Reflecting on the period before he got sober, 31-year-old Cody Lawrence described himself in two words: “walking death.”
After going months without using, a relapse sent the South Side resident spiraling. During six-week period, he overdosed on heroin 12 times—three of them were DUIs. In each instance, he was revived with Narcan.
Once he got out of jail, he went to detox and enrolled in the Serenity Street Foundation’s rehabilitation program on the South Side in June 2019. By late July 2020, he had been clean for 13 months.
“(Serenity Street) has been, hands down, the best thing that ever happened to me,” Lawrence said. “They teach you how to be a man, which is something that I thought I knew. And I had no clue what I was doing.”
The man behind Serenity Street is Terry Kelley, who founded the nonprofit in 1996 after recovering from his own battle with alcoholism. The program is exclusive to men, who live in a residential care facility for one year. Then, they transition to the graduate house across the street and mentor men in the program.
“I just had a passion to help men in similar situations as me but who didn’t have any resources,” said Kelley, 61, of German Village. “I had the time and the resources and the desire.”
Each year, Serenity Street serves about 12 men, with a graduation rate of about 60%. The rate of maintaining sobriety after they leave is even higher, Kelley said. During the past 24 years, nearly 300 men have come through the program, which Kelley believes is successful because of the focus on long-term care and stable housing.
Kelley, who has a business degree from Ohio State, sustains Serenity Street through grants and annual fundraisers. He also helps find employment for the men in the program, who, in turn, pay a modest room and board fee.
“We’ve connected with employers who are willing to give our guys a shot,” said Kelley, who has gotten men jobs as electricians, iron workers, and in warehouses and restaurants. “Most of our guys have felony convictions and erratic work histories.”
Employment is one part of the foundation’s three-pronged approach to recovery. The second component is a 12-step recovery group. The men attend meetings at the Ohio Avenue Meeting Hall on the South Side, which used to be Kelley’s Tavern—owned by Kelley’s grandparents from 1941 to 1985.
Kelley purchased the building in 2016 through his World Partnership Foundation, which also sponsors missionary trips overseas.
Kelley said the men are not triggered by meeting in the former bar, and he has fond childhood memories associated with the watering hole. “We’d go down there and have burgers and fries with my dad,” he said.
The third component of Serenity Street is religion. The men are encouraged to strengthen their relationship with God through daily Bible study and Sunday services at Logos Bible Church in Pickerington. That aspect has especially resonated with Lawrence, who is now living in the graduate house.
“I always thought I could cure this on my own,” he said. “It was them pushing me back toward a purpose-driven life for God. … Being surrounded by guys that are like-minded for Christ—that has been the game-changer.”
Kelley said a major part of overcoming addiction is confronting denial.
“That usually requires a bottom,” he said. “You just hope they respond to that bottom. … They need to be woken up.”
Sober now for 30 years, Kelley said he hit bottom when he almost took his own life.
“I was in a lot of pain and anguish, just tortured by loneliness and other things that are symptomatic of addiction. … I had my last drink a week after that incident,” he said.
Kelley’s internal struggles didn’t end with sobriety. He was later diagnosed with bipolar disorder and felt a nagging emptiness in his life. That void was filled when he became a born-again Christian in 2003, the same year he made Serenity Street a faith-based organization.
He brought in Mike Roddy, associate pastor at Logos Bible Church, to be the foundation’s pastor and vice president.
“A lot of these guys have been taught and conditioned that their life doesn’t have any value,” said Roddy, 59, of Downtown. “We spend a lot of time trying to teach these guys, ‘You’re valuable because you’ve been created in God’s image and valuable because he loves you.’”
Roddy said the men work on building meaningful relationships, dealing with anger and giving back to the community.
“It’s been probably the most rewarding thing I’ve done in ministry,” he said. “I’ve baptized the guys in the program over the years. I’ve married several of the guys, and I’ve buried several of the guys. So it’s bittersweet, but when they come in here, I sense that they’ve got a real shot.”
The men who succeed are often able to repair relationships with their families, Kelley said.
“One of the most rewarding things is to see them become sons, brothers, uncles, dads (again),” he said. “Some of them have almost been disowned. … If they stay the course, they can be responsible family members again.”
That happened for Serenity Street graduate Ryan Sullivan, 32, of Dublin, who was promoted to house manager. He’s also engaged to be married.
“I ran from responsibility my entire life,” he said. “I took on the responsibility (at Serenity Street) and just ran with it and have been here ever since.”
Sullivan said Kelley is not intimidating in his leadership.
“He’s just very humble, soft-spoken and easy to talk to,” Sullivan said. “He’s just one of the guys when he’s around here, but he does so much more.”
Kelley said he has plans to remodel the meeting hall and provide more community outreach initiatives on the South Side. He also hopes to open a residential care facility for women trapped in a cycle of addiction and prostitution.
Sullivan said Kelley’s work is vital.
“People are still dying every day from this disease of alcoholism and addiction, and he’s on the frontlines,” he explained. “Guys go to (detox) and they have nowhere to go (after). … Terry gives them an opportunity to build their life back up and to leave with something that they can stand on, a foundation in recovery and also in their faith.”