In The News

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June 8, 2012

Chaplain Marie Boyd is heading back to the tent — but this time not to raise money to help refugees of natural disasters elsewhere in the world.
This time, she's out to raise money to help those in need in our backyard.
From Monday morning through next Saturday night, Boyd plans to camp out with no food or electricity in the parking lot at Todd Stadium off Warwick Boulevard in Newport News. She won't be living like a refugee, but like a woman who's lost her job and had her power cut off. Whose food budget has run out, and whose hope is dwindling.
Just like Peninsula and Southside residents she helps every day.
"The community rallied around me to raise money for tragic events like the tsunami (in Indonesia) and the earthquake that hit Haiti," Boyd said. "Now I'm asking the same community to come out and help their own."
Usually, the community does. And Boyd's nonprofit Hampton Roads Good Samaritan Fund puts every penny of tax-deductible donations toward those who find themselves in need through no fault of their own, like job loss or illness, foreclosure or car trouble. Donations go toward getting them on their feet and independent again as fast as possible.
Donors can drop by next week and drop a contribution in a big barrel onsite, or click on the group's website at to donate there.
Boyd plans to be there in a tent big enough to sleep four, supplied only with water. "I'm not gonna leave my tent, because they can't leave their environment," Boyd says of the people she tries to help. "When they're in this situation, they can't leave — they're stuck there."
Supporters have offered to bring meals and she's grateful, she said, but "what I'm telling people is, 'Don't let the chaplain starve, but I'd rather have money in my barrel than food.'"
She's also challenging city leaders throughout Hampton Roads to bring a sleeping bag and join her, if they have the heart for it.
The public is invited to drop by, too, whether to visit, donate or find out more about Boyd and the work she does.
Last year, the fund turned about $60,000 in community donations into untold lifelines. Much of it went to pay power bills after electricity was shut off or was about to be. The rest went to necessities like temporary rental assistance, medicine, gasoline for cars, groceries and bus passes.
The charity's bank account has shrunk of late to about $500.
In 2005, the community opened wallets, checkbooks and piggy banks to donate $21,000 for tsunami victims, and $4,000 for quake victims in 2010.
Boyd hopes to raise $10,000 next week, but this time for a disaster that's less an act of God than an aftershock of the economic meltdown. Boyd says the need is "the worst I've seen in the past four years."
She fields numerous calls for help every day, often from those referred by aid agencies, social service agencies or even local commonwealth's attorneys. With no overhead or red tape — she screens clients, herself — she can step in quickly where others can't.
"When we promise you we're gonna help you, we're gonna help you that day or the next day," Boyd said. "When we're on it, we're on it."
She already partners with her own church to stretch donation dollars wherever possible, and is looking for other faith groups willing to partner-up, too.
She's also hoping to enlist donors who can commit to sending something on a regular basis, even if only for a yearlong commitment. "Then we wouldn't be a feast-or-famine operation," Boyd said.
Next week, though, might be all about the famine. Nothing but her, the tent, an empty barrel chained to a pole and a bedrock faith that by week's end the barrel will be chockfull of donations.
"This could be you tomorrow," Boyd said. "By the grace of God, this could be you tomorrow. Tragedy does not discriminate."

April 3, 2012

When she was 11 years old and growing up in Poquoson, Marie Grindstaff helped ease her baby brother into the world — taking him from the arms of the midwife to bathe him in the family kitchen.
Now, 63 years later, she's helping to ease him out of it.
"They say he could have a day, a week, a month or a year," Grindstaff told me recently. "It could be any time."
Her brother Harley Gilbert is slowly succumbing to a host of illnesses attributed to his exposure decades ago to Agent Orange while serving in Vietnam.
He has Parkinson's disease and diabetes. He has three different blood pressures — one while standing, another while sitting and yet another while lying down. At any given time, his blood pressure can skyrocket or plummet and knock him off his feet.
He has multiple system atrophy, a progressive neurological disorder that's causing his organs to deteriorate. There's no remission and no cure.
"He will get up, and he can't move at all," Grindstaff said. "Or he will be in a trance and just stare. Or he will start shaking, like a person with Parkinson's does. He'll just change from one minute to the next."
Marie drives down from her home in Lanexa to visit or, as her baby brother says, "to come and be bored with him."
On Tuesday, she sat across from Harley in a tidy trailer home near Langley Field in Hampton where Harley and his wife, Diane, also 63, are living temporarily.
He sat in a recliner in the living room next to a hospital bed draped with a quilt. His wheelchair was next to that. And next to that was the walker his wife uses to get around because of a pair of bad knees that need replacing and a bad back from osteoporosis.
They reminisced about the day Harley was born in a house on Messick Point — the 10th of 11 children, in a long line of watermen. Their great granddaddies and mothers, they said, rode out the hurricane of 1933 — at the time, the worst storm in Virginia in more than a century.
Harley and Diane married 43 years ago and raised two children. One is the married father of three living in North Carolina, and the other is a developmentally challenged daughter living in a group home. Their son is a former paratrooper who was disabled years ago in a jump in bad weather.
Harley spent a little more than 20 years in the Army before retiring in 1987. About 10 years later, the body tremors started. He's classified 100 percent disabled now.
"It took a long time to fight (for) it, but I didn't give up," said Harley, a compact, soft-spoken man with close-cropped hair and a white goatee. "I'm hard-headed."
But his health isn't the couple's most immediate concern. That's the house, and the van they need to get him to the VA hospital in Richmond, where Harley says the staff takes good care of him.
The trailer home belongs to Diane's sister. The Gilberts moved in to help the sister cope with the last stages of renal failure, but she has since been transferred to a nursing home. She's not expected to return. When the time comes, the home will go to the sister's two sons, and Harley and his wife will need to find another place to live.
As for their van, it was recently outfitted with a wheelchair lift, but shortly after that, the engine blew. The VA paid for installing the lift but hasn't been inclined to pay for the engine repair, and the Gilberts can't afford it.
The couple has become clients of the Good Samaritan Foundation, a local charity that uses public donations to help residents in need through no fault of their own.
Executive Director Marie Boyd is asking readers if they have or know of handicapped-accessible housing for the Gilberts, or if they can contribute toward transferring the wheelchair lift to another used van that one of Harley's sisters bought for him. The price they've been quoted for the work is $4,000.
Harley says the VA hasn't returned his calls on getting the vehicle work done, but his hospice social worker says she's working with the VA on his behalf.
"That man has served his country, and he deserves to die with dignity," said Boyd. "He deserves to die with dignity and the respect of the American people."

December 23, 2011

What Erica "Jer-zee" Still of Newport News wanted for Christmas was a family that her fledgling bike club could help. Some toys for the kids. A new outfit or two. Spread the holiday cheer.
But the family she was handed overwhelmed her: a grandmother who's now raising her 13-year-old grandson and his 10-year-old sister after their mother was evicted from their apartment and took off.
The landlord tossed all their belongings to the curb. They lost everything.
Then it got worse.
"The mother has been strung out on drugs for some time," Still says, "and pretty much vanished. She's in the area, but she's on the street, running around with some man, on drugs and not making any good decisions at all."
The children were "just shifted all over the place," she says. The father abandoned them, too.
"The thing that broke my heart," Still says, "is the grandmother is ill. She's still working ... trying to support these children. She hasn't even alerted her employer as to how serious her health issues are. She's afraid they'll put her on (unpaid) leave if they know how serious it is. So she's just trying to continue to put food on the table. Trying to keep the utilities on."
A friend who counsels clients for social services recommended the family to Still's Bloc Raiderz Motorcycle Club because it was among the most needful and deserving of her clients. When the grandmother was told of the club's offer, Still says, she burst into tears.
The counselor knew the club and figured it was the right fit. It was formed just over a year ago and has about a dozen members from the Peninsula and southside.
"We're all about the ride," Still says. "We're not one of those clubs creating riffraff. Most of us have families -- husbands, wives, kids -- so we have everything to lose. When we see opportunities in the community to help, we jump on it."
In March, for instance, they held a bake sale to raise money for a family whose daughter needed treatment for a brain tumor.
But the needs of the grandmother and her two grandchildren go beyond what even the Bloc Raiderz can handle on their own.
So they're asking the public to adopt this family along with them. At least for the holidays.
The grandmother declined the club's initial offer of toys and games — - "She said, 'Let's forget about the toys. Just get them the bare minimum,'" Still says.
The woman's concern was that her grandchildren had so few clothes left they were coming home from school crying because classmates were ridiculing them.
So Friday evening club members will be delivering new clothes for the kids, purchased in part with the help of $400 from the Good Samaritan Foundation, a local nonprofit charity that uses public donations to help people who hit hard times through no fault of their own.
The contribution, said the foundation's executive director Chaplain Marie Boyd, "is a good-faith showing that the foundation is going to help, no matter what."
The Good Sams will accept checks earmarked for the family, and coordinate any other donations of clothes, furniture or, yes, toys. Still says the Salvation Army is getting involved, too.
But, come Dec. 26, the Bloc Raiderz won't just ride off into the sunset.
"This is not just a holiday," Still says. "Give a few gifts, goodbye. We intend to maintain a relationship with the family."
They'll invite them to cookouts, skating parties and other family activities, she said. Club members can serve as mentors.
"Ongoing throughout the year, we'll help," Still says. "When we say 'adopt,' we adopt for the long term. As long as they're willing to allow us to interact with them, that's as long as they'll receive help."

June 8, 2011

A month ago, the call went out: A group of local volunteers that helps people in distress was in dire straits itself.
Funds had dried up, while the need was more desperate than ever.
"It's the worst in the history of my life," Marie Boyd, executive director of The Good Samaritan Foundation, said at the time. Boyd is fielding about 15 calls for help a day.
When I told readers about the need for contributions, frankly, I didn't expect much. Not because people don't care — time and again, they've proven they do care, and quite a bit.
But the sour economy has ruined local jobs, savings and equity. People who'd been contributors in the past were now calling the foundation for help themselves.
Frankly, it didn't look good, and I told Boyd so. But she had faith.
Long story short, I shouldn't have doubted the ability and willingness of the people of this community to rise to the occasion, even if it is an uphill battle.
Within three days, more than $7,000 poured into the foundation. Money that would keep a family's electricity on, fix a car so a breadwinner won't miss work, stop an eviction because of a medical emergency or job loss. Money that would ransom lives from the brink.
But that's not all.
Boyd was standing in line to deposit donations that first week when she opened an envelope addressed to the foundation and read the note inside: "Dear Marie," it began, "please accept this small token of help towards your efforts."
"And out drops a check," Boyd recalled.
For $10,000.
"I bursted out crying," Boyd said, "and the bank people were crying and the bank manager was crying — we were all crying."
The check was from Stephens Office Supply on Wythe Creek Road in Poquoson, owned by Gary and Gail Wojciechowski and Steve Killiany.
"We want to support charities that we actually know are using the funds toward a worthy cause," Gail Wojciechowski explained Tuesday. "And I've known Marie for years. We used to go to church with her at Grace Methodist, and she is truly the most dedicated person I've ever known to a cause."
Although big donations are welcome, the life blood of the nonprofit group are those people who mail in $5, $20, whatever they can afford. Because the foundation is all-volunteer, there's no overhead or administration fees — every penny goes to help clients.
Clients are screened by Boyd to make sure the need is legitimate and recipients will be back on their own feet once the need is met.
Boyd also partners with local churches, charities and aid groups wherever possible to stretch every dollar. And she keeps a roster of skilled professionals to call on for help as needed — carpenters, painters, repairmen, etc.
Ronnie Womble, owner of R&W Automotive Sales on Jefferson Avenue in Newport News, is one of them. Womble has known Boyd for years, ever since he was a city firefighter and Boyd was a volunteer chaplain with the department.
"She seemed to have a good heart, you know?" Womble told me. "So when she opened this foundation and she needed somebody to help her with certain things, I'd told her I'd be willing to ... help her out with repairs on vehicles."
The foundation usually covers the cost of parts, he said. Why did he offer to help?
"I guess the same reason that I went into burning buildings when people were running out of 'em," Womble said with a chuckle. "You try to help your fellow man. A lot of people out there, especially this day and time, need help. I can't afford to give but so much of it, but you give what you can for friends and neighbors, and do what you can for your church, and hope that's enough."
A few people have offered to donate monthly, and Boyd is trying to enlist more to ease the frantic feast-or-famine donation cycle.
She's also holding a garage sale fundraiser from 8 to 5 p.m. on July 16 at the corner of Warwick Boulevard and Nettles Drive in Hidenwood.
Residents have donated items, and their time to help sell them. More are needed. To volunteer, call Boyd at 739-8094.
So far, the fund has received more than $18,000 in donations.

