Lenny Steele has been living in community housing in Cessnock with Home in Place since 2017. After serving his country, then falling victim to alcohol abuse, he rebuilt his life and continues to support other people struggling with addiction during his retirement.
After leaving high school, Lenny worked at the local bank, before joining the Navy as a meteorologist aboard numerous war vessels for five years.
Lenny served in Vietnam for seven months, receiving several medals for his service, before he turned to alcohol, landing him in Holsworthy Military Prison for three months before being discharged.
Lenny said the following years were hard.
“I ended up on skid row in my 20s, often being locked up for the night due to drunkenness,” Lenny said.
He recalls one day being pulled out of a cells by a police officer who said ‘You’re not a bad bloke sober, but every time you’re drunk, you’re nothing but a pest’.
“I was 25 then. He pointed me to James Fletcher Hospital. I joined a detox program there in 1974 and have been sober ever since.”
Knowing firsthand the harmful effects of alcohol abuse, Lenny strives to help others find the strength to quit, just as he did.
“I volunteered at Morisset hospital for 16 years. I was working in construction at the time but would run rehab groups for them two or three nights a week. From there I worked at Cessnock Jail for 18 years, working in the remand and minimum-security divisions, running the Phoenix Program. This program informed drug and alcohol users of the detrimental effects that follow
“I would even provide support for the Prison Staff”.
He still gets recognised on the street by reformed criminals. “I would treat the inmates and prison officers how I wanted to be treated myself, and I got on pretty good with them.”
“I was even friendly with the Underbelly guys. Lenny McPherson would often visit me in my office for a chat, simply because we shared the same name.”
Following retirement, Lenny continued volunteering to run weekly drug and alcohol programs at the prison.
“Addiction is a big problem, 82% of inmates are there because of drug and alcohol abuse.”
Lenny’s late wife, Cherie, would also volunteer at the jail, helping inmates with literacy problems.
In 2010, the Glen Rehab Centre at Chittaway Bay reached out to Lenny. He still runs a drug and alcohol program there twice a week. He is hoping to resume volunteering at the jail once COVID restrictions permit.
Lenny’s unit in Cessnock has a private courtyard, as well as communal green spaces. It is close to where his daughter lives.
He said he and his wife grew very fond of the area.
“Cherie would say if I wanted to leave here, I’d have to carry her out. She said she felt more comfortable here than anywhere else we have lived.”
“I grow pumpkins and all kinds of vegetables. I give everyone at the complex tomatoes, capsicums and cucumbers.”
“When we moved in, my wife and I enjoyed doing up the communal gardens, then the other tenants got involved.
“Home in Place staff have been really good to us. They have been a great help, especially since my wife passed away this year”.
Lenny has a place to call home and is continuing to support his fellow tenants as a member of the Home in Place Tenant Reference Group and Our Voice Panel.