Keith Wasserman Speakeasy Article

Keith Wasserman: an OU alum with a vision

by Maria Fisher, Staff Writer,

Sat, Aug. 12, 2006 | 7:00 pm

Husband, father, faithful Christian, part-time homeless man. Each of these phrases describes Keith Wasserman, an Ohio University alumnus and the founder of the local center for the homeless called Good Works.

Good Works began as a desire that Keith simply could not escape – a desire to help the homeless. In his senior year as an OU student, Keith remodeled the basement of his home and opened it up to homeless in the area. “I had these desires to open up my house,” Keith said. “And later I learned that you weren’t supposed to do these things. I think that naiveté is actually a gift.”

This naiveté proved to be a gift not only to Keith but to all of Appalachia as well, as the idea for Good Works began to form itself in his mind. He continued to follow what he believed to be his calling to help the homeless. “I think that ‘calling’ is a mysterious word. I think that clarity about what we’re supposed to do [in life] comes more in retrospect,” Keith explained. He said that he found what he believed he was created to do in this life by looking back after college and finding what he had done that had brought him joy and success – helping those who were brave enough to admit that they needed it.

Good Works was created in 1981 and has grown out of Wasserman’s basement into what it is today – an emergency shelter called The Timothy House and a long-term shelter called The Hannah House. Each of these names was inspired both by Biblical names and the names of people that Keith knows personally.

“In the Bible, Hannah prayed for a son,” Keith said. “When God gave her one, he became prophetic to his generation.” Keith further explained that his hope is not only to give shelter to the homeless, but to give them a new sense of themselves and their calling as well – which could possibly mean becoming a beacon to their own generation. Keith has seen many transformations occur throughout the life of Good Works – three former residents of the shelters are now paid, full-time members of his staff.

In addition to the two shelters, Good Works provides a number of other services to the Appalachian community including a summer kids camp and a variety of “Samaritan Projects”, in which volunteers from Good Works go into the surrounding community to help anyone who may need it. Workers on these projects have done everything from painting houses and building wheelchair ramps to mowing lawns.

Keith believes that many, if not all, of the students at OU are helplessly oblivious to the amount of poverty that surrounds them. “Out of sight, out of mind,” he says. But apart from the campus – which many students never really have an opportunity to leave – “we’re surrounded by poverty that in many ways is parallel to that of third-world countries.”

Keith’s word on this issue is perhaps just as reliable as a homeless man himself. Over the course of his life, Keith has deliberately lived ‘homeless’ in 8 cities across the U.S. He believes that it helped to keep his “reservoir of compassion” in check.

“The more I learn,” Keith said, “the more I learn what I need to learn.” He said that in his ‘homeless’ experiences in such U.S. cities as Lexington, Akron and Indianapolis, he learned things about the way the homeless are treated that he wanted his shelters to be free from. “I found myself in situations doing things that I would have previously judged people for doing,” Keith said. He gave the example of lying – when threatened one day by a man on the street who wanted money, Keith said that he had none even though he had $2.00 left in his pocket from the $5.00 he had just made after an entire day’s work of stripping tobacco. Afterwards, he realized that he was surprised by his own behavior.

“I did not consider myself a liar before that point,” Keith said. “But then it hit me…survival is the mission statement of the homeless. People end up turning into people that they would never envision themselves turning into.”

Keith said that his experiences revolutionized his thoughts about running a shelter. He changed his policies on making people wait out in the cold until the shelter officially opened for the day. He changed the way he viewed – and used – his own ‘power’ that he had by being the shelter’s owner. “I have to acknowledge that I am in a position of power,” he said, “and then promise to use it for good and to not abuse it.”

Keith admitted that joy in his work is his driving force behind all that he does for his community. “When you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing,” he said, “God gives you joy.”

But according to Keith, God has provided him with more than just joy. Good Works is wholly a non-profit organization. Although 90% of its funds come from individual donors, in the 25 years of its existence, Keith has never found his operation to be in debt.

Although Good Works is openly a Christian community, Keith believes in being evangelical without being manipulative. He does not talk about his faith with the homeless unless they approach him about it. There is also an “Inquirer’s Session” on Sunday nights during which anyone interested can learn about Christianity, but no one is forced to come.

Keith may never know what he has really done for the Appalachian community. In his own words, “the last animal to know what water is, is the fish,” meaning that when one is right in the thick of things, it’s hard to see how dramatic what they’re doing really is. Good Works is thriving proof that the brainchild of one man can turn into a saving grace for countless others.