May 11, 2011

You know times are tough when you go to help a guy who has lost his job and he's sitting in a chair with a firearm in his lap, ready to kill himself.
"He was going to end it," recalls Chaplain Marie Boyd, executive director of the Good Samaritan Foundation.
Instead, she convinced the man, a machinist, that his family would be better off with him than without him.
"Then he broke down and cried on his knees," Boyd said. "A 60-year-old man who has worked all his life. And he got laid off."
Along with counseling the man, Boyd worked with the Salvation Army and a local church to get the family's outstanding power bill paid and electricity restored that same day.
If losing your electricity sounds like a weak straw to trigger your suicide, well, it's raining straws out there, if you haven't noticed. And they add up.
A local teacher in Norfolk lost her job and now works part time as a special education aide in Norfolk. Middle-aged. A 13-year-old son. Another child with special needs that she's taken in. A beat-up old car to commute in every day.
The car failed inspection, so she wasn't allowed to park it in the lot behind her apartment complex. It was out on the street. One night, someone slit all four of her tires. She couldn't begin to afford to replace them, and risked losing her job because of it.
The teacher called me last week — not to ask for help, but to vent. I gave her the number of the Good Samaritans, a local all-volunteer nonprofit that uses public donations to help those in need through no fault of their own.
Boyd said she got the call that night. She got out of bed, borrowed a pump, drove to the woman's neighborhood, pumped the tire and dropped the car off at an auto service shop whose owner supports her foundation.
The owner didn't charge for labor, but only for parts at cost. It still took $433.50 to bring the car up to inspection standards.
Boyd says she averages about 15 calls for help a day. In the last three weeks, she logged 6,000 minutes on her cell phone.
"It's the worst in the history of my life," Boyd says. "And I've been through a lot in my life."
Not everyone needs a bill paid, or is about to be evicted because of job loss or illness. Some need help with a move, groceries or transportation. Some just need to talk things out, or figure out what to do next.
Nearly all have already approached every social welfare agency they can think of, every charity or church, and been turned away because they didn't qualify or the money's just not there.
So those agencies refer callers to her, Boyd says. More referrals come from commonwealth's attorneys offices, the Salvation Army, churches, police and fire departments.
"And 99 percent of these people, we used to call our middle class," Boyd says.
An older woman who hocked her birthday presents to put gas in her car. A man whose job doesn't pay enough for his medication, but just enough to disqualify him from assistance to help pay for it. A mother whose electricity was shut off, and warms water in pans in the sun for her son's bath water.
"This one guy, he had a Bible in his truck," Boyd says. "He said, 'You know what, everybody always told me about God, ever since I was a little kid. And I took it with a grain of salt. Lady, I'll pray to anybody I need to pray to, but I can't live like this. I've got to be able to feed my family.' "
While the foundation's commitment isn't depleted, its cash reserves are nearly so.
Last year, the group took in $39,225, and paid out $35,685.
So far this year, it's taken in $10,463 and paid out $7,926.
Nearly all the rest is already drawn on checks, or otherwise committed. The foundation doesn't give money to clients, but uses it to pay a client's bills or expenses directly.
Donations to the foundation are tax deductible, and can be sent to:
The Good Samaritan Foundation
P.O. Box 6281
Newport News, VA 23606
Boyd is also planning a community garage sale to help raise money for the foundation. Those wishing to volunteer to help, to donate items, or set up their own table to sell baked goods or crafts and donate a portion of the proceeds, can call her at 739-8094.
"I guess the most heart wrenching thing is that nobody sees a light at the end of the tunnel with this, as far as the economy," Boyd says.
What she tells them, she says, is a simple mantra: "It's gonna get better, it's gonna get better."
"It's gotta get better," Boyd says, "because it can't get worse."

January 12, 2011

The story of Zettie Cox is a cautionary tale on so many levels, it's hard to know where to start.
Don't get sick. Don't get old. Don't be naive. Don't underestimate the lure of the love of money. Watch your back, even with loved ones.
Talk to social workers who advocate for the elderly, and you'll find that Zettie's story isn't all that unique.
But it's bad enough that she's 75, long bedridden from injury and illness, facing eviction from her apartment just a few short months after her Hampton home of 41 years was foreclosed on and sold out from under her.
It's the kind of black hole of misery that survival instinct tells you to back away from so you don't get sucked in, too.
I nearly did back away. She could tell.
Her voice on the line had been weak. It turned plaintive.
"I don't want to go to a nursing home," she said. "Please help me. Please help me."
And so I ended up sitting at her bedside one afternoon, sifting through legal documents, mortgage records, trying to grasp how anyone could end up in such a mess.
Zettie was a wife, mother of seven, working as a nurse's aide at the VA for 10 years, till she slid and fell on a patch of axle grease near the nurse's station on Thanksgiving Day 1979.
What began as a "tingle" in her back turned into physical therapy, then three surgeries. The injury, combined with rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes, turned her into an invalid.
Her grandson, Joe Cox, then 18, came to live with her as a full-time caregiver. Twenty years later, he's still helping her.
She's desperate to stay out of nursing homes. She's been in them three times, she says, and "every time, something happened to me."
Once, they didn't listen when she insisted her blood sugar was low, and she ended up in the hospital that night. Another time, blood clots burst in her back and thighs and she was hospitalized again, for transfusions. They feed her too fast, she says, till she gags and refuses to eat. They're late with her medications, says Joe.
She's been a widow since 1991, and receives about $2,000 a month in disability and Social Security.
A few years ago, she began taking out equity loans on her house, which was paid off — for home repairs, furniture, medications. To pay $2,000 a month for a home health care aide.
The loans mounted, till they were over $100,000.
Then in October 2008 she suffered seizures. Back to a nursing home to rehabilitate. Her children suggested a close relative be given power of attorney.
For a few months, she says, the relative paid her bills and mortgage. Bought her furniture and a TV. By the time she came home again, she says, only $2,000 was left in her bank account.
She never demanded an accounting. She didn't even want to voice her suspicions.
"How am I gonna tell him without hurting his feelings?" she thought.
Most people in her situation wouldn't worry about that. But that's not Zettie.
"I know he did me wrong," she says, "but I don't want to get him in trouble."
I remind her that he apparently had no qualms about getting her in trouble.
"I know it," she says, her voice barely audible. "I know."
Her finances were a mess. Her mortgage wasn't getting paid. Her relative scrammed.
Last July, a letter from an attorney gave her five days to vacate — her house had been sold at public auction two days earlier.
Joe rallied to find an apartment. Then scraped the money together for deposit and rent. But that put them further behind.
They owe nearly $2,500 now. The Good Samaritan Foundation — a local group of volunteers that uses community donations to help those who've fallen on hard times — has taken her case, seeking contributions to cover the past due amount.
Once she's caught up, says foundation director Chaplain Marie Boyd, Zettie should be able to manage on her own. The group is trying to match her with programs that help the elderly and disabled.
Local agencies they've contacted so far, Boyd says, are either out of funds or say Zettie doesn't qualify.
A neighbor of Zettie's had already donated $500. He said he did so because she once helped him when he was homeless, and he's returning the favor.

July 25, 2010

A week ago, Nick wept tears of despair.
The once prosperous 62-year-old Newport News businessman lost his pizza restaurant on Jefferson Avenue when druggies and prostitutes infected the neighborhood and scared customers away.
After he lost his house, he and his wife were reduced to living in a small, ramshackle, two-bedroom trailer with their seven children, ages 2 to 14. The kids had to sleep on cushions and couches in the overcrowded living room.
In ill health, unable to work, denied disability, no income beyond food stamps and $500 a month that Social Services paid toward lot rent, Nick was watching decades of hard work slip through his fingers.
Readers may recall the Syrian-born American saying in last Sunday's column that what he most wanted for his family was a house. Maybe someplace in the country, where it's safe. With a little land for his kids to play on.
"Any place to stay decent," Nick said. "That's all."
A few days after the column ran, Nick wept again — this time with tears of gratitude.
Three separate readers offered him houses, two on city streets at reduced rent.
The third — the one that he and his family will soon be moving into for at least a year — is in rural Poquoson and practically made to order. Best of all, it's rent-free.
"It's like grandmother's country living," says Chaplain Marie Boyd, executive director of the Good Samaritan Foundation, the local charity managing public donations for the family. The all-volunteer group uses public donations to help local people who fall on hard times through no fault of their own.
The house sits on a rural cul-de-sac, with a yard in front and marshland across the road. There are raised beds in back where the family can put in a garden. There's a detached garage for Nick to store his restaurant equipment — despite his health, he can't give up the idea of opening another restaurant one day.
The house is owned by a young widow with a young child who doesn't want her name used, so I'll just call her Rose.
Asked why she decided to loan the house to Nick and his family, Rose said simply, "It seemed like the right thing to do."
It belonged to her late husband, and the couple lived there only a year before they bought the home where Rose lives now. She rented out the old house for a while, but now plans to get it in shape to sell one day. It's been sitting empty, so one benefit for her, she says, is having people living there to look after it.
The place does need a little TLC — paint, landscaping, a good scrubbing. If you can volunteer to help with any of that this week, give Boyd a call at 739-8094. The fund will use donations to buy paint and other supplies.
So far, readers have contributed about $400 to Nick and his family, with another $500 donated toward an $800 electric bill.
Nick underwent a shoulder replacement Thursday — his third shoulder surgery over the years — but was expected to be released from the hospital by today. When he's recovered enough, Marie says, a local restaurant owner might be able to offer him light work a couple days a week. It's not much — and he shouldn't be working, anyway — but until he finally wins approval for disability, it means some income.
In addition, a Hampton high school principal and his wife plan to provide clothing, shoes and school supplies for the kids.
As for furnishings, a Williamsburg resident happened to be in the midst of moving out of his house when he learned about Nick. He contacted the Good Samaritans and immediately donated furniture, including a bedroom set and washer/dryer.
Still needed are bunk beds for the kids and dressers.
When she went to Nick's trailer to deliver all the good news, says Boyd, the family was overwhelmed.
The mother, she says, burst out crying and hit the floor: "I thought she fainted. She kind of went down like she was praying. The (14-year-old) daughter kind of lifted her up and said, 'Mama, it's OK, it's OK.' Nick, he kept saying, 'There is a God.'
"I rescued my heart," Boyd says. "I was able to walk out and go, 'This is gonna work.' "

July 18, 2010

As a boy growing up in Syria, Nick knew there was something better out there in the wide world for someone with brains, guts and initiative.
"Always, I see no solution for me there," Nick says of his homeland. "My dream, it was bigger than my age."
So when he grew up, he left to seek it out.
He enlisted in the merchant marines, and for years at every port he wondered if this might be the place. A place where people were kind to each other, and you could raise a family in peace.
"Everywhere I check — where is nice people?"
When he hit New York City in 1976, America's bicentennial year, he found it. A nephew was already living there. He made friends fast. He got married and earned citizenship. Started a family.
When he declares, "I am an American," his voice is adamant, his face set, his finger thrusts toward the ground he's standing on.
He lived and worked in New York, then opened a little restaurant in Baltimore and, finally, Newport News. For a time, he did well, paid off the business, bought a house, drove a nice car, owned an expensive suit.
He still has the suit, he says, gesturing, ready to show it to me.
But everything else is gone — the business, the house, the car.
Today, Nick and his wife and seven inordinately beautiful children, ages 14 to 2, live in a threadbare, cramped, overstuffed two-bedroom trailer off Jefferson Avenue, on loan from a friend.
One bedroom is crammed with salvage from his last restaurant — a pizza place on Jefferson that got taken down several years ago by crackheads and hookers who slowly took over the neighborhood, he says.
In just a few short months, four businesses closed, including his.
The living room is now a makeshift bedroom for the seven children, who sleep cheek to jowl on worn couches and on cushions on the floor covered in sheets. There's barely room to walk without stepping on someone's sleep space, or without being hugged by at least two or three children who greet strangers as warmly as family.
Nick is a compact man, trim and vibrant for his 62 years, despite two shoulder surgeries — with another set for this week — and a car crash that broke discs in his back and neck. From chronic pain and limited arm movement, he can't manage physical labor anymore, but has been refused disability.
He sits in a plastic lawn chair in the living room, a child's arms wrapped around his waist.
"I am like a bird," he says, his accent thick, cuddling the child to his chest. "I can't live two hours, not see them. I love any man take care of his family. But I see him get drunk, I spit in his face. I'm not, 'Please God, give me something to eat.' I'm not begging. I die. I prefer to die."
He wipes at tears that spring to his eyes. He's equally adamant that I not use his full name, only the nickname he goes by.
He qualifies for food stamps, and Social Services pays nearly $500 a month for lot rent. But this is all that maintains them. Other than that, there is no income.
Asked for his most immediate need, his eyes sweep the crowded living room where his kids are curled up like puppies. He keeps them inside because the neighborhood scares him.
"I need a house," he says. "The most important thing, any place to stay decent. That's all."
Nick is on a waiting list for Section 8 housing that he's told could come through anytime in the next three to 10 years. A welfare worker gave him the phone number of the Good Samaritan Foundation — a small, nonprofit charity group of volunteers that uses tax-deductible donations to help those who fall on hard times through no fault of their own.
Executive Director Marie Boyd is paying down an $800 electric bill, and has a list of the children's clothing and shoe sizes. After her last visit, she says, Nick cooked up a meal to thank her, and wouldn't let her beg off.
If you have a house you could let for about $500, contact Boyd at 739-8094.
Nick's dream hasn't changed in the fundamentals. He still wants to live where people are kind, where your children are safe. A little country store, maybe, he says. With a bit of land behind.
"Somewhere," he says, "like when it used to be."

