Co-founder of Gathering Friends for the Homeless
There are probably a lot of people that you could meet that would change your life if we took the time to get out of our own comfortable, little world. Many of those people aren’t in that cozy world and are homeless. Sometimes what makes you uncomfortable is what you need a lot of in your life - you just don’t know it.
A lot of people say “I’m so busy - ballgames and working late - I just don’t have time to help anyone else." It doesn’t take much time to make a big difference. You can devote as much time as you want to or as much as you don’t want to. You can help people in ways that don’t require time - you know, just saying hello, smiling at people, trying to be a positive energy in the world. You can change people that way and that doesn’t take any time at all.
I get asked a lot why I have such a special compassion for the homeless. I don’t really know - I think about that sometimes. I grew up on the very north side, right across from where the jail is. So for awhile I thought it was the environment I was in. We didn’t have a lot of money but I don’t even think it’s due to that. I’ve always been compassionate for other people - for whatever reason. Perhaps it’s just because you’re getting a very real sense of people. Some people think the homeless are just trying to get something from you - it’s not like that at all. Maybe it’s just that they don’t have that much to lose - they’ve seen so much that they’ve got emotions in them that I think I and others may be missing. I feel like I’m learning something from them - I don’t really know. The best moments I spend most days are the moments I’m hanging out with my friends at the Veteran's Center.
The "incident" that was my "turning point" that really drove me to help the homeless fully was, you know, there was this one man, Johnny. I ended up helping serve on Saturday nights at the Gathering Tree when they first opened, and I just sort of ended up there because people that I had met were doing a meal behind the Missouri Hotel, and it was the same demographic of people we were helping. But I remember the first time we got somebody who we saw all the time, who didn’t acknowledge us at all, wouldn’t make eye contact and my kids were really interested in him. He was wearing an interesting hat and that’s what made my kids interested in him. So I made a decision that I was going to get his name because they kept asking, “How is so and so?” I didn’t know his name, and I didn’t like that I didn’t know his name. I remember the first time I got him to respond to me after weeks of “Hi- how are you today?” and “Can I get that for you?”, he finally started to talk to me.
My kids had their old backpacks they were wanting to donate. We had some other things that we were passing out, but that was a big thing to them. They said they wanted to be able to give the backpacks to the person of their choice. So, Johnny came up and said “Hey - I heard you may have a backpack for me?” And my kids fight about who got to give their backpack to him, which he thought was hilarious. And they were tussling in the corner, fighting over backpacks, and I just laughed, and he laughed. That day he was a little inebriated, so he was very animated. They just adored him immediately. So they always asked about him, so I made a point to sit at the table with him and talk with him and get to know him a little bit better. He hung out with people we were already really close with. He just became the dude I liked to hang out with. He is very funny, and when he’s sober, he is extremely kindhearted. And when he is drunk, he is just a little handful. I always got to see both sides of him until I knew that some of the decisions that he made and the things that he did wasn’t the real him, it was the reactive side of him.
Then he opened up and became someone we communicate with - all of us - on a weekly basis. And he’s got so much to talk about and so much inside of him. He lets us in on… well, his reality is a little bit different than the rest of us… you never would have gotten that if you hadn’t taken the time to realize ‘this is a person - this is someone who just needs to talk to someone’. Take time to engage. Maybe people closed off for reasons we don’t know and won’t understand until I can try and get in there a little bit. And that change in that person made me realize it really doesn’t take that much. No matter what it is you’re interested in doing, a teeny tiny bit of kindness and interest and compassion can go a long way, and if you can just make a difference in one person - you don’t have to make a difference in everybody - there are about 7 billion people in the world, you know? If you can reach one person and share that story, and then somebody else does, and somebody else does, it’s just a tidal wave of kindness.
You can’t change what happens with people. He got into an altercation with someone he would probably call his best friend and did time for it, is still doing time because of something else that he did before that. And that’s just part of his life. I’m certainly not going to make him change that part about himself. But I hope just knowing that someone is there for him and cares about him - not everything is forgivable, but if you are genuinely trying to be a better person, then you’ve got to give someone a little bit of a pass for that.
He was in jail in Springfield for 10 months, almost a year, and then he was getting out as time served - but he never got out because they ran a warrant farther away and found out that back where he was from he had one and he got shipped there. I had already visited him, written letters to him, went to as many court dates as I could with him, and I thought at the time he would get out at some time. I didn’t know they would find out something else - he failed to mention he had a warrant out. So when they transferred him, I could have stopped talking to him at that point. But I already knew I was the only person really who wrote him and the only person that had come to see him and when you’re that person, that’s a lot of pressure on you. Nobody wants to have someone be left alone or have anybody have that feeling.
In one word, friendship is what motivated me to not give up on Johnny. That’s really what it is. I’m his friend and he’s my friend. It doesn’t even need to be more or less than that. You’re there for your friends.
