When my sisters and I were children, we never knew who would be sitting at our dinner table. My mom befriended everyone -- Angelo, the elderly Sicilian who walked down the street carrying heavy grocery bags; Maria the single parent that rang up my mom at the local Compare Foods grocery store; and some whose names escape me. My mom would pull over and ask mothers with children at bus stops if they wanted a ride home. We three girls would scoot over to make room. I often wanted to glare at the young children practically sitting on our laps wearing big, bulky snow parka's needed in cold Long Island, but I dared not, lest my mom lecture me later on serving our community, how their problems were our own. My mom hasn't changed a bit and her compassion rubbed off on my sisters and I. It is this same old compassionate streak that saved me last Thanksgiving and Christmas.
I am an open book and share a lot of things on social media to heal, and help others. The truth is that my marriage will soon be over after two decades with my husband. Many things attributed to our demise and it was three years coming. Meanwhile, my 21-year-old decided in the spring of 2014 that in a few months' time, he would be moving back home to NYC. It couldn't have come at a worse time for this ole gal.
While I pretended to be equally as ecstatic that my son was moving on to pursue his dream, each time I so much as tried to crack a smile, my eyes would well up with tears. To be frank, I did not quite know where to stuff my feelings. For the first time, I wouldn't be dad's daughter, or my husband's wife, or my son's mom... I would be Jo... just Jo. And Jo was terrified. Keep in mind that I'm the founder of an organization, I have a career, I have a home and five dogs, and I'm always busy... but this -- this was just too much change at once. I was secretly freaking out.
In July 2014, after a going away party, around 3:30 a.m., my son Nehemiah hugged me tight, and drove away with Manny into the darkness. I now know that they were containing their happiness as I sobbed and told them how proud I was of them. I walked outside with them and then stood on my front lawn with my ole girl, Lyla the Lab/Chow, and felt my heart, and my life, crumble. I remember getting ready for work wanting to just get in my bed with Lyla and feel sorry for myself, but I couldn't. Not today, I thought, I have too much to do... maybe tomorrow I can.
Tomorrow never came, but the holidays did come, and quickly. These would be the first holidays alone -- without my son and without my soon-to-be ex. I never go home during the holidays because it's too much to do with five large dogs, and my team at work all wanting off at the same time. I was dreading the holidays, but forced myself to throw myself into them, telling myself that they would be special and that it was a turning point in my growth. What a crock I was feeding myself, and I knew it. I bought a new tree and hung up stockings for my dogs. I tried, but it wasn't enough.
The week prior to the holidays I decided that I was going to spend the days serving the homeless as we used to do when we were little. I wouldn't feel sorry for myself. Who was I to feel sorry for myself when so many had little to nothing? The more I considered it, the more I loved the idea. I posted on Facebook and told my co-workers who immediately came to work with blankets, a few coats, and hat and glove sets. My friend Jessica told me that she wasn't going home to Florida for Thanksgiving so she'd come out with me. It was coming along nicely! The two of us packed up turkey sandwiches in a cooler, along with snacks, water bottles, and juice boxes, and hit Atlanta's streets. We quickly realized that the face of homelessness had changed. We recognized that they no longer looked like when we were younger and called them "hobos." Some of these men were layered up in warm coats; most had a backpack on; they carried several shopping bags carrying things; some pulled luggage on wheels. From the car, if one didn't know better, they were just travelers on a holiday, right off the bus, rushing to visit with loved ones to share a family meal -- until one looks closer and realizes that the luggage is missing a wheel, and it's a little boys' Thomas the Train luggage. They wore plastic bags that had been made into jackets over their clothes, and they walked in the cold with a blanket around their shoulders worn like a cape or a king's robe. One man that was walking by looked into my car and shouted, "Miss, can I have one of those blankets?" From the street, he was able to see that my back seat was loaded with piles of blankets. We pulled over and gave out a few blankets to him and his friends. The men all thanked us and kept moving after having received a few sandwiches each and fruit. A small percentage of the homeless were women and they, sadly, were hiding under the bridges. I'm assuming for safety reasons, to hide from the cold, and perhaps to hide their sadness as well. Each of these people thanked us, a few wished us a happy Thanksgiving and several told us, "God bless you." After an hour of driving around on the deserted streets, we were down to two sandwiches. An elderly man sat in a doorway with an ashen face, his hands shaking, and shared one of the last two sandwiches that we had with a young man on a skateboard that asked simply, "Can I have one?" And that's when I broke down, as Jessica and I drove away. On Thanksgiving, in a little over an hour, we fed 50 people.
