Story by Amy S. Zimbelman / Photos by Helen Kinser
Kristoffer Lemmon, who goes by “Stoff,” has a history of success. He was an entrepreneur who owned a string of pizza shops with his (now ex) father-in-law. Today, chatting with him outside of a coffee shop in Durham, I can see why his businesses were so successful. Stoff puts you at ease when you talk to him—he speaks honestly and openly as though he’s known you for a long time. His beard can’t fully conceal his smile (though it tries to at times), and he doles out high five’s when necessary.
He tells me that he’s seen success, but he’s also seen failure—he’s been through a lot. Stoff’s right forearm bears a message that reads: Once I had everything, thought I had nothing. It wasn’t until I had nothing, I realized I had everything.
He points to the tattoo. “This is my life,” he says.
His troubles began with a toothache in 2004, when his wife was soon to give birth to their first child. Stoff took some Vicodin for the pain. Then, tragically, their newborn son died 3 days after birth. Stoff took some Vicodin for that pain too. Suddenly, he found that he was becoming dependent on it.
His marriage eventually fell apart for various reasons, so he sold his portion of the successful restaurant businesses he and his now ex-father-in-law had built. He moved to Scotland for three years and then back to the U.S. to stay with his sister. “I felt like if I just moved, each time things would be different,” he says. But his troubles followed him.
“I admitted to some of my family that I was using [drugs], but I still didn’t have much support at that time,” he says. Then, after an accidental overdose, he wanted to get his life on track. He saw an ad in the paper for a screen printing job where he was living in Mt. Vernon, Ohio. “I met a lot of people who were great support for me, and my life sort of built up; I had purpose again. They were the reasons why I stayed sober for three and a half years.” He started seriously dating a woman there and they got engaged.
During a visit to Durham, he and his fiancée saw that it was a “cool, crunchy town” and they decided to move here.
But after the move, he found that the same supportive community he had in Ohio would take time to rebuild in Durham. The stress of finding and keeping a job in a new city led him to start using again. He overdosed and was arrested for possession of drugs. After a few months, his addiction made it impossible for his fiancée and him to stay together, so they broke up.
“It was a repeat of what happened four years ago, but this time I was really homeless,” he says. But Stoff was not going to give up: “I started to put my faith in the strength that I had.”
He reached out to community support systems here in Durham and began partnering with two agencies—Urban Ministries Durham and StepUp Durham. In November, Stoff attended StepUp’s 32-hour Jobs Week training.
“StepUp’s Jobs Week training is a program where you get to see what it’s like not only to be hired but how the people hiring you look at you,” Stoff says. “It gives you a true opportunity to be prepared—not only to go into the interview, but to have support that can prolong the entire job experience.”
But when he tells friends about StepUp, he warns them that it’s not about handouts:
“I don’t think that StepUp is for people who want to get a free ride,” he says. “It’s for people who want to show that they have initiative.”
Within a month of completing StepUp’s training, Stoff secured employment at Measurement Inc. His smile comes out when he talks about his employment: “The job has given me the ability to do stuff for myself that I hadn’t been able to do in a year, like buy shoes and clothes. My first paycheck was on December 18th—the day Star Wars came out—and I’m a big fan, so I went to see it. It was nice to get my own tab instead of having strangers take pity on me.”
Now that he has employment, Stoff has a plan to move out of the housing at Urban Ministries in a couple months. “I’m nervous but I’m excited,” he says of this upcoming transition. “This time I’m prepared to go into the wilderness—I have the tools. I like that there’s been long-term preparation involved and people who are helping me become independent. I’m determined to make it work this time.”
And when I ask him about his long term goals, where he sees himself in 10 years, he tells me that he’d love to start a nonprofit to help others who are going through the kind of struggles he went through.
“I’m really passionate about reclaiming repurposed material and making it into furniture and art,” he says. “When I’m settled I’d really like to start a reclamation therapy center for people going through addiction—addicts who want to get their lives back on track. It would be a live-in workshop, where people live in up-cycled tiny cargo container houses while making reclaimed furniture. I’d love to get some funding together for a program like that.”
But in the meantime, Stoff is reclaiming his own life, one day at a time.
“Things are just really coming together,” he says.
And when I see where he’s come from and the direction he’s headed, I believe him.
Amy Spaulding Zimbelman is a Masters of Divinity student at Duke Divinity School and an intern at StepUp.
Helen Kinser is a photographer who serves at StepUp through Johnson (Episcopal) Service Corps.