities for him.

After applying to dozens of jobs with no success, he used a borrowed smoker and $145 to start his own barbeque catering business called Kwu’s Katering. When he’d run into people who knew him from before he went to prison, he told them that he had decided to change his life – and encouraged them to do the same.

Manning credits his success to two peer support specialists who helped him during this transition.

He’s now playing that role himself. He said he loves the work so much that he’d do it for free if he didn’t have four kids to support. “I look at this just like a case manager, but a case manager who’s actually been there and done that,” Manning said. “A case manager with a heart.”

When Manning met Mumford, the first Welcome Home participant, he explained the peer support program and presented him with a Welcome Home box.

Inside, there’s a week’s worth of food and a month’s worth of toiletries as well as a bus pass, a  $25 gift card to Wal-Mart, a cell phone, and a letter from Mayor Steve Schewel.

“It’s the small things,” Manning said. “A lot of these guys have done their time, and they’re ready to change their lives. They just need somebody that’s on their side.”

But the most important offering in the Welcome Home program is the peer support specialist, or someone who can be what Manning calls a “standing model of change.”

“Chuck is keeping me on a positive path and I’m not really worried about getting in trouble because I know how to stay out of trouble,” said Mumford. “I can never get back the 13 years that were taken away from me, but I can look forward to a brighter future.”

The 52-year-old is staying with his godmother in Durham and focusing on transitioning back into society.

Manning found out that Mumford didn’t know how to use a smartphone — there were only flip phones when he went to prison in 2006. So, they met at the McDonald’s downtown so that Manning could teach him how to use the device.

Manning also has connected him with a program to help him get back his disability benefits. And they bought a pair of slacks that Mumford can wear to job interviews.

Looking forward, Manning said the Welcome Home initiative needs broad community support not just from the usual suspects — (Nonprofits and churches have strong roots in reentry work in the city.) — but the thriving businesses and wealthy people who also call Durham home.

“Those individuals need to donate, purchase some boxes, help employ some of these guys,” Manning said. “This is a new Durham we’re living in; let’s not forget about the people who aren’t benefiting from it.”