Veterans homeless shelter a haven of hope, healing

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Rev. John C. Dortch welcomes visitors at Circle of Hope Ministries and veterans shelter in Beaufort.

A Beaufort son who left home with a stellar future came back with a checkered past and on a mission to help others.

John C. Dortch oversees the only veterans homeless shelter in Beaufort, which opened in June 2019.

Dortch has some things in common with those he now serves as what might be called pastor-at-large. He is a Vietnam veteran who was medically retired after being injured during a search-and-rescue mission. He graduated from college. He started his own business. He meticulously planned a bank robbery. He is a convicted felon.

He also has a law degree, was pastor at Beaufort Central Baptist Church in Beaufort, and is the founder and president of Circle of Hope Ministries, a 501(c)(3) charity which runs the shelter.

Despite everything that has happened to him, Dortch is an energetic, never-give-up man who sees what has to be done and does it. He has done everything he can since his parole to make amends, keep others from following similar paths and serve those in need.

These days that means helping veterans.

Dortch graduated from Robert Smalls High School and intended to study law at Howard University, but signed up for the ROTC and volunteered for service in Vietnam.

"I was 22 and gung-ho. I never worried about the politics of the war," he said. He saw a lot of young men who had no other options to being drafted, and he decided he would go and put them under his wing.

It is that attitude that got him into and out of trouble from that point on.

After retiring from the military, Dortch became successful as a field underwriter for an insurance company in Washington, D.C. After five years, he started his own business, forming a board of directors from a pool of talented friends. He hired a sales team, and trained them to get their securities licenses.

Although sales was easy for Dortch, he overestimated his employees' abilities, and the anticipated revenue did not materialize. Banks refused to lend him money to give the new company time to make goal.

"It was decision time," Dortch said. "Either declare bankruptcy or do something foolish."

Deciding he couldn't lose his investors' money, Dortch did something foolish: He planned a bank robbery.

With five others, Dortch formed a team and planned meticulously in September 1974. One team member backed out and left town but he was replaced by another man - who turned out to be an undercover police officer.

The day before the robbery, the new guy dropped out - but Dortch ignored the alarm that went off in his head. He and his partner parked near the target bank and began their moves but were immediately interrupted by police officers who had been tipped off.

Dortch got away, but later learned that his partner killed a young D.C. officer while taking off his disguise. The next day Dortch turned himself in. In a plea deal, he pled guilty to second-degree murder, attempted armed robbery and conspiracy, and was given two concurrent 15-years-to-life sentences and five years for the conspiracy.

That night after sentencing, Dortch said he experienced the first in a series of spiritual visions. It initially scared him to death but he said he experienced a sense of peace.

"Whatever was ahead for me, I knew I was going to be all right," he said.

Convinced that he would quite possibly spend longer than 15 years in prison, Dortch gave himself up to participating in prison ministries, taking college courses, directing a prison chapter of the NAACP, working as an accountant in the Federal Prisons Industries program and - once more - taking others under his wing and tutoring them to get their GEDs.

When he was paroled the first time up, Dortch returned to Washington and began work as business manager of Covenant Baptist Church, but the desire to study law returned. He enrolled and earned a law degree from the Howard University David A. Clark School of Law, subsequently passing bar exams in the District of Columbia, West Virginia and Maryland.

His life after prison has been filled working to help others keep from following in his footsteps, but the call to ministry has been relentless. In a Feb. 4, 1997, interview with Katie Couric on "The Today Show," he vowed to dedicate his life to serving others and ministering to their needs, he said. It wasn't long before he moved back home.

"I left a six-figure job and came home to Beaufort," Dortch said. After finishing "Memoirs of the Prodigal Son: the Road to Redemption 'Fifteen Years in Prison and Beyond'," Dortch began getting involved in the ministry at Central Baptist Church, starting as a deacon and eventually becoming the pastor.

It wasn't enough. The same spiritual experience that he had after sentencing came to him again.

"The spirit of the Lord said, 'John, this isn't what you're meant to be doing. The homeless, ex-offenders, drug addicts, alcoholics. These are people I would minister to'," Dortch heard. He said, "I loved this congregation. But I shared with them that I had to leave. That God had called on me to be engaged in the community like John the Baptist, crying out in the wilderness."

With the help of church and community members, Dortch founded Circle of Hope Ministries in 2010 and has no regrets.

"I'm in the best place I have ever been in my entire life just being a servant," he said.

Every room in the shelter is dedicated to veterans - Dortch's friends and family members.

His brother, Capt. William R. Dortch, who earned the Distinguished Flying Cross as an army pilot in Vietnam, got shot down and spent four days in the jungle before linking up with an Alpha Team. Lt. David Morris, Navy SEAL and Vietnam veteran, rides with a motorcycle group that raises money for the shelter.

The women's dorm is dedicated in honor of his friend retired Marine MGySgt. Linda E. Field, who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Another room is dedicated to Dortch's close friend, the late Capt. Wayne "Gabby" Grabenbauer, Sr., USMC, a Vietnam veteran who rose through the ranks and went from drill sergeant at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island to an officer's commission.

There are dorm rooms for men and one for women, separate bathrooms with showers, an administration office, the director's office, the kitchen, a multipurpose room with tables for dining and desks for case workers - everything is designed to serve homeless veterans who need a helping hand.

"We're all volunteers. Nobody gets paid. We do it because we love the Lord and we love what we do. Especially our veterans," Dortch said.

The building on Boundary is not the end of the story for Dortch. He's got big plans for expansion.

"Once we get our residential rating as independent living, the second part of the vision is to have the Hope Village Inn, on property that is about a mile from Battery Creek High School on 3.5 acres that we're developing," he said.

The village will have three-bedroom houses for veterans and their families, a multipurpose community center and a recreational park. There is a design team in place that is now going through the permitting process with the county.

Until that dream is realized, Dortch seeks veterans who need a transitional place to stay. Residents are screened before they are permitted to stay in the shelter, although during the recent extreme cold nights, he has taken the ministry's van around town to gather up those who have no place to stay, feeding them hot meals and bedding them down in the multipurpose room.

Any veterans who come to the shelter - whether they stay overnight or not - get any assistance they need in acquiring VA benefits and other social services help for which they qualify. Carl Wedler, the county's Veterans Administration director, provides those eligible with information to assist them.

Volunteers from local churches also come to the shelter to cook and deliver meals for the homeless as well as for those veterans who stay there.

On Jan. 1, the Circle of Hope Ministries launched its 2020 Capital Campaign, "We Are One: United in Faith," with the goal of raising $1.8 million to develop the Hope Village Inn.

For more information about the shelter and Circle of Hope Ministries, email circleofhope@hargray.com or call 843-263-2563.

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.

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