The last time that I saw Joel, he came over to my house. We talked for a while, and we laughed, we always laughed. When Joel was ready to leave, he came over to hug me, and he told me that he loved me. I loved him too! Many people in and out of the rooms of recovery loved him. Joel touched many hearts on his journey of life. Joel left this Earth in late July of 1997. Addiction had claimed his life. He was laid to rest without some of us knowing. We had to do something special to remember our friend.
We organized a beautiful celebration of life and friendship. A memorial service was held at Joel’s resting place. On August 13, 1997, a group of Joel’s friends from recovery gathered at Joel’s grave site. On the way to the cemetery, rain was pouring from the dark sky. When Joel’s memorial service started, the rain stopped and bright sunlight shined through the clouds. Joel’s resting place is a beautiful spot overlooking a cliff with a spectacular mountain view and a magnificent skyline. A very spiritual and peaceful place.
When we found Joel’s grave, it was unmarked. We laid white roses on the grave to symbolize life and peace. A triangle was formed out of red flowers for love, yellow flowers for friendship, and more white flowers for peace. The triangle stands for unity, service, and recovery. A stand was erected to hold a large record made out of flowers. The record was yellow and black, with red roses, and baby’s breath. A yellow ribbon that draped across the record read: “For Joel, Dance Free!”
We all knew that Joel loved music. He loved to spin records, and he loved to dance. His mom was a dance instructor, so he grew up with music and dance as major influences in his life. Three of us laid our recovery medallions on Joel’s grave. You see, these were the most precious gifts that we could each leave with our friend. A Saint Francis prayer that was carved into the wood was also placed on the grave. Billy made a cross out of branches and placed it on Joel’s grave. We prayed we cried, we sang, we listened to music, and we spent time with our fallen friend.
The song, “Love,” by John Lennon started to play from a portable tape player. Just then, the wind picked up, and it seemed as though the reeds at the edge of the cliff were dancing. A single bird flew overhead, and a rabbit hopped along the grass. There was an incredible celebration of life, friendship, and love. We knew that Joel loved his mother very much. We wanted her to know that no addict or alcoholic ever dies in vain. God has a reason for everything, and will use all things for his good, in his perfect timing. Joel’s friends will always remember, and love him.
My friend Joel still teaches me to see and to remember the moment. Joel reminds me every day to say yes to life! Love heals people: both the ones who give love and the ones who receive love. The heart that loves is always young: Joel was very young. Joel taught me that my best friend is the one who brings out the best in me. I pray that I will always remember Joel’s smile, his laughter, and the love in his eyes. I must always remember his message of recovery, and the price that he paid. I know that God has a plan that my limited mind could never comprehend. There is a reason for everything, and nothing, absolutely nothing happens in God’s world by mistake.
Because of the pain of Joel’s death, I wrote a poem called “Dance Free.” I had never written anything in my entire life until that day. I don’t know how I wrote it, I just did. The miracles just kept coming.
It seemed as if I were coming out of a dream when I stopped talking at the young people’s meeting at the church in Kent. As I looked around at the thirty or so people, they were all crying. We all had been touched by something special. I believe that the something special was God’s grace and mercy for the suffering. One young man came up to me after the meeting. He said, “My name is Matt, and I want to thank you for sharing your heart with all of us tonight.” I told him that it was my pleasure to share with everyone at the meeting. It was a pleasure!
The next day, I said my good-byes to friends at the farm. I left High Watch and headed West to Pennsylvania. I had plans to look at some property. My family and I had been interested in opening a recovery facility for some time. It would take another miracle for that ever to happen. It would take money, hard work, volunteers, and lots of prayers!
On June 13, 1998, in Beach Lake, Pennsylvania, a dedication service was held. Joel’s House at New Beginning Ministry, Incorporated was dedicated in Joel’s memory. Joel’s mother planted a tree next to Joel’s House. The rain was pouring from the dark sky. Just before Joel’s mother was ready to plant the tree, bright sunlight shined through the darkness once again! (New Beginning is a nonprofit corporation that helps all those in need. Joel’s House is the men’s sober house at New Beginning. New Beginning’s recovery program is based on the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous. The program is modeled after High Watch Farm in Kent, Connecticut. New Beginning is a real miracle!)
The dedication flagstone at Joel’s House reads: “And it shall come to pass afterward that I shall pour out my spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and daughters shall prophesy; your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions.” Joel 2:28 (The Bible)
It has been more than nineteen years since my last drink of alcohol. Many more friends have died since then. I carry my fallen friends in my heart and my memory. None of them died in vain. I will continue to tell their stories as long as I live. I am so grateful to have known all of them: And to have shared moments in time with real friends. Today my life is dedicated to service. I owe my life to recovery, to God’s mercy and grace. I thank God for the friends that loved me when I could not love myself. My heroes! I would not be alive today without all the love and the support that I received from friends and family. Sometimes when I reflect upon my life today, I smile, laugh, or cry. I can feel feelings without running away, or running toward addiction. I am very grateful for the gifts that I have. Sobriety is the greatest of these. My life is a miracle!
Today Joel’s House and New Beginning Ministry are helping men and women, young and old to recover from addiction, we feed the hungry, and house the homeless. We assist those in prison, clothe the needy, and love the unwanted. We say yes to life every day. As for my poem, “Dance Free,” that was the first of many writings. In the past nineteen years, I’ve become a best-selling author, an internationally published poet and writer, with over five hundred published works. I know that I have lots of Angels in Heaven that guide my pen. I know that I have a lot more to say. I know that all my gifts in this life are a result of God’s grace, recovery, friendship, and love.
God takes everything and uses it for his good. I will always miss the company of my friends and family that have died. I would like to think, that when they look down upon this Earth, that they smile and are proud of their friend. In life, what sometimes appears to be the end is really the beginning. Life is a journey; I want to seize every moment of every day.
The last few years have been difficult; my mother passed on, and my father who turned eighty-six in January of this year is battling cancer. I ended up in a wheelchair from arthritis a few years ago. The Ministry has struggled financially every month for the last five years; however, enough funds always seem to come in just to keep our doors open.
Thousands of lives have been changed and saved in the past two decades at this miracle in the Poconos! Some of the former guests now have double digits of sobriety and are back as staff at New Beginning. The original team now retired or close to retirement, the ministry needs committed younger people with a heart for recovery to fill positions on the board of directors and the staff. We would like to see this labor of love continue to save lives for decades to come; the need has never been greater than it is now. If you have a calling to do this type of ministry, give us a call, you might be the next director!
Rev. Dr. Kevin T. Coughlin Ph.D.