An open door for Peter*

Boys' Haven

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By Julie Rattey

Peter, 13, could feel his heart pounding as he waited for his mother to open the door.

It was strange, knocking on the door of his own home as if he were a stranger. But he was a stranger, in a way. Since his mother had been arrested on drug charges when he was 7, Peter and his brothers and sisters had been separated and shuttled through foster care. By then, Peter was already used to having to scrape by: He had cared for his baby sister, earned money by bringing people’s groceries to their cars, and stolen food to feed his family. Unlike other kids, Peter hadn’t spent much time thinking about what he wanted to be when he grew up. He had just wanted to stay alive.

Now, six years later, he would be living with his mother again — if she could manage to stay clean. He remembered when their very house, a subsidized unit in one of the roughest neighborhoods in the West End of Louisville, Kentucky, had been the local crackhouse. Police sirens, gunshots, and the shuffling about of addicted squatters in his attic were sounds familiar to his child’s ears.

At the sound of a chain unlatching, Peter recalled himself to the present. The door opened just enough for him to see half his mother’s face, her dark eyes blinking back at him.

“Hi,” he said.

His mother nodded, openingthe door. Peter quickly sized up the place. It looked clean enough. The electricity was on, as a dingy lamp next to the sofa testified. There were no drug paraphernalia lying around. It was a start.


One afternoon about a month later, Peter walked into the house and tossed his backpack onto the kitchen table. The house was quiet. It was a dull gray day, and the living room was lit by little else than the insistent flashing of the TV in one corner. The only sound was the superficial, seductive voice of a television model selling shampoo.

“Give yourself a break at the end of a hard day,” the woman coaxed, tossing an impossibly silky mane in slow motion toward the camera. “Revel in the soothing sensations of…”

“Hey, Ma,” Peter began, and then froze. Lying on the kitchen table was a man’s black leather jacket — definitely not his — along with an empty plastic bag and several hundred-dollar bills. Peter looked up to see his mother’s closed bedroom door and realized she wasn’t alone. Disgust, disappointment, shame, anger, and despair mixed and rose up like fire in his chest.

“Life is hard,” the female announcer said. “So why not indulge yourself a little?”

Peter stalked over to the TV and punched up the volume. The woman’s voice rose to a silken roar.

“Why wait another minute?” she cooed deafeningly after him as he banged the front door on his way out. “It’s all here waiting for you!”


Ten years later, 23-year-old Peter stood outside yet another door, waiting to see if it would be open to him. Words from a decade earlier rang in his head. “It’s Boys’ Haven or boot camp,” his social worker had told him, referring to a residential treatment program for abused and at-risk kids. Back then, when he was 13 and again on his own — drinking, stealing, doing drugs — it had been so easy to knock on the door of Boys’ Haven and walk inside. It was anything but easy today.

In Peter’s mind, Boys’ Haven had been, and was still, the only good thing that had ever happened to him. The people there had helped him work through his anger and substance abuse, gotten him back into school. He had learned that there was, in fact, a God, and, moreover, that that God was capable of making something good out of everything bad he had suffered. He had graduated from high school with a world of possibility ahead of him… and then he had walked away. Old habits were hard to break. But now Peter was tired of drifting, so here he was, standing in front of the only door behind which he knew he was sure to find something good. It was embarrassing, but it was his only hope.

“Peter!” Patrice Morrow, a counselor who had become like a mother to Peter during his stay at Boys’ Haven, opened the door with a gasp of pleasure. She hugged him immediately. “I’m so glad to see you,” she said. “Come with me. I have something to show you.”

She led him up the hill in back of the administration building to a construction site. Peter soon found himself breathing in the earthy smell of dirt and grass and listening to the industrious sound of tools on freshly cut wood.

“This is our new equine program,” Patrice said. “Participants will learn to build barns, saddle horses, muck stalls — all the usual stuff .”

“Whose idea was this?” Peter asked, trying not to sound as enthusiastic as he already felt.

“Who’s in charge?”

“Me,” said a voice. Peter turned to see Jay Wilkinson — retired police officer, Boys’ Haven employee, and, most importantly, the man who had taken Peter into his own home while Peter was finishing high school — standing behind him. There were flecks of sawdust in his short brown hair and mustache. His sleeves were rolled up and his boots and jeans were stained with mud and grass. He was a man of hard work and tough love; a man who knew the meaning of compassion but had always pushed Peter to the limit to excel. In seeing once again the face of the man he had looked up to so much, and whom he felt he had just as equally let down, Peter wanted to cry.

Jay placed a strong hand on Peter’s shoulder. The gesture spoke more than a thousand greetings. “Nice of you to come see us,” he said. “Come and have a look around.”

“We’ll have one stable here,” he continued after Patrice left , “and another here. Once everything’s built, we can start the six-month employment-training portion of the program. We’ll bring horses in; it will be a great opportunity for the kids, learning to take care of the horses and all that.”

“Who’ve you got on board so far?” Peter asked.

“No one yet,” Jay said casually, picking up a stray block of wood and brushing the sawdust off it carefully with his gloved hand. “We’re just getting started. We could use a first recruit.” He picked up a saw and began working on a fresh hunk of wood.

Peter slipped his hands in his pockets and turned in a slow circle on the grass, taking in the open space, the wood, the hammer and nails, the saws. Right now, it was only the beginning of a framework. The start of something new.

Having made up his mind, Peter stepped over to Jay and held out his hand. “Hand me that saw, will you? I’m gonna be here a while.” CD

* Based on the story of a young man whose name has been changed for privacy. Research for this story was conducted with the assistance of Jim Grote, Director of Development for Boys’ Haven.

Managing Editor Julie Rattey

Julie Rattey is a Boston-based writer and editor. She is the author of If I Grew Up in Nazareth, available from