April 28, 2010

A week ago Wednesday at a memorial service for a Hampton school lunch lady, a eulogist made a prediction.
"You know what I told them at the funeral?" Chaplain Marie Boyd recounted Tuesday about the service for 54-year-old Barbara Jean Parker, who died recently after a tough battle with cancer. "I looked right at her daughter and said, 'You don't need to worry about the funeral expenses. The community that paid your mother's bills through us will come through for your mother.' "
It may seem like a rash thing to have said — assuring a grieving daughter that somehow a tiny miracle would happen and cash would suddenly appear and cover the cost of burying the irascible, beloved lunch lady known to kids at Tyler Elementary as Miss Barbara.
But the community had stepped up before to help Miss Barbara, generously contributing on her behalf last year to the Good Samaritan Foundation, a local charity founded by Boyd which secured free cancer treatment for her at Sentara Cancer Network, then used donations to help support her for months when she grew too sick to work anymore.
The day Miss Barbara was buried, I wrote about her again in this column. About one final call for donations — this time for $4,700 needed to bury her. Her two struggling children couldn't afford it, and her life insurance company denied her $10,000 policy because she died just shy of its two-year maturity date.
It was a tall order. And, yes, even rash.
But, as it happens, a perfectly reasonable prediction for this community.
"Thursday morning after the funeral," Boyd says, "I went to my P.O. box and the postmaster says to me, 'Chaplain Boyd, you need to go empty that box, because I stuffed it full this morning.' I turned the key, opened it, and 30 envelopes flew out. Within 48 hours, we had the money."
So far, 79 people donated $4,910 for Miss Barbara's home-going. The biggest donation: $200; the smallest: one dollar. Per charity policy, any extra funds from such appeals go to help other clients in need.
Some envelopes included notes, as from the woman whose two grown children attended Tyler and had fond memories of the lunch lady, and the woman who'd just buried her own daughter — 23 years old, also felled by cancer — and felt her daughter's spirit compelling her to respond.
They were moved by the harsh circumstances of health insurance out of reach of low-income workers like Miss Barbara, and a social services network so insufficient, a safety net so riddled with holes, that people like her finally grow too discouraged, too sick, to fight for their own lives anymore.
She had scraped by for 16 years in two part-time jobs as a cafeteria worker and monitor. No medical benefits. She'd survived cancer once with the help of Medicaid, but last year when she suspected it was back, Medicaid had dropped her and she couldn't afford a biopsy out of pocket.
Finally, she gave up.
Then her friend and Tyler assistant principal Bernice White-Morton became her advocate, contacting this newspaper for help, urging Miss Barbara — stubborn, proud and private — to tell her story in hopes of getting help from the public.
It shouldn't have to work this way. Lives shouldn't depend on who you know, or how hard you're willing to fight for it.
"I understand why some people lose hope," White-Morton says. "I understand the need for people to be advocates for others who may, because of their hopelessness, feel they can't really break through the bureaucracy.
"I've learned that we really do need medical care for those unable to pay. And I've also learned that people are really — when you really need them — people are really good to each other. And people will come through."
I'm told that, at her funeral, Miss Barbara looked better than she had in ages. Perfectly coiffed, in a neat yellow suit.
"You could see that she was at peace," White-Morton says. "That she was pain-free. And she just looked absolutely beautiful."
"The funeral was filled with joy," Boyd says. "Our hearts were broken that she can't beat up on us anymore, but we all are better people from having to deal with this woman. Because she taught us that, no matter what you don't have and how sick you are, you can still have self-esteem inside. She had lost her self-esteem and pride when she kept being turned down by every organization that was supposed to help her. And she said we gave her that back, by believing in her."

April 14, 2010

Just over a year ago, readers were asked to make a difference in the life of one person.
You did.
That person was only called "Jane" in this column because she was a proud, stiff-necked, private woman who resisted relying on the kindness of strangers. She spoke with me only at the urging of her friend, assistant principal Bernice White-Morton, who hoped to get her some help.
A lunch lady for 16 years at Tyler Elementary in Hampton, Jane worked just under seven hours each day to feed and monitor 500 kids, administering stern warnings and hugs every day, as needed. She loved coming to school. She loved the kids.
She beat breast cancer once with the help of Medicaid, because her job offered no medical benefits. A year ago, she suspected her cancer was back. She suspected she had walking pneumonia, too, plus there were strange "dots" on a lung X-ray. But by then, Medicaid had dropped her; she didn't know why. Soon after, a doctor canceled her biopsy because she had no insurance, so she couldn't afford to find out for sure.
"No need cryin'," Jane shrugged at the time, no strength left to wrestle with red tape. "You can go uphill, or you can die."
Friday morning, Jane's long struggle for higher ground ended. She passed away from lung cancer that had spread everywhere. Today, she'll be buried.
It might set Jane spinning in her newly dug grave, but today I'm giving you her real name. She was Barbara Jean Parker, age 54. The kids called her Miss Barbara.
"They loved her," White-Morton said Tuesday. "And they were used to her; she was there forever."
When the school year ended last year, Miss Barbara was doubly worried: She was seriously ill, and about to lose her school jobs for the summer in a wretched economy.
That's where readers stepped in. More than $5,000 sent on her behalf to the nonprofit Good Samaritan Foundation paid her bills throughout the summer, and supplemented to the end.
"She is truly what this fund embodies," says the foundation's executive director, Chaplain Marie Boyd. "The community gave her a quality of life, because she didn't have to stress for money."
The group also found her medical care — the biopsy that confirmed her cancer had recurred, then ongoing treatment at Sentara Cancer Network.
"You could see the difference — someone showing interest and care and compassion," White-Morton recalls. "Her face lit up. She was so much at peace, and just amazed that people were willing to help her." She visited every day to take her friend to lunch, or sit and talk.
When the new school year began, Miss Barbara was back at Tyler, even when she had to leave every day for radiation treatments.
"She was in pain constantly," White-Morton says. "One day she was so sick she couldn't stand."
That was shortly after Christmas, and the school, concerned, sent Miss Barbara home. She would never come back.
By then, the cancer had spread to her brain. After that, it was emergency rooms, hospitalizations and, finally, a nursing center — all provided by Sentara. Her daughter, LaTanya Parker, 34, visited her there last Wednesday.
"She knew we were there," LaTanya says. "She was shaking her head, just saying a few words. She was saying she wanted to go home. She held our hands. She didn't want to let our hands go."
"At least she's not in pain now," White-Morton says. "At least she's not needing ... she doesn't have to worry anymore."
At least Miss Barbara doesn't have to worry that there's no money to pay for her own funeral. But others do.
She had thought the $30 she paid every month on a life insurance policy would take that burden, at least, from her two grown kids, struggling themselves. It seems it was far cheaper to insure her own death than her medical care.
Unfortunately, she died just short of its two-year maturity date. If she'd only lingered till November, Mutual of Omaha would have paid out $10,000 — more than enough for her $4,700 funeral and burial.
Now, says William Hill at Crocker's Funeral Home in Suffolk, the company told him they'll only pay $550.
So if you want to help Miss Barbara one last time, send a tax-deductible donation to the Good Samaritan Foundation, P.O. Box 6281, Newport News, VA 23606.
"Miss Barbara was a good person," White-Morton says. "I'm gonna miss her."

December 13, 2009

One dark night in October, Trent was walking home from his job as chef at a comedy club in Hilton, plugged into his prized MP3 player and only about a block away when he realized he was being followed.
He had the presence of mind to ease his cell phone from his pocket. Slowly, he punched in 911.
Before he could hit "send," he felt a cold gun barrel pressed against the back of his neck. Rough hands rifled through his pockets, grabbing his wallet and keys. They took his MP3. As they took his cell phone, he finally hit "send."
Too late. Without warning or reason, the guy with the gun started to beat Trent, 29, in the head with it. The other guy began pummeling him with a heavy bottle.
"I could feel the mass of it hitting me on the head," Trent recalls, his voice slow and slurred from lingering brain trauma.
"I tried to struggle with him," he says, miming his left hand grabbing at a gun barrel and directing it away from his face. Tears run down his cheeks as he speaks. He apologizes and wipes them off.
"I was scared. I was pretty sure I was going to die. He stuck the gun here in the side of my neck and I could see his face. I can't even remember what he was saying. I grabbed the barrel of the gun. I said, 'I'm not gonna let you kill me.'" His voice cracks. "I thought about my mom and my little brother. My little brother was sleeping right here," he says, gesturing around the modest apartment the brothers share.
The two assailants left him lying on the sidewalk, limp and senseless, gushing blood. He might have bled to death if he hadn't pushed himself to his feet and staggered to his apartment door, mopping at his head wounds with his jacket.
He left a trail of blood up the stairs to his brother's bedroom door. He opened his mouth to call for help, but no words came out. Just moans.
"I realized I couldn't talk," Trent says, "so I started crying."
His brother heard him.
Trent spent six days in the hospital, but is still struggling to recover from that Oct. 8 assault. He lost his job because of his injuries: along with brain trauma, he lost the feeling and use of his right hand. Occupational therapy is slowly bringing it back.
And as slow and slurred as his speech is, it's better than it was.
"When I first met him a month ago," says Marie Boyd, "he ... was ... talking ... like .... this..."
Boyd is executive director of the Good Samaritan Foundation, a volunteer nonprofit that helps people who find themselves in need through no fault of their own. She was called about Trent by the Newport News Victim-Witness Assistance office.
Using community donations, the foundation is paying Trent's half of the $600-a-month rent and helping him seek aid from social services agencies that, so far, have only signed him up for food stamps.
They're securing him counseling for depression and post-traumatic stress — as much as he yearns for a normal life again, Trent is afraid to leave his apartment, even to check the mailbox just outside the door. When he does, he says, he carries a knife.
Police have no suspects, spokesman Harold Eley said Thursday, and have "exhausted all leads." Suspects are two black males, medium builds, about 5-foot-8. Vague.
Perhaps, Eley says, someone who knows something will "feel sorry that he was so brutally attacked" and call the local Crime Line. All calls to 888-LOCK-U-UP (888-562-5887) are anonymous and not traced.
I'm not using Trent's full name or the name of his street for his protection; he believes his attackers live in his area.
Eley says it's still enough for neighbors to go on: "They know it happened."
"I had a job before this," Trent says. "I was searching for a second job. My brother has a job. We work. We work for what we want out of life. And these other people — that's their job, taking stuff from other people."
But even a wallet, an MP3 player, a cell phone — "all that's not worth killing someone over."

