Ex-homeless man helps agency that helped him

Most people spend their birthdays being pampered and receiving gifts. Not Steve Rhoades. He celebrates his special day each year by doing endurance activities to raise awareness and money for local charities.

This year, Rhoades will mark his 71st birthday by paddleboarding for 12 hours across Eagle Harbor on Bainbridge Island, drumming up dollars for Helpline House, a local nonprofit that saved him through years of homelessness.

“I’ve been on this island for thirty years, and I’ve never missed a meal,’’ Rhoades said, adding that in addition to benefitting from Helpline House’s Food Bank, he has received assistance from their social workers over the years. “This is my way of giving back to Helpline after all they have done for me.’’

Rhoades plans to hit the water at 8 a.m. July 19 and will crisscross between Eagle Harbor and Blakely Harbor until 8 p.m. on his prone paddleboard (lying on his stomach and using his hands to paddle).

A recovering alcoholic, Rhoades said he has a lot to give back for. “I drank myself out of the Marine Corps in the late ’70s, and then I was out on the streets for fifteen years,’’ he said.

His luck changed after getting a job as a bicycle messenger in Seattle and meeting Nyer Urness, a former chaplain at Compass Center, a downtown homeless shelter. In 1994 Rhoades moved to a cabin on Urness’s BI property. “He told me I could stay there as long as I stayed sober.’’

Today, Rhodes said he is happy and “22 years in a row” sober. He finds peace living on BI through meditation, helping others and spending as much time as he can on the water. “I’m so grateful for Bainbridge Island and that I found something to sober up to,’’ he said.

People can donate to Helpline House in his honor through its website: Helplinehouse.org.