Kindness, help took this hard worker a long way

December 12, 2010

Everyone loves an inspirational story, especially this time of year. You know the kind I mean: A person succeeds against all odds. Someone’s life is changed by acts of kindness. The human spirit is renewed in an unlikely place — say, for instance, a grocery store aisle.

For all of that and more, it would be hard to top Lewis Matherly’s story.

Matherly was born 57 years ago with mental disabilities to an alcoholic mother and a father who soon abandoned them. “A lot of the boys on the street used to pick on Lewis, so my brothers and I would take up for him,” said David Duncan, who lived nearby in the blue-collar neighborhood behind The Red Mile.

When Virginia and Harry Duncan moved their family to a new home on Alexandria Drive, they sometimes returned to Curry Avenue to bring Matherly out to play with their three sons and three daughters.

Beginning at age 7, Matherly did odd jobs and delivered newspapers to earn money. Often, though, his mother took his money to buy herself liquor. As Matherly grew older, their relationship grew worse.

“She booted me out the door when I was 14 and told me to hit the road,” Matherly said. “I was sleeping under a bridge, and it was winter like this.”

Virginia found Matherly under that bridge one night and took him home with her. He has lived with the Duncan family ever since.

School was hard, so Matherly dropped out after the ninth grade and went to work with Harry, a brick mason. “He taught me how to work and make a living,” Matherly said. “He was a good teacher.”

Matherly worked as a mason’s helper with the Duncans and others for more than three decades. “It was hard work, but I liked it,” he said, explaining with pride how much he could do in a day.

“I’ll tell you what, he’s a worker,” said Mike Duncan, another of Matherly’s unofficial brothers. “He was sometimes the only one on a job you didn’t have to tell what to do.”

Harry died in 2002. The construction business slowed, and Matherly found other jobs, with Duncan family members and others. He learned to get around by walking or taking LexTran buses.

But when Virginia died last year, Matherly said he panicked. Angry with God for taking her, he walked out of the house — and kept on walking. After about 10 miles, Matherly said, “The Lord told me to go back home.”

Matherly now lives in Gardenside with one of his unofficial sisters, Kathy Duncan Huggins, and her husband, Andy. “We always told Mom not to worry about Louie; we had his back,” she said. “He’s a joy to have around. He’d do anything for you.”

Matherly wanted to continue working — to be as self-sufficient as possible — but he needed more help than the Duncans could give him. He found it at Employment Solutions Inc., a non-profit organization that helps train and place people who have what social workers call “barriers to employment.”

Staff members assessed Matherly’s skills, got him hearing aids and helped him get a job in October stocking shelves at the Kroger store on Bryan Station Road. Except for the overnight hours, Matherly loves his job.

“They’ve got great people out there,” he said. “They’ve been very patient with me. I’m getting faster now.”

I have always admired Kroger for employing people with special needs. They often put enormous pride and effort into their work.

“It’s a reflection of our company’s desire to have an inclusive culture,” Kroger spokesman Tim McGurk said. Store managers are not required to hire special-needs people, he said, “But many do, because it’s often a win-win situation for Kroger and for the employee.”

Matherly and Kroger were honored last week by Employment Solutions as part of its annual “community partners” luncheon. Dale Walker, of the organization’s Bluegrass Career Services unit, nominated Matherly as the client who most inspired her.

As Walker told Matherly’s story and presented him with a plaque, three of the five surviving Duncan “children” proudly applauded — and tried not to cry.

“We work with a lot of people with harrowing stories,” said Nicole Dummitt, director of Bluegrass Career Services, which helped place about 100 people in Lexington-area jobs over the past year.

“They don’t all come from having lived under a bridge, but they’ve all needed a little help overcoming an obstacle that was keeping them from working,” she said. “Sometimes, just a few little things can make an enormous difference in someone’s life.”