I just had an incredible experience with Meals on Wheels which involved love, loss and hope-renewed. Here’s what happened:
After being peripherally aware of Meals on Wheels for years, I stopped in to the Northridge office to volunteer as a driver this February, 2017. As a new driver, I sat down with coordinator, Eugena Olds, in her office to discuss schedule and route and fill out the usual paperwork.
While I did, her phone rang several times, occasionally going to voicemail while we spoke. One couldn’t miss the desperation in the voices of some of the callers:
“…Um… hi. My dad is in hospice and… we can’t… I heard you might be able to…”
“Hi there. I’m with the VA and we are in need of…”
“I”m hoping you might be able to help me. I just got out of the hospital and…”
At one point, Eugena looked up at me, friendly but a little crest-fallen, and said: “I’m going to have to call some of them back and say, no. I can’t help them all.”
My heart sunk.
We discussed why this was the case and she explained that some folks in need are too young to qualify; others who qualify still can’t afford even the small cost of the service - some of them get sponsorships. Some others, even when all else falls into place, find that there simply aren’t enough volunteers to add them to the program.
A tough situation indeed, but I caught a tiny line of hope - something in addition to driving that I may be able to do to help: Sponsorship.
Not personally. I’m a comic from Wisconsin who lives in a trailer park but… I happen to have a small but loving following of people who know me from a live variety show I do once a month in my Trailer Park. It’s called The Trailer Trash Talent Revue and with a hundred or so butts-in-seats and over a thousand people watching the live stream - I figured we may be able to host a fund-raiser! Surely get the $786 necessary to sponsor one needy anonymous neighbor for 6 months.
To that end, Eugena and I agreed that perhaps hearing directly from someone who has benefited from a sponsorship would be helpful to get the word out. She called Mark Pepmiller, a recent recipient of a sponsorship, and asked him if it would be okay if I called him and would he give a short interview. He agreed.
It took me a couple of weeks to get to it - life goes on, of course - and it took awhile to find the pink post-it note that Eugena had handed me with his number on it - but on Friday March 17th, I called Mark and spoke with him for about 20 minutes.
I told him who I was and that I was going to try to raise money for more sponsorships like the one he received; and he said he was glad to talk to me. Unfortunately, his story was hardly a glad one to tell.
Mark had been homeless for years and was currently in Hospice for Cirrhosis. He explained how Meals on Wheels has helped him, how things would be different, and much more difficult, without it, and a little about his day-to-day. He told me that he had already lived beyond the 6 months his doctors had given him, and that he was grateful. When we hung up, I searched the internet for any kind of photograph of him that could accompany his story. Because he has been homeless for many years, there was very little except for one post on Facebook from over two years ago.
He had no page himself, which wasn’t surprising, but a woman named Robin had seen Mark panhandling in Illinois in 2015 and stopped to talk with him. He was looking for his wife and she posted his story to a page she manages, ‘Missing and Homeless’, tagging his first and last name - in the hopes it could help. Although a lot of time had passed, I reached out to her to offer an update.
I was surprised to find she replied almost immediately - and with enthusiasm.
“Oh my goodness,” her message on Facebook said back. “I’ve actually been looking for Mark recently again… I will explain more as soon as I get home.”
She called me about an hour later - this stranger from thousands of miles away to whom I had sent a random Facebook message about a man neither of us really knew.
She had been contacted only 10 days prior to my message by Mark’s son who was searching for him, and who - like myself - had found little more on the internet than her post from 2015. With Mark’s permission, I passed along his information and I told Robin that due to his condition, time may be of the essence if a reunion is mutually desired.
I asked for an update - kinda pleaded with Robin to keep me updated, in fact - and moved on.
In the meantime, we were lucky enough to raise the money for the sponsorship - twice the amount, in fact - and I delivered a check for over $1,500 to Eugena the following Tuesday - March 28th. At that time, she informed me that Mark Pepmiller himself was going to have his sponsorship expire soon, and this money may go directly to help him. All the better!
Later that day, Eugena called me with a sad update. Mark had passed away earlier that day.
I mourned for Mark, but I was also anxious that somewhere out there, his son may be getting news of a very different and more optimistic sort. I was afraid that a surge of hope for him may be made all the more heart-breaking if he learns he is too late. I called Robin, with trepidation.
“Oh no,” she said. “Oh no… Okay. I’ll call his son and oh no…”
When she called back, her tone was musical and joyous.
After I had given Robin Mark’s current contact information on Friday, she had contacted his son immediately. It turns out that his son, like Mark, now lives in Southern California. A short drive, in fact, from where Mark was being housed. He was able to spend time with his dad face-to-face on Saturday, spoke with him on the phone both Sunday and Monday - Mark passed away Tuesday morning.
Robin and I were a ping-pong match of tears and laughter.
I don’t know what the ‘moral’ or whatever one looks for in stories like this is exactly.
How critical it was that in 2015, Robin approached a homeless man who was panhandling and took the time to ask him his name and what he needed. That she than shared his info - throwing it out into the primordial inter webs with hope that strangers and God could do something useful with it. That Eugena scribbled his number on a post-it… that I kept it… Maybe it’s just a celebration of beautiful and bountiful chance. Grace? I don’t know.
This much is for sure: when a community sees one another, truly sees and engages with one another - miracles happen. Lives are made better. I was glad I got to be a part of this one - but I also take comfort knowing that countless more little concentric circles of goodness are colliding elsewhere.
In short, I guess: Keep it up.
If you prefer to hear my mouth tell the story - here it is, when it was fresh:
PREVIOUS POST <<The Raft of the Medusa<<
NEXT POST >>Coming Soon>>