October 9, 2009

Marie Boyd stopped at a Chinese fast food joint recently to pick up dinner for her husband when a bedraggled woman saw the "Good Samaritan Foundation ... goodwill to anyone" sign on her car and decided to take her up on it.
"She says, 'I'm hungry, I'm tired and it's my birthday,'" recounts Boyd, executive director of the fledgling nonprofit charity group. "I said, 'OK. Do you eat Chinese food?' 'No — can I have McDonald's?'"
The nearest McDonald's was a short drive away, and Boyd told the woman she'd be happy to go fetch some. For safety reasons, though, she couldn't take the woman with her, and asked her to wait.
The woman burst into tears. "You're not gonna come back," she said.
What Boyd did next will surprise only those who've never met her: She removed her wedding ring, handed it to the total stranger and told her: "If I don't come back, you can keep it."
The story ends well. Or well enough. Boyd bought the woman double orders of burgers and fries, the woman was still there when she returned, and Boyd's wedding ring is back on her finger.
Not long after, Boyd and a colleague had to remove those signs from their vehicles because they couldn't handle the sheer volume of calls they generated.
The Good Samaritan Foundation is a small, local, all-volunteer group I've written about it many times for their efforts to assist individuals and families who hit hard times through no fault of their own. They use community donations to help people get back on their feet.
Since earning federal 501(c)(3) charity status on March 30, they've received $30,437.63 in contributions. All but $713.30 has been spent -- and $313 of that is already committed. The rest won't last long.
Boyd regularly shakes down members of her church, and even foundation volunteers open up their own checkbooks. They're perilously close to checking sofa cushions for loose change. Now they're appealing yet again to the community to help meet a need that Boyd characterizes as "desperate."
"I've never seen it like this in my life, and I've been doing this for 24 years," she says. "And we're not talking (all) poor people here. I would say 75 percent of the people we're dealing with have jobs."
Their clients come from all walks of life -- one is even a bank manager who fell behind on bills after a family emergency. Many are referred by local social service agencies, elected officials or assistance groups.
Adrienne Johnson is a program manager with the Victim Services Unit with the Newport News Commonwealth's Attorney's office. So far this year, she's sent eight people — all innocent victims of crime — to the foundation.
Several were mothers of young men who had been shot to death, she says. One was a young man who'd lost his job because of his victimization and could no longer afford his prescription medicine. Another had been shot and wounded while visiting the area in hopes of a job and needed a place to stay while recovering, then help getting back home again.
"She has never said no," Johnson said of Boyd. "It's a wonderful organization. She just has such a tremendous, compassionate heart for people and helping those that sometimes fall through the cracks with other agencies."
Since April, the group has paid 72 electric bills and 62 natural gas bills. They made 60 rent payments to forestall imminent evictions.
But it's not just about doling out donations — every penny of which goes to client needs. Good Sam volunteers also advocate for clients with utility companies, landlords and social services agencies to get payments lowered or penalties dismissed. They hit the phones and the pavements to find people places to live. They counsel them on budgeting. All to reach the ultimate goal of making them self-sufficient again.
Boyd says she intends to fundraise in the community once she's fully recovered from a tumble she took a couple of months ago off a moving van that broke her wrist and ribs and gave her a concussion.
Till then, readers can send tax-deductible contributions to the Good Samaritan Foundation.

August 21, 2009

Last summer, this community rallied to help a man who'd undergone multiple amputations because of a rare condition first diagnosed when he was 14.
That's when he had his first amputation — a toe. Over the next 20 years, William Allen Honeycutt would lose a leg, half a foot and several fingers, whittled down by surgeons till he was confined to a wheelchair.
What he needed most back then was a ramp for his modest trailer in Newport News.
This community gave it to him. After Allen appeared in this column, a builder donated his crew, a businessman materials and the job was done. More donations of furniture and money, and Allen — unused to kindness from strangers — was overwhelmed to see his rickety old trailer transformed.
As one onlooker said, "You could see the giddy in his eyes."
Now readers are being asked to donate one last time.
This time, to Allen's funeral.
Tuesday morning, a friend arrived at the trailer to find that Allen had apparently slipped in his new bathtub, struck his head and drowned.
He was 34 years old. Divorced last year, he leaves behind two girls, 5 and 7.
"They were told that Daddy went to see Jesus," said Allen's sister, Tracey Honeycutt Bridges, en route Wednesday from her home in Greensboro, N.C., to Hampton Roads. "I don't think they quite understand that yet."
She last spoke with her brother Sunday and said he was feeling "a little bad."
"I think just over the last little bit he'd gotten weaker and weaker and he had an infection — had an abscessed tooth that could've made him feel ... he hadn't had a lot of strength lately," Tracey said.
A simple infection can turn deadly for someone with a rare and severe form of hereditary sensory and autonomic neuropathy, which blocks the ability to feel pain, heat or cold in the extremities.
It's also called mutilation neuropathy for rendering its victims so oblivious to cuts and burns that they lose fingers, toes and limbs to infection. Allen lost three more fingers earlier this year and was hospitalized with MRSA — a virulent staph infection.
A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. Sunday at his church, Parkview Baptist, at the corner of Hilton and Jefferson boulevards.
"I knew him when he was a kid — he's friends with my baby brother," said Pastor Rusty Beck. "He was full of life — very, very humble, too."
When he was up to it, Beck said, Allen would ride his motorized wheelchair to church near his trailer park. Sometimes he'd prop his girls in his lap and bring them along.
At Christmas, a church member dressed as Santa went to Allen's home to deliver presents to his daughters.
"The kids were totally convinced he was Santa," Beck says. "You could just see a twinkle in Allen's eyes."
"He was upbeat — for somebody who was going through hell," says Marie Boyd, executive director of the Hampton Roads Good Samaritan Fund.
Donations for Allen's ongoing needs have been handled by this local nonprofit, which is now fund-raising for his funeral. The group is all-volunteer, so every penny goes to clients.
Donations are tax-deductible and can be sent to the fund at P.O. Box 6281, Newport News, VA 23606.
"He kept saying, 'When I get better, I want to go to work,' " Boyd says. "I called so many places. They wouldn't even let him volunteer."
If it wasn't the amputations, it was the tattoos or the MRSA or the misdemeanor convictions for petty larceny racked up back when he was a self-described "punk little kid."
"He never, ever lost hope that he was going to be a father to those little girls until they grew up," Boyd says. "And he never lost hope that he was going to pay back the community somehow, some way.
"They helped so much for this boy. The community came together like I'd never seen them before."
It's being asked to come together one more time.
"Come out here and sit with us and celebrate his life," Boyd says. "Come to the church and let it not be empty. Fill this church with people who loved this boy."

June 14, 2009

For years, Sharon Waters and Willie Jackson have made do with what they had.
It was never much, but it was enough.
Willie, 59, is an Air Force veteran who spent 27 years driving big rigs till a doctor told him his heart was so bad he had a choice: retire or die.
So he quit trucking in 2005 and went on disability. And he began caring for his wife, Sharon, 48, an invalid from a host of ailments: diabetes, congestive heart failure, high blood pressure, and nerve damage and partial paralysis from a car accident four years ago. She's battled depression far longer.
Six days a week, a home health care nurse drops by to bathe her and see to her needs.
Financially, it's been a struggle. His $1,003 and her $636 in monthly disability payments barely cover rent of $825 and a no-frills lifestyle.
So it was a shocker when Willie's check was cut beginning in March by nearly $400. They discovered it was because he'd failed to recertify for Medicaid. He says he didn't know he was supposed to — but the damage was done.
They fell behind fast. They cut expenses to the bone, hocked the title to their 1995 van to a quickie loan company for $150 and an interest rate of 275.88 percent, but still ended up owing more than $1,600 on various bills. It'll take another $300 to ransom their van.
Their church, Ebenezer Baptist, has helped where it could, Sharon says.
They also appealed to U.S. Rep. Robert C. "Bobby Scott" of Newport News, who sent them to the Hampton Roads Good Samaritan Task Force, a nonprofit where volunteers advocate for residents in crisis, using public contributions to get them back to independence. Donations are tax-deductible, with no administration fees.
The group accepted the couple as clients and is already supplying groceries and trying to negotiate their bills down. As of Friday, to no avail.
If they don't pay their $877 electric bill by Thursday, the couple says, their power is set to be shut off, despite Willie's need for a nightly breathing machine for his sleep apnea.
The management office of their apartment complex near Jefferson Avenue and J. Clyde Morris Boulevard told the task force the couple are good tenants. They like it there, and the neighbors who check in on them.
In their little apartment recently, the two were by turns jovial and subdued. At one point, Sharon asked Willie to fetch a plastic bag from the cupboard — she was so nervous she was afraid she'd be sick.
She lay on their sofa, struggling to sit upright, prescription bottles on the coffee table. She's a big woman, but used to be bigger. Willie hands me an old photograph of Sharon at a family gathering. In it, she's sitting outside on a chair, grinning broadly. She's also about 800 pounds.
She has dropped some 400 pounds since then, on doctor's orders and by her own initiative. The weight gain came from "emotional eating," she says, and ticks off a list of why. Rape. Molestation. A close family member sentenced to hard time in prison.
Six years ago, she says, a doctor diagnosed her heart disease.
"I told him, 'I don't want to know anymore,' " she says, and just takes the pills he prescribed.
Then came the car accident, which cracked discs in her back, which pressed against her spinal column, deadening nerves down her right side. She says she was told she'd be lucky to walk again.
"Because of the accident," she says, "I'm like I am now."
Laboring to sit upright on a couch, consigned to adult diapers at $70 a case. She walks a bit each day with a walker. On good days, she hobbles into the kitchen to cook up soul food for her and Willie. About once a month she'll make extra, dish it onto tinfoil trays, climb into their old van and drive down to 26th or 27th Street in the southeast community and pass it out to folks who look like they could use it. Last month, it was collard greens, potato salad and pigs' feet.
"And those guys just went crazy," Sharon recalls.
Then come the bad days.
On one bad day, she says, she got so low she canceled all her doctor appointments.
"I'm just tired," Sharon says. "I feel like I don't deserve this. I'm a good person."

April 29, 2009

As public housing goes, this unit is unremarkable.
A drab three bedroom/one bath with a toilet that won't flush. Tired linoleum on the floors, stained roller shades on the windows. Sour yellow walls and cockroaches crawling up the stucco. Insecticide fumes permeating the cramped spaces, assailing the eyes.
Julia Crews, mother of three, stared around the empty townhouse Tuesday morning, grappling with how on earth to make this home sweet home. When she first saw it, she says, she burst into tears.
She's one of hundreds of low-income residents being plucked from public housing projects slated for demolition in the Newport News southeast community and placed into other existing units wherever they can be found.
This particular unit is in Ridley Circle at 16th and Jefferson, not far from her current home at Dickerson Court.
In early February, the Newport News Redevelopment and Housing Authority gave residents 90-day relocation notices. Last week, Crews was told it's her turn. She's not against moving. Happy to go.
Then she was told where.
"I'm like, 'Are you serious?' " she told them. " 'Out of all Newport News, you have Ridley Circle?' "
She'd hoped for a more stable place farther north.
People can and do live in Ridley Circle, carving out a castle in the heart of the 'hood.
It's not the stigma that bothers Crews. It's the violence right outside the door.
A month ago and half a block over, two teenage boys were gunned down. The 16-year-old shot in the torso survived. The 17-year-old shot in the head didn't.
It's the insidious coal dust from the nearby piers sifting through the community on grubby little cat feet.
It's the reek of the insecticide.
It's the injury that this chemical mash-up could do to her 11-year-old son, Kha'liel, a boy I wrote about a year and a half ago after his bone marrow transplant to try to reverse a life-threatening case of sickle cell anemia.
By then, Kha'liel had already suffered three strokes and a grand mal seizure, paralysis, brain damage, asthma, anemia and multiple organ damage.
His younger brother, then 2 years old, donated his own marrow for the transplant. For a year, it was touch and go, but Kha'liel finally began to produce red blood cells again.
He still has medical issues — breathing trouble, and petit mal epileptic seizures that leave him glassy-eyed and faint.
Other than that, his mother says, "he's doing really good."
Back in 2007, transplant doctors wouldn't even let Kha'liel come home from the hospital until they were sure he'd return to a sterile environment.
So with reader donations, volunteers with the nonprofit Good Samaritan Task Force redid Crews' apartment.
"From scratch," recalls executive director Marie Boyd.
All furniture was removed. A cleaning company disinfected the place. Twice. Volunteers laid carpet, painted walls. They brought new furniture and linens. Bought air purifiers and a washing machine.
For the next year, Kha'liel was essentially confined to the apartment.
"I worked hard here trying to keep rats and roaches under control," Crews says. "When people come to my apartment, it does not look like a regular ghetto environment."
No, it's not the stigma. It's the starting over, carving out her own castle yet again, converting another unremarkable public housing unit into a safe place for a boy in fragile health.
"God forbid," Crews said Tuesday, "I can't see myself burying Kha'liel over something ..." her voice trailed off. "Medicine only goes so far."
Tuesday morning, she stood in the Ridley apartment, eyeing the roaches, explaining all this to me and to a housing authority representative.
Soon after, she got a call from an authority official saying she didn't have to move to Ridley, after all. They'd find another place for her family.
It's a victory of sorts. Instead of the Crews, some other family will be moving to Ridley now. With any luck, its kids will have iron constitutions and the survival instincts of slumdogs.
Ideally, no one would have to live in such a place, and I don't mean public housing — it fills a true need. But a place where some people willingly foment roach-infested squalor.
Where some people think it's someone else's business to throw out the broken glass and cigarette butts littering the common yard. Who won't pick up a piece of trash, sweep a sidewalk, pull a weed.
Who don't watch over their own neighborhood, but sullenly witness its slow demise.
Children can be at all sorts of risk. And there's more than one way their parents can fight for them.