When we first started, we didn’t intend to do anything at all other than continue in our little way that we were. And more and more people were helping, and we were to the point where we weren’t going to be doing meals on Saturday, so we were like “well, what then are we going to do?” It wasn’t “Oh, that’s too bad…” People have to eat - so where are they going to eat? So we just sort of transitioned to a different day of the week, different time, and we would fill every Sunday two months out. So then we added Saturday and then weekdays. And then Bill's Place asked if we could do sack lunches. And we thought, “Forty sack lunches? That shouldn’t be that hard if we can get 150 people fed on a Sunday”. And that’s how it has happened.
There’s more and more people every week that want to help in some way, shape, or form. So instead of saying “Well, we don’t really do that or we don’t really need that”, we tell ourselves can’t we just ask everyone for jeans? Everybody has jeans, and people need jeans, so why can’t we ask? Why can’t we ask for a case of water?” I mean it’s crazy to watch how much this has changed. From the friends that we help to the people that gather for us. This is such an integral part to so many people’s lives and it’s literally just being kind to people. There’s really not much more to it than that. There’s cooking and there’s a lot of passing things out… It’s really just being friends with people. Genuinely enjoying spending your time with people and them knowing you are genuinely happy to be there. We aren’t there because we’re being paid for it, or it’s community service - we make time in our lives because we really, really enjoy it.
People ask how I have changed working with my homeless friends. I don’t know… I’m around so many people that on paper are so incredibly different than me other than homeless, I am adaptable and just love not based on what they have or what the do for a living.
I grew up with great parents and an amazing family. I’ve always had a job and amazing people around me. We grew up with not a lot when we were younger, but I’ve had structure and love my whole life. I’m surrounded by people who are lacking a lot of that in their background. It’s just that emotional connection you can have with someone who, as I said, on paper is seemingly so different from yourself. But then, they’re not. My struggle is not their struggle, but it doesn’t make my struggle any less. Definitely makes my life easier when you see how I’ve grown up, but it’s just opened my eyes to there’s a whole other side to people you don’t see just passing them on the street, in the store… even things you read about in the paper. It’s taught me not to judge any situation. It’s also taught me no one is defined by their worst moment. And that is a really big thing. You know, that’s part of this. You don’t know what they’ve done, or what has happened to them, how they grew up, or what they’ve learned and how they process emotion and handle incidents and that kind of thing.
I don't think one should look at a homeless person differently than someone who isn't That’s a touchy subject for people, but I’m beginning to look at it as the person’s not necessarily homeless, but someone who could use something, like bottled water or bus passes or someone to talk to. Because no one likes to be ignored because of their station in life - because of anything about them. I mean, turning a blind eye to someone because it’s situationally uncomfortable for you isn’t really fair. You wouldn’t want someone doing that to you. You can’t determine what your life is going to be like years from now. You might as well put out the positive karma while you can - who knows what you’ll get out of that.
So for the future of Gathering Friends, I hope it continues to grow as it has, which is sort of as the need arises. We don’t put any kind of parameters around what we’re going to do, what we can and can’t do, we just keep ourselves open to realizing there’s a lot of need and you can’t tend to all of them, but you can branch out as far as you can.
It would be great to have things like mobile showers, mobile care units, mobile washers and dryers, mobile would be really good. There are bigger things though that need to happen. There needs to be more affordable housing. There needs to be more shelters. There needs to be all kinds of other things, and government-wise there’s not going to be money for all of that. But, when I look at how Gathering Friends wasn’t even an organization, it was people chatting on a Facebook page, and now how it’s this big beautiful beast, it reminds me that you don’t have to have government funds to make all of that possible. If you have enough people that care, that share your vision, and share your vision with others - spreading the word and allowing people to open their hearts in different ways, you can get a lot done by people who just give a shit. I just hope that it continues. And I hope that it continues not just for what we do, but that it inspires people that care about animals at the Humane Society, or the elderly with Meals on Wheels - whatever it is, don’t ever, ever think the little thing you do isn’t enough. The little thing you can do will remind somebody that they can do that, and that reminds somebody else that they can do it, and that spreads. Just like anger is contagious, kindness is even more contagious.
We texted Whitney to let her know her story was being published on the given date. Whitney excitely stated, "Did you know Johnny gets out of jail that exact day? We did not. What a God thing.
Gathering Friends for the Homeless is a community of friends with a common heart for supporting our homeless neighbors like family while forging lifelong friendships. We serve Springfield, MO by focusing on the needs of the growing homeless and food insecure population. We are grounded primarily in providing complete meals to the homeless, but in special cases will get involved in providing for other needs as approved by our board.
We do this through organizing the energy of volunteers to gather items such as meal ingredients, completed meal components, and supplies for distribution to our homeless neighbors. The core of this program includes regular pick-ups from local farmers and stores in the community. Additionally we have many groups (businesses, churches, teams) that will take a complete meal for us or prepare and freeze main dishes. We also take financial contributions and convert them into the efficient purchase of items needed.