As a former college basketball coach, Bill Gaertner had seen his share of contests won and lost on the court. More importantly, he helped young adults strive to reach their full potential as student athletes. Over a career that spanned 15 years, Bill made an impact on the lives of others.
Today, he continues to make an impact by helping ex-offenders rebuild their lives through Gatekeepers – the nonprofit he founded in Hagerstown, MD in 2014. He personally conducts inside-the-walls programs at several facilities and, outside the walls, Gatekeepers meets released inmates at the gate and provides them with immediate and long-term resources.
Re-entry seminars are presently being held at the Washington County Detention Center, the Federal Penitentiary in Cumberland, and state correctional facilities in Hagerstown. Mentors help ex-offenders navigate the critical first few weeks after each one is released. Program participants are then exposed to Gatekeepers Business of Living Program that is a combination of learning and doing to prepare and equip each person for positive growth and success.
Bill knows well the challenges of being “outside” and trying to start anew after spending time in prison. Following a series of events that led to his incarceration at the age of 61, he had hit rock bottom. “During the first five months at a jail facility, I was trying to kill myself,” he explained. But, a letter from his friend, Ed Ionni, changed all that. He had a renewed purpose. “One guy turned my life around. Eddie was the shining light. I thought ‘if I ever get it going, I’m going to do that for other people,’” said Bill. Through rediscovering his Catholic faith, meditation, and encouragement from friends, Bill was determined to help others.
“Jumping back into my faith, I never realized what it meant to perform the spiritual and corporal works of mercy – to realize what it means to be Catholic,” he said, adding that it took sitting in the rat-infested, third story of a penitentiary to reflect on his life.
Sitting alone in his cell, Bill focused on a hole in the wall that held his gaze while he meditated. “I can still see it in my mind,” he said. “Prison was an ugly place that had more beauty than I ever imagined. It was there that positive things started to happen for me.”
From an early age, he struggled with alcohol addiction. “I didn’t really know who I was. Now, every day, I wake up and have a purpose. And, I say, ‘Jesus, I trust in you.’ I pray, I think, and I laugh. I’m still in recovery. I’m aware of this every day, but I am doing as much as I can for other people in honor of those I’ve hurt,” said Bill.
Throughout his coaching years, and then partnering with a few IT companies,
Bill made a lot of business contacts. “I didn’t realize there were people with whom I (continued on page 3)
can use my tools,” said Bill, of his life after prison. “I didn’t realize there were so many people in this world working with people on the margins.”
With limited resources at Gatekeepers, Bill shared that they need people helping people. “I work with people coming out of prison and addiction houses. Anyone coming out of prison has mental health issues, because it’s so rampant. Each person feels so alone, which is why we need someone at the gate,” he added. To recover from anything, there is a spiritual component that is necessary for success. And, it takes time, love, and forgiveness.
“We’ve given each of them a platform. I’m so lucky to do this, and the key is to convince each person that it works and ‘you must allow us to coach you.’ As a young coach, I learned this,” said Bill.
No matter what, Bill encourages this approach when seeing or working with ex-offenders: “Don’t judge others whose sins are different than yours.”
In prison, everyone called him ‘coach.’ Formerly on the sidelines, but now at the gate, Bill continues to encourage and help others achieve their goals in life.
Congratulations to Bill Gaertner on being named the 2020 St. Dismas Award recipient. This award will be presented by Deacon Seigfried Presberry, a representative of the Dismas Ministry Board of Directors, on March 26, in Baltimore, MD.