March 15, 2009

To 500 kids at Tyler Elementary School in Hampton, she's one of the lunch ladies, a watchful eye for the past 15 years.
For the purposes of this column, though, she could be one more dead woman walking — another casualty in our country's nutso health care system.
At her request, I'm using only her middle name: Jane.
Jane is a 53-year-old woman of modest means and a breast cancer survivor. She might have cancer again but isn't sure — her hospital canceled her lung biopsy, she says, when it found out that she had no insurance or Medicaid.
Medicaid got her through her last cancer battle — a lumpectomy, radiation and years of pills — but it was canceled back in December.
"I guess they figure 'She don't need it no more,' " Jane says.
She needs something but lacks the strength and willpower to fight for it. Her inertia comes from being shut down by the system too many times and from the bad cough that she's trying to shake. A public-health doctor said it was a cold, but Jane says she knows better.
"I got pneumonia," she insists. "I know I have because I used to get it. I'm coughin' up green, and I'm hurtin.' I'm hurtin' — that's how I know."
It wasn't Jane who contacted me for help. It was Assistant Principal Bernice White-Morton.
White-Morton has helped Jane out in the past, but this health crisis is beyond her.
"It's a challenge," White-Morton says. "I don't really know what can be done for her."
Jane works two part-time jobs. Under seven hours in food service and as cafeteria monitor. No benefits. If she doesn't work, she doesn't get paid.
And so with lungs aching, a possible recurrence of cancer and a host of other chronic ills, she still works every day.
She's already fretting about going jobless this summer, ineligible for unemployment. Regarding whether she qualifies for any government aid, all she can offer is "Honey, I don't know."
"I don't know about these insurances and stuff," she says. "You go to Social Services, if I fill out forms, they're just gonna turn me down. I get a headache tryin' to fool with them people down there.
"Sometimes I wonder why I'm here. I'm trying to think how I'm gonna get a job. Lord, it's rough now. I ain't never seen nothing like this in my lifetime."
What critical medical care she gets now, she says, comes from planting herself at the clinic and not budging till someone sees her. That's how she finally got an antibiotic last week. She says she can wait months for an appointment.
Under Medicaid, Jane got doctor-ordered mammograms every six months. Her last one showed suspicious spots on her right breast. Now she can't afford to follow up.
Luckily, the Good Samaritan Task Force is taking her on as a client. This small group of local volunteers will advocate for her and administer any reader donations. Every penny will go toward her medical and other needs. The group just got charity status with the Internal Revenue Service, so all contributions are tax-deductible.
Readers are divided over the need for universal health care in this country. Some insist that the system works just fine.
That 45 million Americans choose to go without insurance — or are just too lazy to work for it.
That people like Jane should appeal to the public for help to save their own lives.
That health care should be meted out like alms, instead of allocated as needed at low cost to promote the general welfare.
That's not right.
"It's not," White-Morton says. "Not in this country. I was in the military 20 years, retired from the Navy in 1994, and it's not what I expect from our country and the way we treat our people."
Until we finally empower the state to spend some of our tax dollars on a sane and humane system of health care, people like Jane will have to rely on the kindness of strangers.
Maybe she'll find it.
"I notice that many times, just when we think we're not going to pull together, we step up to the plate," White-Morton says. "People step up to the plate because 'It could be me.'
"It's all about us really helping each other and, hopefully, make a difference. At least in the life of one person."

January 7, 2009

The day before her 37th wedding anniversary, Mary Long of Newport News read something that brought her to tears.
It was my column on Dec. 21st about a 56-year-old Hampton man, Will Rosser, who was run down by a drunk driver in New York six years ago and suffered such severe brain damage and partial paralysis that he had to learn to walk and talk again. The collision also wiped out Rosser's memory of his past and short-circuited his short-term memory.
Until that moment, Rosser had lived a full and active life, getting married, raising a daughter and indulging in his hobby of photography. He traveled the world as an electronics installation engineer. The drunk took away all of that.
Rosser is still struggling to rebuild his life. He's in physical therapy, working with a support group for those with severe brain trauma, relearning old skills through a part-time job.
But one thing still eludes him: His former, handsome smile. The collision knocked out or broke off most of his teeth, making him feel, he said, like "an ugly, toothless man." Divorced now and on disability, he can't afford extensive dental work. So Rosser retreated into isolation.
When Mary's husband, Wayne, asked why she was crying that morning, she told him about Rosser. Then she asked, "Honey, can we do something about this?"
Mary thought her husband would want to chip in $50 or so toward the small fortune needed to get Rosser his smile back. Instead, Wayne suggested they pay for the whole thing — $2,208 — using the money they'd socked away for an anniversary cruise.
"My husband just had had a really great year," Mary explained Monday. "Just some wonderful things happening. A new grandson born in January. So we wanted to do something.
"We were moved to do it. I can't explain it any other way."
I called Rosser to tell him the news, and he was overwhelmed.
"That's amazing," he said. "I think that's fantastic, to tell you the truth. Nobody can see me, but I'm smiling."
When I told him the Longs had chosen his smile over their anniversary cruise, however, Rosser was less enthusiastic.
"An anniversary is more important," he said firmly. "An anniversary? Of people being married together? I don't think there's anything more important (outside of) childbirth."
Other generous readers offered to help Rosser, too. Aside from the Longs' contribution, about $3,000 was sent to the Good Samaritan Fund, administered by local volunteers to assist people through temporary bad patches.
In addition to those donations, a man who owns a dental laboratory called to offer dentures at low or no cost. And several local dentists volunteered their services for free.
But Rosser, who has a deep fear of doctors in general, has already bonded with a dentist recommended by his good friends Mallory Joyce and her husband, who also struggles with severe brain trauma.
"It allows me to feel like this is my family dentist," Rosser says.
Donations beyond Rosser's dental work and other immediate needs will go to replace his broken camera. Whatever is left will go to help others.
Rosser is the latest success story for readers and the Good Samaritan Task Force, which has applied for federal tax status as a nonprofit charity.
A man with a lifelong nerve disorder so severe it forces him to undergo multiple amputations, for instance, had a wheelchair ramp installed and his run-down trailer renovated. The task force arranged for Christmas presents for his two daughters and a visit from Santa.
The group paid $400 to keep a family of seven from eviction after the mother, who works at a fishery, was out of work after surgery. A family that had hocked its van to a car title company so they could get their sick child life-saving treatment was about to lose their only transportation when the task force ransomed it back (and kept the title, so it doesn't happen again).
The task force also tries to match volunteers with worthy causes. And it is soliciting handyman jobs for out-of-work fathers trying to support their kids. If you have hourly work for them, contact task force director Marie Boyd, at 739-8094.
As for Rosser, his next dentist appointment is on the 15th.
"I'm scared to death," he said.
But he's determined, too.
"I feel like it'll be great to go out, to look at the sun, to talk to people, without feeling I'm scaring them."

September 14, 2008

A month ago, 59-year-old Donna Hinnant of Hampton was scrambling for a roof over her head after she was burned out of a house on Threechopt Road.
To compound her plight, Hinnant — disabled and unemployed after battling cancer and contracting hepatitis C during years of surgeries on her bum knees — was wrangling with Allstate over whether her destroyed belongings were covered under the insurance policy held by the homeowner.
Today, thanks to reader donations and the intercession of local volunteers with the Good Samaritan Task Force, Hinnant has a stable place to stay and Allstate has agreed to reimburse her for her losses.
Task force member Marie Boyd says Hinnant just received a partial reimbursement check for more than $800 from Allstate, and on Friday another task force member took her shopping for badly needed clothing and goods.
"We're very, very happy with Allstate that they changed their mind," Boyd said Friday. "We're going to advocate for her in helping her find the things she needs."
It's all in a day's work for the group, and for readers who donated about $900 to help Hinnant and her eight cats land on their feet again after learning about them two weeks ago in this column.
That said, I thought I'd update readers on other task force clients whose happy endings are still in progress, thanks to the kindness of the community.
* Readers may remember 34-year-old Stephanie Lewis, the pregnant mother of three who left a bad marriage and was living for months with her kids in an extended stay motel in Newport News.
After her youngest, 2-year-old Riley, was diagnosed with a neurological disorder called Chiari malformation, Lewis left her restaurant job to nurse him through multiple surgeries to remove cysts and insert shunts to ease the pressure on his brain and spine.
Lewis' goal was to enlist in the military to provide for her family, but plans snarled over her citizenship status. Born in Canada of an American mother, Lewis believed she'd become naturalized as a teenager after years of living here. Immigration officials disagreed.
Today, Lewis and her kids are happily living in a Newport News trailer home renovated by task force members and furnished in part by community donations. Also with community donations, the task force bought the family a used minivan.
The 12- and 11-year-old are thriving in school. Riley is facing his seventh operation soon, but has finally begun receiving disability payments.
Lewis is a step closer to getting her green card through the persistent efforts of a task force member and the intercession of Sen. Jim Webb's office.
And on August 24 Lewis gave birth to a healthy baby boy named Maddux. When the baby weight is off and she's back in shape, with green card in hand, she still plans to enlist.
* Multiple-amputee William Allen Honeycutt finally has a wheelchair ramp, and beginning this week his tumble-down trailer will undergo repairs, too.
The 33-year-old divorced father of two young girls has a rare nerve disorder called Hereditary Sensory and Autonomic Neuropathy, which deadens the feeling in his extremities and cause infections that have forced him to undergo amputations since the age of 14.
The Newport News native already lost half of one leg, half of one foot and parts of the fingers on one hand. The rest of those fingers are scheduled to be removed this week.
When readers learned of Honeycutt last month, they donated enough money to pay off his bills and buy clothing for him and his daughters, ages 4 and 6. They also donated a bedroom set for the girls, a couch, a washer and dryer, and window AC units. Social Services has begun sending a maid to clean his home three days a week.
Wyatt Homes Inc. built the wheelchair ramp with materials donated by Denbigh Construction. In the next few days, a plumber, electrician and a couple of carpenters will start to fix his trailer's rotted flooring and the leaky tub and toilet. Once done, his church has offered to provide new carpeting.
"We still have a lot of issues in terms of him and money and transportation, how to make ends meet," Boyd said. "He's a lot better. But we still have a ways to go."
Between complex cases like these, the task force has responded to a variety of direct appeals over the past few months from others in the community. Whether it's a few bucks or a few hundred, or a well-placed phone call here or there, the group has rescued residents from one slippery slope after another.
They've applied for nonprofit public charity status, which would make donations tax-deductible. A local attorney is aiding the process.
Meanwhile, the Good Samaritan Fund is depleting fast and could use an infusion of community goodwill.

