The minute Chris Homyk, Washington, read a Facebook post by Erin Gaebe about a homeless man she had helped in Milwaukee in early November, he knew what he wanted to do.
The founder of All Abilities Athletics, a local nonprofit sports program for children with special needs, Homyk had been trying to think of something special the athletes and familes could do for the community, and Gaebe’s Good Samaritan story was just the inspiration he needed.
Three days before Thanksgiving, Homyk and his wife, Stacey, organized a “30 Days of Kindness” challenge for their athletes. The acts didn’t have to be extravagant or costly, stressed Homyk. Simple things were what he envisioned — holding open a door for someone or offering a smile, writing a thank-you letter to someone (maybe your mail carrier or a veteran), tell a supervisor of an employee’s good service . . .
All Abilities challenged the community too, handing out fliers with a “30 Days of Kindness” list of these kind of suggestions during the annual Holiday Parade of Lights held the day after Thanksgiving in Downtown Washington.
“A simple act of kindness can create a beautiful ripple,” the flier read. “We welcome you to join us in 30 Days of Kindness.”
If you experienced little unexpected surprises over the holiday season — like a small candy cane tucked under your windshield with a handwritten note of “Merry Christmas,” for example — it may have been inspired by the All Abilities challenge.
Homyk had asked people to email him a description of some of the “acts” so he could share them in the hope of inspiring others. By the end of December, he had a list of more than 20 examples:
Some families put quarters in the carts at Aldi’s on multiple occasions. Many volunteered to pay the bills of the customers behind in line at fast-food restaurants.
One family donated $60 in Walmart gift cards to a waiter, who gave them to the manager, who used them to purchase items for neighborhood children.
Tracy Niccum, a AAA volunteer who also is a teacher, held a classroom collection for gloves that could be used on the playground for students and teachers who may have forgotten them that day.
Many families participated in area giving tree programs or toy and clothing drives. Some volunteered for the Salvation Army’s bell-ringing campaign.
One family purchased socks from a company that, with each order, donates a pair to a homeless organization.
The Homyks’ son, Eli, who has autism and is nonverbal, spelled out Merry Christmas using stencils, and that was his way of spreading some kindness.
Three Big Acts of Kindness
As a group, All Abilities also did three larger acts of kindness.
They made Christmas cards and stockings filled with treats for police officers in Washington, Union, New Haven and St. Clair. The cards were designed by Stacey Homyk using photos of the All Abilities athletes. The athletes personalized the cards with stickers and then signed them.
“This was very important to me because of the support we have received from the Washington Police Department,” said Chris Homyk. “They have an officer at every event . . . and they don’t just come — they are playing kick ball and being involved.”
“It’s good interaction for the kiddos,” Stacey Homyk added. “They talk with the officer and ask questions, so they are developing that relationship and feeling at ease together.”
The All Abilities group also created Homeless Care Kits, filling Ziploc bags with bottled water/Gatorade, energy bars and hygiene products.
The All Abilities families each brought items to donate, and they were able to make up 80 kits, which the athletes delivered to Lindsey Jasper of the Franklin County Homelessness Task Force.
Finally, the AAA families also conducted a nonperishable food drive to benefit Washington’s Free Little Food Pantries.
‘She Was the Spark’
Reading Gaebe’s post on Facebook was like a call to action for Homyk.
“I was just waiting to get lit up to do this, and she was the spark,” he said. “She was the impetus to get this going.”
Gaebe is quick to note that when she made her original Facebook post it was only to illustrate to people why it’s important never to judge a book by its cover.
“I feel that when we see those in need, we sometimes turn a cheek because we think the worst of them,” she told The Missourian.
In early November, Gaebe, who works for the Washington School District, was at an educator conference in Milwaukee, Wis. On her lunch break as she walked back to the hotel, she noticed a homeless man in a building cove just outside of the hotel.
“All I could see was his nose and his eyes and a big heap of blankets, and it was bitter cold,” said Gaebe.
She had brought her grandmother along on the trip, and as they walked past him, Gaebe said, “We need to get him something to eat, something warm, try to do something for him.”
At the nearby Subway restaurant, they purchased two sandwiches, two soups and two drinks, thinking there was another person bundled up next to him. Gaebe offered him the food, which he gratefully accepted, and then she started a conversation with him.
