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Clean, sober and playing Santa...

Recovering addicts collect toys for St. Christopher's patients

This year Billy Howell and his buddies' toy drive has been bigger than ever. Stocked on his dining room table are more than 150 toys they have collected for the children at St. Christopher's Hospital. (Photo by Kia Gregory)
This year Billy Howell and his buddies' toy drive has been bigger than ever. Stocked on his dining room table are more than 150 toys they have collected for the children at St. Christopher's Hospital. (Photo by Kia Gregory)Read more

Sitting near the Christmas tree in his Kensington home, Big Billy Howell cupped his hand over his cell phone and yelled the news - "We got 36 more dollars!" - to his once-broken buddies.

Howell was surrounded by Joe the Mouth; the Island, a colossus of a man in Cowboys blue; dark-haired Dave F; Johnny the Real Deal; and the wiry Uncle Skunkel.

The half-dozen men are all "Kenzos," bonded through blue-collar ties and years of sitting together in a church basement at alcohol- and drug-recovery meetings.

Stacked on Howell's dining-room table are towers of toys - board games, dolls, race cars, action figures - about 150 Christmas gifts the guys have collected for the young patients at nearby St. Christopher's Hospital for Children.

It's the third year of their homespun toy drive, a word-of-mouth campaign.

And now it's nothing for Howell, a chubby, giggly guy once written off as a loser, to come home from his job as a forklift operator and find a doll tucked in his door, below the Christmas wreath.

"It's amazing what people will do in this economy," said Howell, 40, clean and sober three years, "on the word of somebody who had no credibility whatsoever. My mom and dad didn't want me, they were scared, and this thing, it gave me hope."

Howell and his friends have also collected more than $1,500 in cash and gift cards to load up even more toys and deliver them to the hospital on Saturday.

They started out by passing a collection basket during their 12-step meetings, which resulted in $300 that bought three bags of toys. Last year, the spirit spread throughout the neighborhood to families, businesses, and other recovery groups.

Through deep snow, Howell and company loaded up and caravanned to the hospital. They dropped off 100 gifts, filling one and a half gurneys in the lobby.

"I didn't expect that many," said Candy Nyce, director of Child Life Services at St. Christopher's. "It's really amazing."

This Christmas there will be 135 patients in the hospital, from newborns to college freshmen, from intensive care to recovery.

In the dark economy, Nyce said, toy donations have waned. Typically, families of former patients give a few presents, and churches, nonprofits, and corporations donate bagfuls. Days before Christmas, there's hot chocolate with Santa, when every patient gets a present, many from Howell and the other Kenzos. And on Christmas Eve, nurses gently place gifts on sleeping children's beds.

"Outside," said Nyce, "their friends may be going to see Santa and going to parties. The toys help them cope with being in the hospital."

At the hospital, patients' siblings get toys, too, Nyce said, as do outpatients and families who can't afford Christmas.

"This is an opportunity to make some child's Christmas better," said Joe the Mouth, 50, who sells corrugated boxes for a living. "Somebody helped me for nothing. If these guys didn't put their hands on me and share their hope and experience with me, I might not be here today."

It's a testimony all the men share.

"I was a piece of crap out there," Howell said. "It was just a nightmare. It started with alcohol and ended with whatever."

Rock bottom hit him four years ago. Busted for drugs, Howell sat in a Philadelphia jail, reading a letter from his then-17-year-old daughter.

"Dear Billy," it began. "I choose to call you Billy because you've never been a dad."

"I read it every day," Howell said, his voice crumbling. "I don't think I was . . . I was in and out for most of her life."

Howell grew up in a "good family" of six kids, with plenty of hand-me-downs, he said. His father was a roofer, and his mother stayed at home and cared for the family.

He bounced through schools for his bad behavior, and started drinking when he was 14.

"And it kept going on," starting with beer and spiraling to harder stuff. "Every day, all day, as much as I could."

The hole inside him only grew.

Howell and the guys describe addiction as trying to fill a void you never can fill that cost them everything.

"My wife, my children, house, car - I lost everything," said Joe the Mouth.

"You didn't lose everything," Uncle Skunkel, 64, with a crew cut and round glasses, clean for 10 solid years, chided gently.

"That's right, that's right." said the Mouth. "I'm still here. And I'm happier than I've ever been."

Now, "it's about filling our souls with friends and love," said Dave F, a truck driver for 30 years who during his haze lost his 26-year-old son to an OxyContin overdose. "Like what we're trying to do here."

For them, giving back is part purpose, part penance. Their motto is "pay it forward." And they believe that when you help someone, you're helping yourself.

"It's a feeling inside," Howell said. "I can't put a place on it, but I know I've been searching for it my whole life. It's just . . . I don't know. . . . Those children don't have no say in their life. That's what motivates me."

He paused, then continued: "Children, they got a shot. Who knows what a toy would do for a kid?"

Their recovery program is called 12 Step Fellowship. Along with dozens of others, they gather at Frankford Memorial Church four times a week for hour-long meetings. It's a kinship that extends beyond the church. They share family dinners, movie outings, fishing trips, ball games, and holidays.

They've learned that they can't achieve recovery on their own, and that giving is at the heart of recovery.

"These are people I can count on every day," Howell said. "And I look forward to seeing them."

In his living room, decorated with Christmas stockings and a Santa doll, the conversation moves to the Phillies and the return of their all-star pitcher. Soon, there's a knock on the door. It's Howell's 21-year-old daughter dropping off a bag of toys.

Before she leaves, they hug at the door. "Love you," Howell calls, and he returns to his chair near the Christmas tree, smiling brightly