August 31, 2008

Donna Hinnant leaned on her cane, eyes sweeping the debris splattered across one end of the backyard to the other.
Battered furniture, damp braided rug, gutters stripped from the roof now littering the lawn. Cardboard boxes full of trinkets, open to the elements. A laundry hamper, clothes still inside. The scorched AC unit that's the main culprit in this chaos.
And, everywhere, shards of glass scattered on the ground.
Second-story windows that weren't smashed out by fire were busted by Hampton firefighters after the AC's electrical cord sparked an early-morning blaze Aug. 7 in the home's second floor addition.
It was a cat that saved her.
"I was dinking at my computer," says 59-year-old Hinnant. "I was staying up late, which I frequently do, and my cat Georgie started howling. He kept howling and I thought, 'Maybe he's hurt.' I stood up, and when I did I noticed the smoke."
Her bad knees kept her from getting upstairs, so she propped open the back door so her cats — all eight of them — could escape.
"Then I grabbed the water hose," Hinnant says, "drug that through the sliding glass doors and put water upstairs to try to keep it from exploding."
Firefighters contained the blaze, and the brick rancher on Threechopt Road north of Mercury Boulevard and Whealton Road can be repaired. That isn't the problem.
See, the house doesn't belong to Hinnant. It was her mother's, who died in late January, when it passed to Hinnant's older sister in West Virginia. For 12 years, Hinnant has lived in a mother-in-law apartment built onto the back.
While her mother was alive, Hinnant was insured through a rider on the policy with Allstate. When her 73-year-old sister, Barbara Henline, inherited the house, she changed the name on the policy but, to her understanding, not the particulars. Hinnant and her sister both believe Hinnant's losses are covered.
The insurance company disagrees.
That's the problem.

"It doesn't really make a lot of sense, you know why?" Henline said in a phone interview from Weston, W.Va. "They just changed my name, they didn't change anything else. At first they said she was covered, then in the middle of the stream they said they should have written another policy."
Allstate adjuster Brenda Burwell met up with Hinnant at the property recently to hear her grievances, but said she couldn't comment on this case and suggested I contact a corporate spokesman.
Jim Jennings at Allstate in Northern Virginia likewise said he can't comment on policy particulars. He tried to contact Henline's agent directly, but said the agent is on vacation and unreachable.
So Henline read from an Aug. 20 letter from Allstate explaining its decision:
"The definition of an insured person means you and, if a resident of your household, any relative and any dependent person in your care," she read. "Donna Hinnant is not a resident of your household."
I'm no insurance attorney and certainly don't have the policy particulars. And surely anyone with a law degree and proper incentive can punch holes through any insurance policy, if need be.
Insurance companies are for-profit, after all.
But while they dance around legalese and hold Hinnant in limbo, here are more particulars far removed from the purview of Allstate wonks:
Hinnant is disabled, survived cancer last year, has had multiple surgeries on her bum knees, and somewhere along the way — during one of those surgeries — contracted hepatitis C and needs treatment.
She has no job and no income, her car was repossessed and now she has no place to live.
"It's amazing how fast everything can go wrong," Hinnant says.
If a complete stranger hadn't opened her door just after the fire, Hinnant would be homeless right now.
Susan Greene, an administrative assistant, was grocery shopping when a food demonstrator who happens to be a neighbor of Hinnant's told of her plight.
Soon Greene, a fellow cat-lover, was bringing Hinnant into her Hampton home, offering her an air mattress on the floor. She took in the eight cats, too.
"I always said when I win the lottery I would do something for the homeless," Greene says. "I can't let her go homeless, and her cats just adore her."

With virtually nothing to her name anymore, Hinnant is in survival mode. She's upset because she suspects the cleaning crew hired by Allstate is throwing out her furniture and belongings wholesale.
Whenever possible, she combs through the damp boxes of detritus and the throwaways with a rag-picker's eye: a Trivial Pursuit game, a vial of nail polish, a cluster of fake flowers. Perfectly good, she says.
She pops open the gate of the Dumpster and rummages through a garbage bag. She finds a can of food, an umbrella with a goosehead handle. Good.
Before she limps out again she spies two pennies on the dirty container floor so encrusted you or I wouldn't touch them with our shoe. Hinnant leans over, snatches them up and slips them into the pocket of the only pair of pants she owns.
Survival mode.
It's almost obscene for an insurance company to stonewall someone in this predicament over what must amount to a modest amount of reimbursement.
It'll pay to repair the second story and the roof, after which Henline says she'll sell the house. It'll pay for the lost furniture that belonged to the mother. But it's holding the line here?
The good news is that Hinnant expects to get approved for disability at a hearing in two weeks. She first filed in March 2007 and got refused twice, but this time she has an attorney.
And a local organization has been providing free medical care, and she's about to undergo hepatitis treatment.
Also, the Good Samaritan Task Force of local volunteers will now advocate for Hinnant with appropriate agencies and direct any reader donations on her behalf.
With any luck, positives like these will help improve a worldview that has grown decidedly dark of late, but not without cause.
"Once you reach about 50, you don't matter anymore," Hinnant says. "We don't matter to society, to the government, to corporations.
"I didn't even sleep well until I got to Susan's. What's gonna happen? Where am I gonna go? Am I gonna be homeless? And I came within a hair's breadth of being homeless, and it's the most horrible feeling in the world."

August 8, 2008

It's hard to describe a guy about to have his fingers surgically removed as happy, but it's all relative to longtime amputee William Allen Honeycutt of Newport News.
His upcoming surgery is just one more amputation in a long line of them, beginning when he was 14.
Now 33 and disabled, Honeycutt is also benefiting from the goodwill of strangers who read about his rare medical condition in Sunday's column and generously stepped forward to offer all sorts of help, from money to labor to foodstuffs.
"He's on Cloud 9," his 38-year-old stepsister, Tracey Bridges, said Thursday.
A graduate student at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, Bridges put her academic career on hold a few months ago to help her brother as he struggles with his lifelong genetic disorder, Hereditary Sensory and Autonomic Neuropathy, which blocks the ability to feel pain or temperatures in his extremities.
It's also known as mutilation neuropathy for rendering its victims so oblivious to cuts, lesions and burns that they often lose fingers, toes and limbs to infection.
Honeycutt has already lost half a leg in a long progression of amputations, half his remaining foot and most of each finger on his right hand. Next week, he'll lose the rest.
"That's hard for him," Bridges said Thursday. "He says his leg and his foot — people don't recognize that, when he's got long pants. But his wounds, when they get to the point where people notice and stare, that's hard for him.
"His thing right now is the vanity of it, and he's trying to work through that."
The local all-volunteer Good Samaritan Task Force has taken Honeycutt on, and now they have $1,700 in Daily Press reader donations to work with.
All donations — whether for this case or others — are administered strictly by the group, which assesses each client's situation, advocates for them with appropriate agencies and uses every dime on client needs.
The Good Sams got offers from eight local construction companies to build a ramp onto Honeycutt's rickety trailer so he doesn't have to crawl up and down the stairs. A reader offered to donate the wood, and next week Wyatt Construction will build it.
J.D. West Handyman Services will repair the rotted flooring around the leaky toilet. Parkview Baptist Church in Newport News offered to replace the threadbare carpeting.
A roofer is being enlisted to patch the leaky aluminum roof, but a plumber is still needed to fix the leaky pipes to the bathtub, and a repairman to fix the busted heating/cooling wall unit.
The task force also fielded offers of home-cooked meals, a window air conditioner, free prescription drugs from Portside Pharmacy in Newport News for whatever his insurance doesn't cover, and at least three existing ramps that homeowners no longer need.
Some callers offered to drive Honeycutt wherever he might need to go. Others offered their handyman and carpentry skills.
An elderly woman called to say she didn't have much, but did have a bag of groceries that her son just dropped off, and she insisted Honeycutt have it.
"My response to that," said task force member Chaplain Marie Boyd, "was, 'We love you, God loves you, but right now he's OK with food and I want you to keep that bag of groceries.' She said, 'What can I do for him?' I said, 'You can pray for him.' She said, 'Well, I'm really good at that.' "
Today, Honeycutt is scheduled to receive a new motorized scooter from The Scooter Store. On Monday begins housecleaning help through the Department of Social Services.
It's all manna for a hard-luck, newly divorced father of two angelic girls, ages 4 and 6, who admits he hasn't always been an angel himself.
Honeycutt had owned up earlier to petty larceny convictions from his "punk little kid" past, including a stint in prison when his third misdemeanor was jacked up to a felony.
But he neglected to mention his arrest in March 2007 on a charge of marijuana possession, for which he received a six-month license suspension, community service and $276 in court costs. His sister says he had just separated from his wife and was staying at a friend's house when it got raided by police.
Convenient explanation? Maybe.
Online court records also show numerous traffic infractions over the years. Plus two felony drug convictions in 1996.
"The bottom line is," says Boyd, "I as a chaplain am obligated to help everyone no matter what their circumstances, as long as they are not out robbing banks or doing obviously horrible things. But I have a moral obligation to a human being. And I'm gonna uphold that moral obligation as long as I feel they're trying to help themselves."
To flesh out the portrait of Honeycutt, though, let me mention that during our meeting last week he stopped the interview to issue a direct appeal for help — not for himself, but for three skinny, raggedy little boys who roamed his trailer park, knocking on every door, trying to sell handfuls of honeysuckle so they could buy food.
Sometimes, Honeycutt said, he'd bring them in and feed them, though he had little enough, himself, and their soiled clothes put him at greater risk for infection. But the boys needed more than he could give and he was worried.
Boyd looked into it and called in Child Protective Services, which is now working with the family.
We do what we can with what we're given. Sometimes we stumble. If we're lucky, someone will help us to our feet again.

May 23, 2008

To look at them, you wouldn't know they had the power to change lives in a heartbeat.
A retired shipyard engineer, a builder, a chaplain, a retired Army colonel, a dentist's wife.
They're the core of a fledgling group I've written about before — the Good Samaritan Task Force.
Their mission: To take people mugged by "bad luck, bad timing, wrong place, wrong time" and rescue them with the adroit use of a little donated cash and lots of sweat equity.
Now they're in the midst of applying for 501(c)(3) nonprofit public charity status, meaning donations from readers and others to the Good Samaritan Fund could soon be tax deductible.
The five members are formalizing into a board of directors and working out a charter and oversight protocols to make sure fund donations and disbursements are accounted for.
They're visualizing good deeds and best case scenarios, undaunted by the hard work it'll take to get there.
And none of them stands to make a dime.
"I have time," explains Bill Hart, a retired engineer from the Northrop Grumman Newport News shipyard.
"A lot of people have had modest success in life, and most people don't realize it till their 50s and 60s, but the whole darn community is really responsible for whatever success you've had in life."
When the realization hits, he says, you start "giving back,"
"It doesn't have to be Santa Claus," Hart says. "You're not running for sainthood or anything like that — just doing what seems to be the best thing at the time."
For Hart, that means spending Thursday driving a homeless mother up to Washington to consult with a top immigration official to try to straighten out her citizenship so she can get on with her ambition to join the U.S. Army and provide for her family.
Other task force members have their own assignments, but untangling lives is more than just writing checks, although there's that.
You may pay up a back mortgage, but knowing the breadwinner — felled by disability or family illness — will get back to work.
You may buy a used vehicle so a destitute family can commute to the hospital where their child underwent a bone marrow transplant, but only when the family car is past any repair.
You may give a working family of six with three autistic children occasional grocery or gas money, but with the goal they'll be self-sufficient once the wife finishes nursing school.
If need be, you help pay funeral expenses for a child who dies suddenly in a family that couldn't possibly pay that bill.
And always — always — there's an exit strategy so you don't turn people into dependents.
Assess the need, clear the roadblock, teach them to fish, hand them a fishing pole, then send them on their way again.
As Hart says, you "wean them off as gracefully as possible."
Nelson Hinson, president of Denbigh Construction, has been quietly helping community members for years.
Like others in the group, Hinson got involved initially around Christmastime to help a homeless middle-schooler and her grandmother, and did so with great success.
Now 14-year-old Jasmine Davis is not only thriving in school, the task force has enlisted the help of a local professor to try to get her into dual-enrollment college classes. Fund donations paid up nearly a year's rent on the family's subsidized apartment, and task force members are helping her disabled grandmother get medical care and job training.
Like others in the group, Hinson is ready to formalize the arrangement.
"I just feel my faith asks me to help people in need," Hinson says. "And I've been blessed, so I need to give some back."
What the task force and its fund offer are problem-solvers with expertise and connections, and absolutely no overhead. Every donated penny goes to the families.
"This way, you see a need, you can take care of it," Hinson says. "You can give all the money to the people, and none of it is going to salaries."
After I wrote about the group last month — and two new families it was trying to help — readers donated more than $16,000, with close to half spent so far.
The LaFrance family of Hampton was about to lose their home after the wife left her job to care for a 2-year-old grandson diagnosed with late-stage cancer, shortly before the husband had to leave his job for three months because of epileptic seizures.
The quick intercession of task force member retired Lt. Col. Gail Hartjen and fund donations fended off foreclosure.
Stephanie Lewis, mother of three and stateless as well as homeless, is being escorted through the immigration maze by Hart — with an assist from his daughter, who happens to be an attorney who happens to know a top gun in immigration.
A Rotary Club connection of Hart's — Richard "Rick" Donaldson, partner in the Jones, Blechman, Woltz & Kelly Law Firm and former Newport News School Board chairman — is overseeing the 501(c)(3) application.
This is what Hart means by "action and connection" partnering with donations to get things done.
Once the group gets nonprofit status, Chaplain Marie Boyd says they'll hold fundraisers and pursue corporate sponsorships as well as community donations.
It was Boyd who was contacted for help when a local family couldn't afford to bury a child who died suddenly last week. I plan to write more on this family for Sunday.
The child's school took up donations, but Boyd committed Good Samaritan funds to cover any shortfall.
"People are pretty good," Hart says. "In general, you give 'em a chance, people are pretty good."
Yes. They are.

