Today, Janesville resident Bernie Baldwin’s eyes are clear, a shocking pale blue.

That in itself is a huge change compared to seven years ago, when Baldwin’s eyes often appeared watery, bloodshot, his gaze bleary at best.

Baldwin, 63, a chronically homeless man who has struggled with alcohol addiction much of his adult life, says he has now been sober for 17 months. You can see so by the clarity in his bright eyes.

He remembers the day about two years ago when he got serious about putting down the bottle.

At the time, Baldwin was homeless and found himself alone in a dark parking lot behind a downtown Janesville church. He had just taken a bath in the ice cold water of a park fountain along the riverfront.

Baldwin knelt on the dirty, wet pavement, praying for something to change.

Shortly after that parking lot prayer, Baldwin said he learned that GIFTS Men’s Shelter, a Janesville homeless shelter and social service center where Baldwin stayed on and off for the last few years, planned to open a thrift store.

An employment opportunity

The secondhand GIFTS Thrift Store, at the former Black Bridge Bowl at 1141 Black Bridge Road, now has been open almost a year.

The thrift shop, which had a soft opening last fall during the height of the pandemic, is hosting a belated grand opening celebration Saturday to show the community what donations to its resale shop can accomplish.

GIFTS shelter residents who volunteer at the resale shop will be on hand to meet residents.

It was intended to provide revenue, work opportunities, socialization and continued healing to the dozens of homeless men who are clients at GIFTS.

“When I first got back in the GIFTS shelter, they’d already worked on the resale shop for months and months. It was ready to open, and I thought I knew that my future was going to be with this store,” Baldwin said. “Somehow, the lord said it was what I should do. The lord said, ‘Don’t worry about it, I got this.’ So, I got pointed in that right direction, and everybody’s been helping me since.”

Alongside about a dozen others, Baldwin works 40 hours a week at the retail shop. His gig—sorting through thousands of pieces of clothing, electronics, housewares and other curios donated to the nonprofit resale shop—keeps Baldwin, a former moving company employee, busy.

And he earns money working at the shop, too, through a subsidized state training program available for at-risk and homeless elderly residents.

Seven years ago

In 2014, Baldwin and another local man, John Panos, spent an afternoon showing a Gazette reporter what the doldrums of summer were like at the time for local homeless residents.

Baldwin and Panos spent the bulk of their day drifting around the streets of downtown Janesville, sharing a bottle of cheap vodka.

At the time, both Panos and Baldwin bemoaned their plight. GIFTS in 2014 had not yet begun operating year round, and another drop-in shelter in the city’s Fourth Ward, which served as a stopgap during the shelterless summertime, was closing its doors permanently. That left men like Baldwin nowhere to stay. Winter on the streets can spell cold, illness and even death.

But life on the streets in summertime often can bring another problem: prolific drinking of alcohol.

Baldwin said he still runs into some of the homeless men he lived alongside in and out of shelters over the last decade. He said he last heard Panos had returned to his native Chicago, but it’s been years since he’s seen his friend.

Since 2014, a lot has changed. For one, GIFTS has transformed from what once was a fall/winter men’s shelter that migrated to a different local church week to week. Now, the shelter runs 24 hours year round at a permanent location.

GIFTS’ new executive director, Maryann Raash, said in the short time she has been at the helm of GIFTS (she was hired this summer), she has found the stories of men such as Baldwin captivating.

Baldwin gives back to GIFTS

Baldwin now says he’s a member of a local church where he used to stay back when GIFTS traveled from church to church. He also helps GIFTS, a faith-based nonprofit, run its daily religious devotionals, and he is up at 5 a.m. every day to get the shelter’s coffee brewing.

The resale shop is run by a mix of GIFTS residents and volunteers. But anyone dropping off donated items at the rear loading dock at GIFTS Thrift Shop might recognize Bernie Baldwin’s ruddy face, his short gray hair and bright, electric-blue eyes.

Baldwin is at times quiet and shy, but those who get to know him say they’ve learned he has become driven late in life. That’s in part because he’s getting an opportunity to reinvent himself and his circumstances through GIFTS.

GIFTS over the last few years has been running a transitional living apartment for shelter clients who have reached a point in their recovery from homelessness that they can move toward independent living.

Raash said Baldwin’s caseworkers at GIFTS believe he’ll be a candidate for the agency’s transitional living program, which helps GIFTS clients start handling their own finances and other responsibilities.

As he bales up piles of unsold donated clothing for re-donation to a humanitarian clothing recycler, Baldwin said he thinks about the shot he’s got at independence. He thinks about some of the wasted years he’s had on the streets. While Baldwin said he’s not ashamed of his past, he’s set his sights on the future.

“It was my way to thank GIFTS for just giving me a place to stay. My gosh. Before, when I was failing, I didn’t see it. I didn’t see how big a thing it was to have a place to stay,” Baldwin said. “I’ve worked for months here, and I’ve felt good the whole time. I’m healthy, focused and I’m having a blast. I realized if you just move forward and don’t stress, it’s not a bad time at all.”

Raash said Baldwin recently had an illness that kept him hospitalized for several weeks. He kept telling visitors he wanted out of the hospital.

“He said, ‘I just want to go home.’ By ‘home,’ he meant GIFTS,” Raash said. “That touched all of us. We wanted him home, too. It wasn’t the same when he was gone.”

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