Man of the House

You can’t describe his job in a sentence. It would take a book.

C.W. Earsley takes care of the house. He keeps the vehicles running. He cooks for a hundred people at a time. He travels around the city to advocate for the poor. He works with people suffering from addiction. He brings in donations and finds volunteers and manages almost everything that happens at The House in one way or another.

“He’s my right hand man,” says Sister Grace. “He’s multi-talented. It would take a team of people to replace him. I don’t know what we would do without him.”

This remarkable man is a mainstay of The House, a vital cog in our mission. But his importance goes beyond his expert multi-tasking. He’s a forceful advocate for the poor. A gifted counselor. And a very important member of the House’s Board of Directors. He also has a spiritual presence—a gravitas—that wins respect from everyone—rich and poor, the powerful and powerless.

But there is another aspect to this story that must be told. C. W. almost lost his life during an attempted robbery at The House on New Year’s Eve in 2003. He spent 20 months in the hospital re-learning how to talk and walk and regain his mobility.

After such a sacrifice, most people would move on to the next chapter of their lives. But not C. W. Earsley. Instead, he returned to help the poor and homeless people who depend on The House of Mercy.

“I knew they needed me,” he says in his quiet, but commanding voice. “So I came back to help them. ”

A Former Army Cook Takes Over the Kitchen

It was a dark night in his own life that first led C.W. to The House of Mercy. His marriage had ended. He had quit his job with the Transit Authority. He gave up drinking and shut down the nightclub he had operated in the north part of town.

For six months, he didn’t do anything. But then in the fall of 1988, right before Thanksgiving, he knew he needed to get his life back on track. So he visited an old acquaintance, Sister Grace Miller, whom he’d known for almost 20 years.

CW. asked for help paying his rent. In return, Sister Grace asked him if he knew anything about food. Because it was the day before Thanksgiving. And there would soon be a lot of mouths to feed in the desperately poor neighborhood on Central Park.

C.W. didn’t take long to answer. He had studied the culinary arts at RIT. Served as a cook in the Army. And he had worked in the food service industry for several years.

“Yes, I know something about food,” he said. So Sister Grace sent him to the kitchen. And C.W. carved turkeys and hams into the night, making enough to serve nearly a hundred people on a small, four-burner family stove.

He came back the day after Thanksgiving and put the stockroom in order. Then he took over the entire food operation at the House. And he began reaching out to parishes and grocery stores and the Boy Scouts and other organizations to help feed the hungry.

Right from the beginning, C.W.’s energy and managerial talents were easy to see. But it took time for him to learn how to work with people who suffer from lifelong poverty, addiction and mental illness.

In the military, he had risen to the rank of Drill Instructor. So he was used to ordering people around. But the cut-and-dried Army approach wasn’t right for The House of Mercy.

“I listened to Sister Grace and Father Neil and I learned from their example,” he recalled. “’Respect everyone. Don’t judge them. Do your best to help them. And let God take care of the rest.’ It’s a mission based on compassion and spirituality. After awhile, I could see the impact it made on our people. And I took it to heart myself.”

 Evolution of a Man with a Mission

In 1992, C.W. turned down a food service job at a local college to take a full-time position at the House. Two years later, he helped The House move to its present location, managing all the details and logistics. After that, he began living at The House around the clock, working as the on-site supervisor. He was literally on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Every year, it seemed, he took on more responsibilities. And he developed a deep interest in spirituality. After many long talks with Sister Grace and Father Neil, he converted to Catholicism.

He also worked closely with Father Neil to help people recover from alcoholism and addiction. The two men opened a relapse prevention program at a House of Mercy program called Farbridge House. More than 20 people have since made the long, difficult journey to sobriety with help from C.W. and Father Neil.

In addition to 10,000 other assignments, he ran a summer camp for 10 years, managing 75 children and leading them on marches to museums and playgrounds. He also became a forceful advocate for the poor and homeless, helping them navigate the system and fight for their rights.

And then came the night his life changed forever.

A Near Death Experience

It was New Year’s Eve, 2003. C.W. was working in the House office. The door suddenly swung open and a stranger’s voice said, “Give me your money.” Before C.W. could look up, a gun went off. And the next thing he knew, he was on the floor, unable to move, unable to speak.

“I thought I was dead,” he recalled.

The next thing he knew, firefighters were running into the room. Then his mind went blank. When he woke up in the hospital several days later, he got the news. The robber’s bullet pierced his neck and damaged his spinal cord. And he would probably never walk or talk again.

It was a terrible time. And his mind was filled with bitter thoughts. But his mother, Sister Grace and Melissa Sydor Kauffman, a dedicated volunteer, stayed with him almost every night. And haltingly he began all of the tedious therapies that might make a difference.

For a long time, progress was painfully slow and the recovery uncertain. But people around him wouldn’t let him give up. A member of the nursing staff even came in on her off days to encourage him to get out of bed and rebuild his strength.

Five months later, he could speak a few barely audible words. Eight months after that he raised his arms for the first time. And then he could finally see some hope for the future.

He saw something else. He was not alone in a desperate situation.

On another floor of the hospital, he met a teenage boy who had been shot. The child had lost all hope. And he wasn’t interested in physical therapy. But C.W. convinced him to give it a try. And gradually the boy made progress.

Once again, C.W. was a man on a mission. And it wasn’t long before the House of Mercy Board meetings were taking place at Monroe Community Hospital.

“Even from the bed, I thought I was back in the swing of things.”

The Long Road Back to the House

Twenty long months after the shooting, C.W. left the hospital for good. He moved from a wheelchair to a walker to a four-pronged cane. But some things would never heal. His left leg was paralyzed. He could barely wiggle the fingers on his left hand.

Understandably, his family wanted him to retire, given the sacrifice he had made. But C. W. came back to work for The House, mounting the back stairs slowly with his chrome-handled cane.

“I had to come back,” he says. “Something in my psyche made me.”

“C.W. hit rock bottom when he first came here,” Sister Grace recalled. “But even then I saw a lot of potential. He could handle anything and everything. And he has a real gift for working with people.

“Over time, he became a vital part of our mission. And even after he was shot, he didn’t abandon us, because he knew we needed him. He loves the people we help. And they love him too.”

“I found my niche at the House of Mercy,” C.W. says quietly.

And there are thousands of poor and homeless people in Rochester who are very glad he did.