SCHENECTADY -- The word is getting out all over Mont Pleasant and Hamilton Hill. "That Doug guy is a good dude."
That's how Roscoe Smith feels about Doug Bartling, who for the past four months now has been driving his black van around the city's two low-income neighborhoods passing out food and other essentials to people he passes on the street. Last week, as Bartling was making his Sunday afternoon rounds in Hamilton Hill, Smith was at the corner of Albany and Craig Streets waiting for him.
"He knows me now, and I look for him every Sunday," said Smith, a long-time resident of the Hamilton Hill neighborhood. "He gives me a bunch of stuff and I'll pass it out to the less fortunate. It's really great what he's doing."
Making Bartling's story of giving to others even more intriguing is that he is a quadreplegic, having seriously injured himself in a diving accident 12 years ago. Each Sunday he leaves his home in Malta, heads to the First Reformed Church of Scotia, and listens to senior pastor Megan Hodgin deliver the sermon. He then wheels himself back to the van, takes a few moments to pray, and then heads across the Western Gateway Bridge into Schenectady looking to deliver a more material kind of nourishment.
"God's put this in my heart to do," said Bartling, who grew up in Rotterdam and Schenectady and graduated from Mohonasen High School. "I feel like I've always been giving to others, but this project is special. I've been doing things like this for years, but it's important that I give back, and along with giving people food and other necessities, I'll say a kind word, too. Just a simple compliment can really help people through a tough time in their life."
Bartling calls his Sunday ritual the Over The Bridge Outreach Mission, and it began in earnest earlier this summer when his fiancee's two children gave him a special birthday gift.
"They recognized what I try to do every day of my life, giving something to somebody, and for my birthday they gave me 12 individual bags of goodies," said Bartling. "What an amazing gift. A gift that gives to others. So I started doing this every Sunday. Hey, I'm a football fan. That's what I used to do on Sunday afternoons; watch football. But the kids really sparked something in me. This is much more important."
While Bartling says he has always felt an urge to give to others, he'll tell you that for much of his life, the majority of what he gave was trouble.
"My parents were divorced, my mom dealt with mental illness and my brother and I were moved around back and forth between Schalmont and Mohonasen," said Bartling. "I ended up out on the street a lot, I flunked 11th grade and when I finally went back to Mohonasen I was a junior and all my friends were seniors. I finally graduated but I was hanging out with the wrong crowd. I started doing cocaine, I became a degenerate gambler and I was stealing from people. I lost a lot of friends."
Slowly, Bartling began making strides to correct his self-destructive behavior. He met a woman, got a job in construction, and was planning to get married when he injured himself diving into shallow water in 2007.
"I went from rock bottom to redemption to rock bottom," he said. "I had gotten myself clean and sober, really cleaned up my life and found my faith again, and then I got hurt. I couldn't believe it."
Bartling and the woman who was his fiancee 12 years ago were living in Little Falls at the time of his accident. The couple started going to a church in the area when Bartling finally got out of the hospital, but the experience wasn't an enjoyable one.
"My fiancee-then never left my side in the hospital, but when we started looking for a church our first look at Christianity wasn't a good one," remembered Bartling. "They told us we should have dividers in our house because we weren't married, and they also laid hands on me and told me to get up and walk. That didn't happen. They were just too intrusive."
While Bartling's reaction was to look for a different church, his fiancee didn't share his enthusiasm. The pair eventually separated and Bartling moved to Scotia.
"I had my dog, my paralysis, and I'm like, 'well, what am I gonna do now? Who's going to love me?'" said Bartling. "I was in Scotia so I went to the First Reformed. I still don't know the difference between the denominations. But I showed up there with my tattoos, my cup of coffee and I would clap along with the songs they sang, and nobody judged me. They welcomed me with open arms. They showed me the way Christians are supposed to behave."
Bartling also attended radio school following his injury and has worked for various stations in the area, usually giving traffic and weather reports. He has also been a motivational speaker and is currently a voice-over coach. And, after years of wondering, "who's going to want someone who's disabled," he is again engaged to be married.
"I've had two great women in my life, and I never would have been able to handle everything without them and without God," said Bartling. "I've been through a lot, losing one fiancee and then finding another. I never quit. I never gave up hope. That's what I'm trying to tell people now. Offer hope. Encourage a child. Give somebody a ride home. Give something to a homeless man."
Glenville resident Linda Lewis has been a member at First Reformed of Scotia for 10 years, and got to know Bartling much better three years ago after the two served together on a search committee trying to find replacements for long-time pastors Craig and Jan Hoffman.
"He's very enthusiastic, so when the church choir would do a great song, he would clap along with them," said Lewis, recalling her first impression of Bartling. "I really don't remember the tattoos, but I do remember the nice young man in the wheelchair. Once I got to know him better, he was such a sincere person with strong beliefs. What you see is what you get. He wants to let people know, people who don't think they're worth being loved by God, that they are worth being loved. He's incredible and I fully support what he's doing."
So does Donise Brown, who lives on Albany Street in Hamilton Hill and has three young children. She had heard about Bartling before but met him for the first time last Sunday.
"A neighbor told me about him, and I think that's awesome," she said. "What he's doing is much needed in this area. I'm so glad I saw him this morning, and now that I know he's out here every Sunday I will look for him."
Kiki King, another Hamilton Hill resident, has gotten to know Bartling pretty well over the last three months.
"I think it's a really nice thing what he's doing," said King. "He gives out what he can and it's really sweet, especially for this community. There aren't too many people around here who do this sort of thing."
Sometimes, Bartling doesn't always get a warm welcome.
"Sometimes people have their guard up and that's OK," he said. "When I started, I thought to myself, 'how am I going to do this. How am I going to approach people?' Well, I have had a few failed attempts and that's OK. But most of the interaction I've had with people is wonderful, and I've never felt threatened. Most of the time I'm thinking, 'what a great feeling.' I'm helping others. I'm helping to lift them up, and it's lifting me up. What I'm telling them is that you don't have to be perfect to receive God's love."