“Everytime I’ve ever helped a homeless person, I’ve always asked what put them in that situation, and it’s never been drugs or alcohol related, which is why I share this, because we all jump to those conclusions,” she said.
She learned his name is Jeremy, that he’s 36, and that he grew up in foster care with abusive foster parents. He left when he was 17 with no ID or birth certificate. He didn’t even know where he had been born. Jeremy described himself as “a drifter,” and told Gaebe he had been drifting for 25 years.
He had only recently come to Milwaukee and, despite the cold, was staying there because he had met a few police officers who were working to help him get his ID.
“Right before I left, I asked if he wanted me to pray with him, and he said ‘Yes,’ and he started crying. We prayed that his life would continue to be filled with blessings, and that they would just shower upon him,” said Gaebe.
After going on to lunch, Gaebe took her grandmother back to the hotel and she went back to her conference, but she couldn’t stop thinking about Jeremy. She decided to forego spending money in the nearby mall and instead ask the hotel about getting Jeremy a room for the night.
More People Want to Help
Gaebe spoke to the hotel manager about Jeremy, and the hotel agreed to give him a room. Jeremy was known to the staff, Gaebe said, because he regularly kept troublemakers away.
She purchased swimming trunks for him so he could use the swimming pool and hot tub, and as word of what Gaebe was doing for Jeremy spread among the hotel staff, more people stepped forward wanting to help him too.
Another person offered to pay for a second night in the hotel for Jeremy, and the general manager agreed to stretch his stay for a week and bump him up to a larger room.
A staff member whose father owns a construction company was able to get Jeremy a job that also provided housing. The hotel donated toiletries for him.
Jeremy’s new job was in welding, a skill he picked up when he had worked as an artist in Chicago.
Gaebe and her grandmother purchased winter clothes, work boots, a coat and gloves for Jeremy. The hoodie that he had was torn in several places, and Jeremy had used copper wires that he’d found to stitch it up, Gaebe noted.
Unfortunately, the construction job has ended and so Jeremy is back living on the street, said Gaebe. She has kept in contact with the hotel staff who have been watching out for him.
Gaebe has been working with Impact.org, an organization in Milwaukee that helps people in need, and talking with staff in the mayor’s office about helping Jeremy obtain his ID and birth certificate, as well as his own advocate, someone who will serve as a social worker to help him adjust to life off the streets.
“Right now he’s just fight or flight,” said Gaebe. “He’s not used to having someone who truly cares, so he’s always kind of leary about what your intentions are.”
‘I Don’t Know How You Walk Away’
Jeremy isn’t the first homeless person Gaebe has helped, and he won’t be the last. Few people would have taken the time and effort to help Jeremy as much as Gaebe has, but she shruggs her shoulders over all the time she has invested in helping him.
“I don’t know how you can walk away from it,” said Gaebe.
She hopes that people who read her original post on Facebook or are reading this story will be inspired to help people like Jeremy when they see them.
“Please, when you go by these people, do what you can to help them out. Don’t turn away because they are dirty or whatnot,” said Gaebe.
People have told her they are afraid to help homeless people, that doing so will make them a target. Gaebe says she has never even been worried for her safety while helping Jeremy.
Actually Jeremy was the one who found himself in danger, she said. He was attacked by another homeless person who was jealous that Gaebe was helping him.
A Starting Point
Christmas is now more than two weeks past, and the All Abilities’ “30 Days of Kindness” challenge officially ended Dec. 23, but the Homyks and Gaebe are hopeful that people who started it will keep going and more people will join in.
“I want this to just be a starting point, and that each year it will grow,” said Homyk. “The whole thing is if we drive people to do good things daily, if it becomes their discipline, they’re not going to do miraculous things every day like Erin did, but you will do little things.”
“This was a way to drop a pebble in the pond, so to speak, get people thinking, ‘What can I do to be extra kind today?’ ” said Stacey Homyk.
“Wouldn’t it be great if it could be like wildfire and spread across the whole town,” Gaebe remarked.
For more information on All Abilities Athletics, go to www.allabilitiesathletics.org.
For more information about the “30 Days of Kindness,” contact Chris Homyk by phone or text at 636-399-3574.