April 6, 2008

Riley Lewis is 2 years old and can't stop showing me the scar at the base of his skull.
Between offering me his stuffed dogs and toy cars, he keeps bending over and pulling up his blond hair with his tiny boy hands to expose the surgical scar running like a big red zipper down the nape of his neck.
"Ssssa, ssssa, ssssa," he tells me.
Riley has a neurological disorder called Chiari malformation. Since his diagnosis last year, Riley has spent five of the last nine months in the hospital to remove cysts and insert shunts to ease the pressure on his brain and spine. His balance is off, too, so he tends to fall a lot. He pulls up his bangs to show me the little scab on his forehead.
"Ssssa, ssssa, ssssa," he explains.
I begin with Riley, but he's not the extent of his mother's challenges. Stephanie Lewis had a decent job at a local restaurant until Riley's diagnosis, after which she quit to nurse him through one surgery after another.
She has two other children — 12-year-old Lachaela and 11-year-old Tyrell. After she left a bad marriage last year, Stephanie discovered she was pregnant with another child. She doesn't believe in abortion, so soon she'll be a mother again.
Stephanie turned 34 last week but, aside from having some terrific kids, had little reason to celebrate. Since October, her growing family has been homeless, crashing where they can. Right now they're living in the cramped single room of a weekly stay motel.
I say terrific kids because it was Lachaela who reached out to get some help for her family, sending me this letter:
"I am 12 years old so I won't sound like I am 2," it begins. "I am old enough to know myself when something is wrong. And it is."
Her mother's whole life, she says, "has been a struggle. And a fight. Whether it is with my brother and I or the whole U.S. government. If she gets deported our rights will be violated. We can't go back to our father who beats us with anything he can find. Even if we do a small bad thing."
No, Stephanie Lewis is not from Mexico. She's from Canada, but has lived, attended school, worked, married, borne three children, divorced and owned property in Hampton Roads since she was 17, when her mother — a U.S. citizen — relocated here.
Stephanie says she can recall visiting immigration offices years ago with her mother, filling out documents and, to her mind, becoming an American.
Two years ago, her mother died. Since then, Stephanie says, she discovered to her surprise that there's no official record of her citizenship. She has been struggling ever since to convince the feds that she is official, visiting and revisiting immigration offices, pleading with Canadian officials, filling out paperwork over and over, appealing to every politician she can think of. All in vain.
As far as the federal government is concerned, Stephanie says, "I don't exist."
When you don't exist, you can't get toys for your tots at Christmastime. You can't get groceries from the food bank. You can't even join the military, which Stephanie has also been trying to do, figuring it would give her children a roof, food and health care.
She says she knows others who have been deployed over the years and doesn't flinch at the idea of serving in Afghanistan or Iraq.
"I believe in defending the country," Stephanie says. "If you want to use the rights, then you should defend 'em."
First, of course, she needs to secure 'em. Easier said than done.
"Everybody's giving her the runaround," says Sgt. JW Weathersby, the Army recruiter who has been trying for months to help Stephanie enlist.
"It's aggravating for her because she really wants to do it," he says. "She's really motivated to join the Army — that's the only thing stopping her."
As for returning to Canada — which Stephanie says some impatient bureaucrats have suggested — that's not an option. Federal records may not show it, she says, but she's as American as her kids. And there's nothing and nobody for them in Canada anymore.
"This is our family," Lachaela says, firmly. "Right in this room."
Stephanie says a friend will look after her children while she's in boot camp. For now what she needs is someone who can help her convince the U.S. government that she exists so she can serve the country that, so far, shows little interest in letting her.
The travails of the Lewis family are unique, but hitting a rough spot in the road is not.
Soon, though, there might be a small band of local citizens to help such families or individuals who find themselves falling through society's safety nets, usually through no fault of their own.
It's still the germ of a good idea, but this task force already has one success story under its belt. Readers may recall Jasmine Davis, the middle-schooler who, along with her disabled grandmother, lived out of a shelter for nearly three years till generous members of the community stepped in to give them a hand up.
This small group — a business owner, a shipyard employee, a homemaker, a chaplain and a few others — formed almost spontaneously to figure out how best to help, using thousands of dollars in reader contributions and services donated by local professionals.
Nelson Hinson, president of Denbigh Construction and original task force member, says he and other group members want to continue the mission.
It will, if readers are game.
"I would certainly do what I can," Hinson says.
"And other people would, as well."
The idea is that this group would not only disburse reader contributions for particular families — make a mortgage payment, pay up a utility bill, buy groceries, cover a medical expense, etc. — but also could tap into the expertise of group members or others in the community, as needed.
To that end, task force member Chaplain Marie Boyd has set up The Good Samaritan Fund to accept reader donations now and indefinitely.
You can send checks to The Good Samaritan Fund, c/o Newport News Municipal Employees Credit Union, 502 Operations Drive, Newport News, VA 23602.
And if you have a particular expertise — in Stephanie's case, how to cut through knots in immigration bureaucracy — call Boyd at 739-8094 or e-mail
The need is real. If you don't believe it, take my calls for a few days. Last week alone, there was not only the Lewis family, but also a homeless woman who can't move into the subsidized apartment she finally secured after much effort until her past power bill is paid off, and grandparents facing foreclosure after the 2-year-old grandson they took in developed a rare cancer and the grandfather — a Navy veteran — had to take job leave after he developed epileptic seizures. I'll write more about that family this week.
Safety net?
I put more faith in the Easter Bunny. People fall through all too often.
With any luck, the Good Samaritan task force — and readers — will be there to help pick up the pieces.

March 2, 2008


Tonight is her last night of homelessness.
After nearly three years of living in various shelters, 14-year-old Jasmine Davis and her grandmother are finally moving into an apartment of their own. Move-in day is Monday.
For Jasmine, it's a Christmas wish come true.
"A lot of people have been really, really generous," Jasmine said Friday. "People have good hearts."
The people she's talking about, by the way, are you.
Readers were moved when Jasmine first wrote a letter to the Daily Press in December to say her holiday wish was "my own warm bed in my own room in my own house."
She and her grandmother, 56-year-old Billiann Jack, had been living for nearly two years in the Menchville House transitional shelter for women and children in Newport News. Before that, in an extended-stay motel and an emergency family shelter.
After a column about Jasmine in January, readers didn't just send a heap of donations — nearly $10,500 at last count — volunteers also formed a troubleshooting task force to figure out the best way to help Jasmine and her grandmother in the long term.
They're working on job training for Jack, who was a nurse's aide before a bad leg injury left her with a limp and partial disability. They're nailing down Social Security survivor's benefits for Jasmine, whose father died in the summer.
One volunteer, impressed with Jasmine's academic excellence — she just made the honor roll again — bought her a laptop computer. A college fund is in the works, too.
The group set up a family budget based on Jack's income from her part-time job and small disability check.
A local dentist offered to provide dental care not covered by insurance.
One volunteer is advocating with Social Services, which supplied the list of Section 8 apartments that finally landed the family a place to live, just a few blocks from Menchville, on the bus line and still within Jasmine's school district.
A bookkeeper with her school has been managing donations, paying off bills and helping Jack clear up a credit history marred by eviction.
Rent on the new apartment is paid up for an entire year. It doesn't have a yard for the flower garden that Jack and her green thumb yearned for, but she'll make do with planters just fine.
"It's small, but it's ours, you know what I'm saying?" Jack says. "We've gotten everything we needed, and it's been remarkable."
Jasmine couldn't believe it when she was given a brand-new bedroom set.
"She's so very happy that she doesn't know how to respond to it," Jack says. "She's like 'Are you sure they want to give us this stuff? Why?' When you're living on the other side of the coin and people want to take something from you, and suddenly you get something, it's like, 'Well, what should we do?' "
If you're tempted to send a donation for this family — Jack says don't. They're taken care of now, and there are others out there who need help more. In fact, I plan to write about just such a family soon, so stay tuned.
And speaking of you, here's an update on Beatrice, the 70-year-old Hampton grandmother I wrote about last month with the $7,000 power bill, a mentally disabled son living at home and a house about to be foreclosed upon.
In short, you rescued this lady, too.
Local Chaplain Marie Boyd, with the help of employees at the Newport News Municipal Employees Credit Union, is managing more than $9,000 in donations.
Beatrice's monstrous power bill — minus interest and penalties — is paid off. So is her $400 emergency credit card bill. Her home of 27 years is out of foreclosure and paid up a month in advance. Her $1,500 city fine for not repairing her garage (she simply couldn't afford to) is paid off, as well.
Boyd is assembling a team of volunteers to repair the faulty heater/air-conditioning unit that likely caused the inflated power bill, and to landscape, repair and paint Beatrice's water-damaged home.
The Peninsula Agency on Aging is looking into programs for Beatrice, and Social Services will find any applicable programs for her disabled son.
Any leftover money will go into a savings account for future home repairs or emergencies.
"She's giddy about it," Boyd said last week. "She's like 'You're kidding! Oh! Oh! This is a wonderful world.' "
Despite persistent evidence to the contrary, readers keep reaffirming how true that is.

February 10, 2008

Beatrice is a 70-year-old Midwestern grandmother with white hair, a merry giggle that sounds like gingham and sugar cookies, sad eyes flecked with worry, and nervous hands that at the moment are wringing the heck out of a paper napkin.
She doesn't want to be in this fast-food booth sorting through her financial woes with a stranger — a journalist, to boot — but needs must.
Beatrice asked that I not use her real name because she doesn't want to embarrass her family, so I'm using her mother's name, instead.
In the scheme of things, Beatrice's predicament isn't unique, but it's elbow deep and she's sinking by the day.
The short version is this: In November, Beatrice got a power bill for her Hampton home for nearly $7,000. Or, to be exact: $6,847.54.
It wasn't a fluke. She owes it, including about $2,500 in accumulated penalties and interest.
Beatrice is on a fixed income, and every month she would pay "as much as I could and a little more" on her bill, she says, often without looking too closely because she couldn't bear it.
"When the bills started going up extra high," she says, "instead of dealing with it right away, I put it aside and prayed they wouldn't turn it off."
Prayer has its place but not with the power company. In November, the minimum due was $491.44. She managed to pay $450.
A week before Christmas, Dominion Virginia Power finally shut her off. In truth, she was lucky that it carried her for so long — a utility is a utility, after all, not a charity.
Beatrice called the company and explained that she had sent a payment. The service rep, she says, laughed at the $450. After that, Beatrice gave up calling.
It gets worse. Beatrice's broader situation is this:
She owes thousands to the power company.
A faulty air-conditioning/heating unit is the likely culprit for sky-high bills, but she can't afford to fix it.
A leaky roof caused water damage that she also can't fix.
Her garage is so bad, her neighbors complained twice to the city, which twice took her to court for fines totaling $3,000. She struggled to pay off the first fine at $20 a month. After the second complaint last year, she scraped together $1,000 for a new garage door.
"(I was) trying to lose weight, anyway," Beatrice says, chuckling a little. "So I just cut back on my groceries."
But she got confused and missed her court date and got sucker-punched with another fine. By then, she had no more fight left in her.
"I was worn out," Beatrice says, her voice small and entreating. "I don't want to go back to court."
When you're hauling this much stress, you take the path of least resistance. So Hampton is collecting $50 a month from her on the second fine.
After the power was turned off, the city put a note on her door, declaring the house unfit for habitation.
Finally, all the scraping for every buck has put Beatrice two months behind on her mortgage. She's facing foreclosure on a home that she has lived in and paid on since 1980 and is finally within striking distance of paying off.
It took a while for Beatrice to get to this point, but I'll give you the Reader's Digest version:
Born in Pennsylvania and raised in Ohio, she married an Army man who moved her and their four kids from one post to the next.
"I've been down South so many years," Beatrice says, "I wouldn't know what the North looked like anymore."
After she and her husband divorced, he supplied her a small income. Then, about five years ago, he died.
Around that time came other bad breaks. Insurance on her house doubled. Taxes, too. The roof went bad. The kicker was when someone stole her purse — and the envelope inside containing that month's mortgage payment.
After that, Beatrice said, "it was hard to catch up."
Two of her sons still live in the area. One, 41, owned a small painting business and did well enough. But mental illness took hold, she says, and he lost everything. He lives with her now, rarely is able to leave the house and his disability checks go toward household bills.
The second son, 49, works as a laborer at a local landscaping business. Beatrice kept her finances from him as long as she could. The tip-off was when the power went out.
After he peeled himself off the roof, the second son set up a small generator, so his mother and brother could heat two small rooms to live in. He had a small propane unit warming a little greenhouse that he built for a few exotic plants — banana trees — that he liked to tend.
"He brought it over to us," Beatrice says, "and let his trees die."
Any good son would.
Then he approached his employer for an advance on his weekly pay to help his mother out.
Between the advance, maxing out her $400 emergency credit card and Christmas checks from her brother and sister, Beatrice scraped together $1,000 to get the power back on. She says the company wants $1,000 a week till the debt is paid.
The power company also gave her a list of places to go for aid — The Salvation Army and a couple of local churches. Social Services helped a little, too.
Her cause has also been taken up by Marie Boyd, a local chaplain with a long history of helping families in distress.
Boyd — as well as Beatrice's brother and sister-in-law — have been negotiating with the power company to get the penalties and interest forgiven. She hopes that the mortgage company also will be in a forgiving frame of mind.
But even in a best-case scenario, Beatrice likely will be paying off these debts for the rest of her life. She says that if she were free and clear of them — and her AC unit repaired, so it doesn't guzzle electricity anymore — she could manage fine with what she has.
To that end, Boyd has set up the Beatrice Power Fund at a local bank to handle any donations from readers who want to help this woman get back on her feet. Boyd will manage the account.
Checks can be sent to the fund c/o Newport News Municipal Employees Credit Union, 502 Operations Drive, Newport News, VA 23602. The account number is 21915.
And if any handymen or an air-conditioner technician can lend their skills, Boyd can be reached at 739-8094 or at
Sitting in a fast-food booth, kneading a napkin, listening to Boyd's hopes for her financial salvation, Beatrice seemed to finally allow herself to imagine the possibility.
"I have been blessed, too," she said.

December 26, 2007

It's the day after Christmas. Look in the mirror and ask yourself: How does it feel to be St. Nick this year?
You should know — you scores and scores of Daily Press readers who heard about neighbors who needed you and didn't hesitate.
Because of you, eight children — some of them desperately ill or disabled — woke up to presents under the tree and food on the table. Gifts and goodies that never would have been there otherwise.
Because of you, a widow on a fixed income has heat in her house this winter. A struggling young family is still toughing through a rough patch. A sick boy is home for the holidays.
You read about them in this column, and something about their plights touched you, as so many of you explained as you reached deep in your pockets and asked, "How can I help?"
Here's how you did it:
* Ellena Hill finally took off her coat and pulled down the sheets that she'd hung from doorways in her little Hampton house to try to keep her and her son warm after their ancient wall heater broke.
This is because Tom Hartman of Atlantic Plumbing and Heating sent a crew one morning to the home of the 65-year-old ailing widow to replace her busted unit with a brand-new one.
"It could be one of my family members one day," Hartman explained. "It's just one of those things you just do."
Other businesses had lined up to help, too — Dan's Heating AC & Refrigeration in Newport News, the Fireplace & Hot Tub Shop in Hampton, and Tommy Garner Air Conditioning and Heating in Newport News among them.
Two readers offered Hill their own wall units. Countless others offered to help with a new heater or with more than $20,000 in medical bills — Hill was hospitalized twice last year after fainting spells. She's also still paying off funeral expenses for her husband, who died of cancer five years ago.
Now Hill's heart specialist has written off more than $800 of her remaining bill. Christmas cards from strangers are arriving with bills tucked inside. Her neighbors took up a collection and raised more than $200. A local attorney sent $200. A businessman sent $500. A man at Hampton University gave another $500. And yet another local Santa's helper sent a whopping $1,000.
"I tell you, this is the most wonderful Christmas I've ever had," said Hill. "I really believe in miracles now 'cause one just happened to me."
* A miracle happened to the Crews family, too, in southeast Newport News. Not only was 10-year-old Khaliel Crews able to return home early from Duke University Medical Center in North Carolina in time for Christmas, he arrived to the kind of Christmas that's as close to Norman Rockwell as you can get in his hard-luck neighborhood.
After a bone marrow transplant to try to stem disabling strokes, paralysis and a host of other ills caused by a severe form of sickle cell disease, Khaliel arrived to find the family's modest apartment completely transformed because of reader contributions.
New furniture. New beds. New carpeting. New clothes. New appliances. Air purifiers. Fresh paint on every wall.
Best of all, there was a little tree in the living room, with piles of presents underneath from Toys for Tots, Riverside Elementary School and others. And not just for Khaliel but for his three younger siblings, too, including 2-year-old brother Jalen, who donated his marrow to save his brother's life.
Readers who couldn't give materially to the Crews family gave of themselves. Because of his fragile immune system, Khaliel must have a scrupulously clean home environment, so a woman got off work in the wee hours one morning and headed to the Crews apartment to scrub it top to bottom.
A local contractor offered to send a limousine and driver down to Duke to drive Khaliel back home but was persuaded instead to donate the $1,000. That money went to overhauling the family's aging Jeep.
The limo driver was so disappointed not to be able to chauffeur the sick boy, he cooked up a big meal for the family, instead. Yet another reader wants to cook a meal for the family every week.
Scores of others pumped thousands of dollars into a special bank fund for Khaliel, and Riverside Elementary plans to continue to hold fundraisers for the family.
"Everybody's overwhelmed by everybody's love," says Marie Boyd, the corporate chaplain managing Khaliel's fund.
* Khaliel's mother, Julia, even tried to spread the love around. When she heard that another family around whom the community rallied three months ago didn't have money to pay the property taxes on their mobile home, she offered to pay it from her own community donations.
Readers had already rescued "Danielle" and "Horace" and their four kids — all under 7, two of them autistic — from homelessness during a foreclosure. At the last minute, their Windsor home was saved. Horace, who had lost his small landscaping business, found work. And Danielle was able to continue juggling nursing classes at night and her raucous brood by day.
Money is still tight, but the family is making it day by day. Then the tax bill came, and there was $25 left in community donations.
Finally — and wonder of wonders — the credit union handling the fund for Danielle's family called Chaplain Boyd to say $700 had just come in — just enough to cover the taxes.
To top it off, a local prayer group raised $400 and a broker at GSH Realty on Rock Landing Drive in Newport News adopted the family for Christmas, providing presents for all the kids and the parents, too.
You see, Virginia? There is a Santa Claus.
And he is you.

November 18, 2007

Julia Crews and children Allura, 4 months, and Jalen, 2, top, in their Newport News home. Jalen donated bone marrow to his ailing older brother, Khaliel.
Khaliel Crews has had a heap of trouble since the day he was born.
Stricken with sickle cell disease — a potentially life-threatening genetic blood disorder — Khaliel has suffered three strokes and a grand mal seizure, paralysis, brain damage, asthma, anemia and damage to his spleen, lungs and kidneys. He's got the blood vessels and capillaries of an 80-year-old man.
Quite the medical history for a kid who's only 10.
Doctors told Khaliel's mother, Julia Crews, that at the rate his body was breaking down, he might live to see 18.
"Battling uphill with a downhill draft," as the 26-year-old Newport News mother of four puts it.
So with no options left, last month Khaliel underwent a risky, last-ditch bone marrow transplant at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., using healthy marrow from his 2-year-old brother. So far it seems to be working.
For Khaliel's sake, it will have to.
"For sickle cell, a bone marrow transplant is the only current cure we have" says William Owen, Khaliel's pediatric hematologist oncologist at Children's Hospital of the King's Daughters in Norfolk.
Beyond the family's medical troubles, though, are the financial ones. Khaliel's transplant and care are covered by Medicaid, but his mother is unemployed and unmarried and so hard up for cash that she had to take out a car title loan for gas money to visit her son for the transplant.
The loan company gave her $150 on her 1993 Jeep Cherokee which she can't pay off. She has been rolling it over ever since, racking up a new $26 charge each time.
Khaliel's father, 40-year-old house painter Les Smith, is staying with the boy in Durham until he's released from the medical unit, possibly in January or February.
Crews says Smith — whose parents were nursing assistants — is helping with his son's basic care. Meantime, he's not earning any income, either.
The bills are piling up, and Crews says her phone is scheduled to be cut off this weekend. Daily phone calls are the family's only contact with Khaliel between rare visits.
I know what you're thinking, because I'm thinking it, too. Four kids, the youngest only 4 months. Parents lacking the wherewithal to take care of them. You're thinking personal responsibility and accountability. You're thinking poster family for Planned Parenthood.
But lectures ring a little self-righteous when you visit a modest row of litter-strewn town houses on 17th Street in the crime-ridden Southeast community just a stone's throw from any number of this year's unsolved shootings.
A place too dangerous for your car, much less the little kids frolicking a few yards away on decrepit playground equipment.
Crews doesn't want her family living here any more than you would. "Guns a-poppin' all the time," she says.
She's trying with no success yet to find a safer, cleaner place before Khaliel comes home with an immune system still dangerously compromised.
And, despite the bad choices, it's clear that Crews cares about her kids. She has carried Khaliel through every medical crisis as best she could, starting with the Christmas of 1998 which he spent in the hospital, waking to find that nurses dressed like Santa had left him "a whole chairload full of toys."
Since then, she says, he has hit every medical speed bump you can think of.
"We have pain crises where he has to be admitted to the hospital," Crews says. "He didn't do well on morphine, threw it up everywhere. He had a stroke in September 2002 which affected his right side. He had another Memorial Day 2004, and that was the one with the grand mal seizure. Those I do not like. I don't want to say I can deal with a stroke, but I would prefer a stroke over a seizure. It was very scary.
"January 2005, the third stroke, when we had a really bad snowstorm, traffic backed up for hours. We were in an ambulance for hours trying to get to (the hospital), driving up on the curb, it was really horrible."
After the third stroke paralyzed Khaliel's left side, an occupational therapist urged Crews to use tough love to help the boy regain some movement.
"She was very good, very aggressive," Crews says. "She was like, 'I know you don't want to do this (but) don't feed him. He has to do it himself.' I said, 'He'd got left-side paralysis, right-side paralysis. What's left?'
"Sure enough, his little fingers were working, bringing fine motor skills back in his hand."
Over the years, doctors had put Khaliel through regular blood transfusions to help lessen the stroke risk. The procedure is successful in about 85 percent of sickle cell cases, but not his.
"We kept the conversation going in terms of a transplant," Dr. Owen says. "Knowing it would be quite a hardship to the family and a risk of the child dying."
Of about 500 sickle cell cases which CHKD handles, only about seven have been severe enough to warrant a transplant.
Over several days last month, doctors ran toxic chemicals into Khaliel's system to kill off his bone marrow. Then they used a large needle to extract healthy marrow from his brother, Jalen, and inserted it into Khaliel's system through a chest tube.
The risk was minimal to Jalen, who has the sickle cell trait but is only a carrier. As soon as Jalen woke from anesthesia, his mother says, he wanted to scamper off and play.
"I just totally love his attitude," Crews says. "I didn't know how to explain it to him, 'cause he's only 2. So when he's in the pre-op room I'm saying, 'You're such a good boy.' Later on in life, I'm gonna make sure to tell him: Tell Khaliel to give you his last cookie 'cause you saved his life."
She told Khaliel she's bringing his brother and two sisters down for Thanksgiving. The plan is to leave Tuesday and stay in a nearby Ronald McDonald House where she can prepare a holiday meal if Khaliel is off quarantine with no medical flare-ups, but she's still scrounging for gas money.
If you can help out this family, a local chaplain with Ferguson Enterprises has set up and will administer a bank account for donations.