A Helping Hand

June 25, 2007
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GRAND RAPIDS — Ed Fortier graduated from Mel Trotter Ministry's long-term substance abuse program in 2004. He had gone through treatment for drugs and alcohol four times in his life and had tried to quit on his own hundreds of times, but it wasn't until his Mel Trotter experience that "things became real" to him.

Fortier had owned three shoe repair shops over the years and had always wanted to open a foot care clinic, as well, but each venture proved "a never-ending struggle" because he didn't have the management skills and he couldn't stay sober. He met local businessman Kim Velting 13 years ago. Fortier was inebriated and trying to hitch a ride to Kalamazoo. Velting offered him a ride, and took him to a drug and alcohol treatment center in Grand Rapids instead. But treatment wasn't successful — at least not that time. Velting lost touch with Fortier for a while, but would hear from him now and again when he called to say he was in trouble.

The last time Fortier was in trouble — about four years ago — he went to Mel Trotter, and that made all the difference, Velting said. Fortier said that in the Mel Trotter long-term substance abuse program he underwent "a heart change."

"In 40 years I had never gone nine months clean in a row," Fortier said. "Now I'm going on my fifth year clean."

Velting visited and mentored Fortier on a regular basis while he was at Mel Trotter.

"He hung in there and stayed my friend through all my struggles and trials," Fortier said. 

In fact, for the past four years, Velting has been volunteering at Mel Trotter, meeting weekly with men in the long-term treatment program. He mentors and supports them, he said, simply because the need is there, and he's grown passionate about that personal mission. Velting also heads a Bible study group every Wednesday night at the mission, a group Fortier always participates in.

Volunteering at the mission is rewarding, but it has some downsides, Velting said.

"There's some heartache when the men are going through problems with their families," he elaborated. "It breaks your heart when you work with a guy and get to know him, then he's gone and you don't hear from him anymore." 

After leaving Mel Trotter, Fortier got back into the shoe repair business with a little help from Velting. Fortier started working at a shoe repair shop at 1244 College Ave. NE. When he was nearly a year out of treatment, the shop owner offered to sell the building, and Velting bought it, refurbished it and named it River City Footworks. In the interim, Fortier trained to become an accredited pedorthist. He'll take his board exam in August.

"I've known Ed for many years, and he is a consummate artist in shoe repair and fabrication," Velting said. "He's a genius with great skills, but he just doesn't do management well." So it's Velting who handles the bills and payroll and all the accounting. He stops by the shop once or twice a week and continues to serve as Fortier's mentor. 

Besides repairing shoes, purses, backpacks, luggage, jackets, belts and a number of other items at the shop, Fortier now serves as the resident pedorthist at the recently opened orthotics center next door, which Velting also owns. The shoe repair business is financing the orthotics clinic, Velting said.

As a pedorthist, Fortier manufactures and fits foot appliances and modifies footwear to alleviate painful or debilitating foot conditions; he also makes appliances that provide assistance to people with foot abnormalities.

The clinic operates from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m., or "whenever it's convenient" for the customer, Fortier said. Shoe repair shop hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. A month ago, Velting hired another graduate of the Mel Trotter program to work in the shop with Fortier, and the new hire, too, is going to take the necessary training to become a pedorthist.

These days, a lot of the staff at Mel Trotter visit River City Footworks to have their shoes fixed.

Mel Trotter President and CEO Thomas J. Meyers said Velting's investment in Fortier is paying great dividends in more ways than one.

"When people get involved, like Kim did, some amazing things can happen. He is an example for all of us," Meyers said.

Fortier said that like anybody, he has his frustrations; he's still paying for some of the mistakes he made in the past. But there's one big difference today: "I'm not running from anything anymore. I'm not hiding. I'm just thankful to Mel Trotter." 

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