On Wednesday September 11th 2013, after a 9 year period of sickness the Reverend Henry Wells died at his West York Street home surrounded by family members who say he spent a lifetime preparing for this day.
Henry T. Wells was born to humble parents in Florida in 1929. As a young man, Henry became a strong supporter of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and had the opportunity to march with him in Detroit. Being of modest means, Henry did whatever was necessary to survive in Florida. This often included working in the drug world. While sometimes profitable it was always dangerous. With government agencies hot on his heels he gathered what he had and fled to Philadelphia in 1975 to seek refuge with his mother. There he continued to involve himself in the drug trade where he watched his friends and family overdose and often die. In a “moment of sanity” Henry realized this life was not how he wanted to live. He began trying desperately to get clean and sober – a daunting task.
A bright spot of Henry’s recovery was meeting Margaret. Henry was immediately smitten with Margaret but she was less than impressed. With Margaret living across the street from Henry he set out to win her heart. He continued to work on his sobriety daily. In 1976, Henry opened Tommy’s Poor Man’s Friend furniture store which he operated from 1976-1979. During that time he continued to court Margaret. When asked what attracted her to him Margaret states, “while his persistence was flattering and he had such a way with words – it was his shiny boots.” Finally she gave in. They married on November 10, 1979.
As Margaret’s husband, Henry was eligible for health insurance benefits. With the help of their insurance provider Henry entered Geoffrey Hospital. The program along with the prayers and support of Margaret helped Henry’s sobriety. Upon completion of this program, Henry returned home to Margaret. He continued to be plagued with the reality that many of the friends and acquaintances at Geoffrey Hospital had no place to go upon successful completion of the program thereby increasing their chances of relapse. Henry decided to ask Margaret if a few folks from the program could come and stay with them. Margaret agreed and the legacy began.
Henry understood that most addicts have little or no money, health insurance or a place to live often making them unable to cope with the recovery process without support from other recovering addicts. From the first couple invited to share his home, Henry continued to reach out to other homeless addicts seeking a supportive environment to fight addition. His reputation for success became widespread and the title “The Grandfather of Recovery,” was bestowed upon him. In 1983, Henry, now known as “Rev” formally opened his doors and founded One Day At A Time, providing the groundwork for the peer based/community based recovery model.
In July, 1988, eleven children were killed in one week beginning with the death of five year old Marcus Yates. He was caught in a shootout between drug dealers in a variety store. “Rev” felt the call to action now required drastic measures and began organizing the “Casket Marches.” Rev and many other supporters protested the on-going violence in Philadelphia by marching through the streets carrying an occupied casket. It later became known that the body in the casket was Rev’s son Mel. The news media picked up on the marches and Vernon Odom’s program Visions highlighted the march and ODAAT.
Rev continued to be a strong advocate for the homeless and those suffering from addiction. He began to become more of a street advocate marching against the violence and the spread of HIV/AIDS in Philadelphia as well as knocking on doors providing outreach and education. He came to the attention of Pennsylvania Senator Roxanne Jones when they met at a public event. The meeting grew to a fast friendship. Rev was then introduced to U.S. Congressman Lucien Blackwell and Jannie Blackwell who together led the Homeless Task Force. In 1993 Rev and ODAAT began ministering to those homeless living in “Crate City” a community of homeless individuals and families living in cardboard boxes in the corridors of Philadelphia’s subways. ODAAT was instrumental in eliminating “Crate City” and finding housing for the people living there.
In 1993 Rev and ODAAT helped organize “Drug Free in 93.” This march was a collaboration of all programs providing recovery and housing services in Philadelphia. The march drew thousands of walkers and along with then Mayor Edward G. Rendell and Jim Baker, raised awareness of the epidemic of homelessness, addition and HIV/AIDS in Philadelphia. As a result, city government began to recognize community based recovery programs as legitimate programs and helped define the differences between treatment and recovery.
ODAAT and the late Reverend Wells have received much acclaim for their vision and programs. In March 2005 his son, Mel Wells, was named President of One Day At A Time. ODAAT continues to serve thousand of residential clients annually at its facilities supplying recovery, addiction and homeless shelter services. ODAAT provides HIV/AIDS prevention, education and care outreach programs through its prevention and outreach teams who connect with thousands of people annually and boasts an alumni community of over 10,000 graduates and their families. With its program partner, HOPE Worldwide, ODAAT supports a global health outreach initiative. As a result their programs have been replicated worldwide with locations in England, India, Indonesia and Cambodia.
John Partington, Co Founder of ODAAT Recovery Services in London was able to represent the programme at the funeral of the “Rev”. John described the day itself, “It was an amazing day, he was sent off in style. Reverend Wells was taken by horse drawn carriage from the ODAAT Building in Philadelphia by police escort. The road was closed as around 1000 people walked the quarter of a mile to the church. The viewing followed for the next two hours with people streaming past, one lady who had been helped 18 years previous saw the news and wanted to be their to show her respects. There were a lot of grateful people present, people from all walks of life, including the Chief of Police, Politicians, Ex Mayor’s and a former Senator. A citation was given by the present Mayor, all commending Reverend Wells.” John felt very honoured to be at the funeral and share from the London perspective.
When asked what words he would like to share about Reverend Henry Wells, John expressed, “what inspired me about the Rev. was his background. He was a very bad boy, you cannot get much worse than he was, and it gives anyone hope that they can change. He always remembered his background. He had a tremendous heart for the underdog. He always lived in North Philadelphia, which was like living in a slum, he stayed in the middle of a mess. His wife wanted to move many times, but they remained. He walked the walk. That is what inspired me, he genuinely cared for people. He was a one off, a real character. There are people like Mother Theresa, who are not perfect, by any means, but who really live out what they believe. The Rev. really gave his life for other addicts. He was quite a significant guy. The Rev. knew how to get things done, he was friends with police, politicians and preachers. He was not afraid.
Toby Dodson, who alongside John Partington brought the programme from Philadelphia to London shared, “We think of Jesus as being a character that could command the attention of people. Jesus had something unique to offer, he passed this on to his followers and we see it in the likes of Peter and Paul, their force of personality, a depth of conviction. And the Rev. was absolutely one of those guys.
Philadelphia, with inner city areas devastated by crack cocaine. He was able to galvanise a community to fight back at what was not just recovery from addiction but from a demonic presence of murder, shootings, drug addiction. This was not just a goodwill kind thing, there were very real dangers.
He commanded the attention of people through the power of his love, through the power of his message. A message which confronted the despicable acts of people but offered redemption.
His message was a message of redemption which impacted 1,000’s and 10,000’s of people not only in Philadelphia but worldwide. With his electric personality, he was canny, switched on, he knew people, he had been a con man and was able to connect with people and appeal to the baser side of people. This he understood in his heart as he was a redeemed man himself.”
The ODAAT Programme in London, will honour Reverend Henry T. Wells with a memorial on the annual ODAAT Family Day to be held on Saturday 5th October 2013.