Because we had a good experience, I decided that this would be how I would spend Christmas Day as well. We had shared our Thanksgiving photos on Facebook, and so on Christmas Day around 12 p.m., eleven vehicles loaded with volunteers wearing Santa hats and reindeer antlers, and packed with donated food, toiletry supplies, blankets, coats, and water bottles, showed up at our meeting place, the local Home Depot, to organize. I hadn't expected such a large group and quickly came up with a plan -- each vehicle would become its own compact, compartment of supplies. We made up piles on the ground -- "Outerwear here, fruit baskets on the left, men's coats there!" People kept showing up with donated items, and with family members in tow, to serve the homeless community. We worked quickly and everyone was in the best of moods, assembling excitedly like the 12 Tribes of Israel. I fought back tears several times.
It was quite a task to maneuver eleven vehicles, following one another, through our city's streets, but we managed to create a long, winding train of compassion. The first SUV led, driven by our friend Leslie, and as the passenger in that SUV, it was my task to flag the rest of the vehicles following us and pointing to the curb where we would pull over next. In about two hour's time, we had unpacked every single item and were feeling both wonderful that we had served, but sad that the need was great.
To date, we have learned a lot since that first outing, and we have grown. We have had ten such monthly outings and our event is now called Stubby's Heroes' Day of Compassion. We have on average befriended and fed 200-250 people monthly (if not more), and have also fed homeless dogs, and provided to what are referred to as the "Train Kids" -- the young people that ride the trains from town to town across the country, many of them with dogs. We've provided coats and food to both person and their pet; we've met entire families living in tents and have given some the shoes and belts we've worn, and the coats right off of our backs. Our supporters and volunteers have gathered backpacks and luggage on wheels; they have collected children's clothing and school bags; we created the Whistle4Safety program for the young teens and women on the street so that they can scare off assailants and predators -- colorful whistles on lanyards are distributed to every female and young person we see. After one woman told me that she could use feminine maxi pads as she was tired of sticking paper towels in place, our supporters spread the word and we were able to make sure our friends that live on the streets never again had to use paper towels...
Prior to our outings, many of our volunteers admitted to not understanding the homeless. Now going every single month, they realize that illness, divorce, loss of income and employment, eviction, domestic violence, sexual abuse, and rejection by family because of sexual orientation, are more likely to be what has caused for our friends' homelessness -- not the laziness, drug addiction and mental illness that most attribute to the cause. The homeless with pets have an advantage in that they have a pet that will not only protect them, but offer constant friendship, but they are also at a disadvantage as pets are not allowed in shelters to sleep, and they aren't allowed in soup kitchens and churches to eat, rest, cool off, or get warmth. Most homeless with pets would rather go without, than to leave their friend outside alone.
It was cold out when I had a volunteer question our involvement with the homeless. They wondered why a pit bull advocacy organization was concerned about the homeless. My response was pretty simple and I stand firm on it. The question of homelessness, whether it be a stray animal or person is the same cause for alarm. We don't drive by a stray animal and not stop to help, so why would we not be concerned about a teen eating out of the garbage, or a woman trying to shield her children from the rain? I don't understand those that can rationalize compassion or justify behaviors that leave pets and people behind as we drive to the warmth of our homes. I know that we can't help everyone and that we can't take everyone home, but if we show one bit of compassion to every person or pet that we run across, we'd be doing our share as stewards of our communities. Needless to say, that volunteer is no longer with us, and our monthly outing has grown considerably.
In the last few months, as I review finances and face being a single woman with five large dogs, the homeless crisis has become an almost daily thought. A split in finances means less money for the household. It means that I'll go without certain things so that my dogs won't have to. It also has driven home a sincere fear of what could happen if I didn't have a stable job, and an appreciation of what I do have. It means that I'm all I've got, and I'm all my dogs have. One dog surgery, one illness, one company lay-off, one car accident could potentially hit me hard. This realization motivates me to cut back, scrimp and save, and serve this community even more than before. When I have posted this fear on Facebook, dozens of women have poured their hearts out to me admitting that they are living paycheck to paycheck, that they are the new working poor and that if they didn't live at home with their aging parents with their children, that they too could be homeless. Their stories are of domestic violence, physical abuse, spousal infidelity, spousal drug and alcohol addictions, and physical illness that have almost driven them to an almost near homelessness. I've realized that we are not so distant, or different from the homeless.
It is now September 2015 and before you know it, we'll be celebrating our one-year anniversary of our Day of Compassion. What started out as an effort to serve the community and not stay home to throw a pity party has proven to be one of our most successful campaigns and I believe it's because several people can relate. And that, my friends, is terrifying, and humbling, all at once.
To find out more about our Day of Compassion monthly outings, please visit our campaign page on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/StubbysDayofCompassion
Stubby's Heroes main page: