LACONIA — Deb Calley, 67, is at a place in her life when she isn’t putting up with it any more. A few years ago, when she saw a man and a child walking through the city without hats or gloves, she decided to do something about it.
This is now the third winter that Calley, along with her grandson, Cannon Neal, have collected warm articles of clothing and made them available to the homeless population in Laconia. For the first two years, hats, scarves and mittens were left tied to branches and railings at Rotary Park. This year, at the request of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, Calley has found a dry place to leave the outerwear, which now includes sweatshirts and coats. On Wednesday morning, she made her first delivery of the year to Isaiah 61 Café, which offers a warm gathering place and a hot, midday meal to anyone who wants it.
“These are beautiful,” Dawn Longval, one of the founders of Isaiah 61 said as Calley helped volunteers unload the warm clothing, which filled both the rear hatch and back seat of her Suzuki. “Thank you,” Longval said.
The items had been donated by members of the public, dropped into boxes at Vista Foods and Paradise Island Tanning. Some were new, some were gently used, and many appeared to be hand-made by someone skilled with a crochet hook.
Prior experience tells Calley that all of the items will soon be picked up by people without a warm place to escape winter’s cold. She knows what that’s like, she said.
“I was homeless at 14,” she told Longval, when she dropped off her shipment. “I would have given anything for a blanket.”
Calley said her life was “ruined” by the woman her father married when she was a girl. She was living in Lynn, Massachusetts, at the time. “My stepmother didn’t like me much,” she said. Her stepmother, with assistance from her son and brother – Calley’s stepuncle and stepbrother – tortured and abused Calley while her father was at work, and when he came home, she said, they lied to him about Calley’s behavior while he was gone.
“From when I was 11 to when I was 14, I was abused in every way you could be abused,” Calley said. She resorted to hiding in her room until her dad got home, which is when he and her stepmother would start fighting. “I knew, when the arguing stopped, he was going to come to my room with the belt.”
After three years, her stepmother finally convinced her father that Calley was no good, so they turned her out. “She packed two little suitcases for me and stuck me out on the curb like garbage,” she said.
Calley found a way to survive on the street. She slept under people’s porches, and waited until it was dark enough to dig through trash cans for food. Then she made her way to the neighboring town of Swampscott, which she said was a better place to be a homeless teenage girl. She made friends there, and the mother of one of her friends got her enrolled in high school. Eventually, she was able to get a job, and then rented a room in a boarding house.
And her father, full of regret, came to find her. “He said, give me another chance, I’ll never fail you again. He kept his word until he died.” Her father didn’t leave his wife, but he did go behind her back to maintain a relationship with his daughter. That relationship continued until his death in 2007. He didn’t want his daughter to have to face her abusers at his bedside or at his funeral, so he made sure the funeral home was instructed to allow Calley in, after the rest of the bereaved had left, so she could be the last one to say goodbye.
“I had to keep it quiet,” Calley said, “but I got my dad back.”
Their relationship was a secret, until two years ago, a decade after his death. Calley, who has finally come to terms with the misfortune of her youth, said that a defining moment for her came in 2017. “I sat down and I wrote a letter to the three people who destroyed my life,” she said. The letter, 20 pages long, included every detail of each abuse and assault she suffered at the hands of her stepmother, stepuncle and stepbrother. And she made copies of the letter, which she also sent to their children, so that they could see the full picture of their parent.
Calley said she can still recall the feeling that she experienced when she dropped those letters into the mailbox.
“I felt such a sense of relief that I finally held them accountable for what they did to me,” she said. “It’s been tough.”
If they set out to destroy her, they did not succeed. After Calley graduated from high school, she got a job at a nursing home as a nursing assistant, and she and one of her new co-workers rented an apartment together.
She hit it off with a guy who lived across the hall from her, and soon they were an item. After she really got to know him, there were things that came to bother her about him. He was possessive of her, suspicious even, and he abused pharmaceutical drugs. Calley was spending some time apart from him, when, one night, she got a call. There had been a fire, and her boyfriend didn’t make it out.
In her grief, Calley was consoled by some of her boyfriend’s friends, people he had met through motorcycling and who lived in the Lakes Region. They persuaded her to leave Massachusetts, and she has lived in the Laconia area ever since. She had a daughter in 1985 and, although the marriage didn’t last, she was able to give her daughter the life that she herself was denied.
“I wanted my daughter to have the best life she could have,” Calley said. “I couldn’t be more proud of the woman and mother she’s become.”
When Calley moved to New Hampshire, she found a career working in food service. She doesn’t work anymore. Instead she spends time with her oldest grandson, Cannon – “He’s a little man with an old soul,” she said – and thinks of worthy ways to spend her time.
She found such a worthy cause a few years ago in Laconia, when she saw a man carrying a young boy, both suffering without enough protection from the elements.
“You could tell they were freezing. I said, there’s too much of that.” Once she noticed that scene the first time, she said she began seeing people out on the street, without hats or gloves, far more frequently. “It’s just not right. I just do what I can do.”
What she can do, she found, is to put out boxes for people to drop off winter wear that they can part with. She will keep up all winter, and plans to next year as well, and has reached into her own pocket when the supply hasn’t met the need. This year, she’s started a GoFundMe page for people who want to help with cash donations. “Everybody has two or three jackets hanging around, two or three hats that they don’t wear, bring them down so they can use them,” she said.
Calley’s life has been far from easy. But, she said, the struggle has been worthwhile.
“Don’t ever give up,” she said. “As tough as times may be for you, pick yourself back up and move forward. Life is precious. I am so grateful for my daughter and two grandsons.”