“We’ll call ourselves ‘Starfish Sisters’.” My friend Heather said over lunch. “You know after the Starfish story.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uytlJ8urv4I (Click the link for the starfish story.)
That was how it began, about thirty Momma’s and Grandmomma’s coming together to make a difference in the world, or at least, at a charity in Orlando, Florida. Heather sent us an assignment, we hired a babysitter, and went to work.
One of our first assignments was for a charity called Mending Hearts, owned by a powerhouse named Stephanie Richards. I was pumped and ready to go. The assignment? Clean a house and get it ready for a family. I could do that! I had three boys, I was over-qualified for this assignment.
When we arrived, sinister-looking men lurked in the shadows, one ducked behind a tree. I wanted to yell, “I see you!,” as if it were a game of hide and seek, instead my eyes darted warily at our spectators.
An older “sister” grabbed my arm, “Tammy, don’t be afraid of them. We have God with us.” I raised my chin a notch. I wanted to yell it. “Yo Yo You wantta mess with me. I got God with me! Come try and see what happens!”
Inside, we found Stephanie on her knees scrubbing the floor. She was dirty, her blonde hair hung down into her eyes, but she smiled, for the calvary arrived.
Let’s just say here, crack houses are disgusting. There was feces among other unmentionables on the floor, windows, and walls.
By that afternoon, the walls had a fresh coat of paint, and the house was almost ready for a single mother and her children, once the fumes from the bleach cleared out. We were packing up to leave when Stephanie received word another house of hers, was set on fire by it’s former occupants. She laughed and said, “This is what I deal with all the time.”
“Why would you chose to do this?” I asked. It seemed not only exhausting but deflating as well. She explained, lower-income families slipped through the cracks of our society. They feel defeated even though they work just as hard. By providing a fixed rent, furnishings, utilities, and childcare, Mending Hearts sealed those fissures and provided a solid foundation where children grew up with stability. Stephanie required her renters to work, which helped parents maintain their self-worth, and their children grew up understanding a work ethic.
I admired Stephanie. She was the old man throwing the starfish back into the sea, while I was the boy asking what’s the point?
Another assignment for the Starfish Sisters was to collect personal products, organize them in bins, and hand them out at the homeless shelter downtown. The big day came, and I was manning the toothpaste distribution, when a man with green eyes and eyeliner, stumbled in his stilettos past my table, for a fourth trip. I was indignant. He was breaking the rules!
“Excuse me sir! Excuse me! You have gone through my line three times already, and the rule is you are only allowed once.” I motioned to an employee, “He keeps coming through the line. This is his fourth time!” I was the toothpaste police, and would not allow anyone to have more than their share.
He didn’t deny it, and nodded as the employee took him aside as I felt good about the job I was doing.
When we were cleaning up a deaf couple ran up with their two children, one in a stroller and the other around four years old. They signed frantically that they were there to get personal products, and I grabbed a bag and ran through each station dumping all that was left in their bag. My heart went out to these people and their situation.
Later, I had lunch with them, and in my best sign language asked them if their son could hear. They nodded ‘yes’ he could. I looked across the table at this little boy who grunted and pounded the table for more cake, but his parents couldn’t hear him. I slid a piece towards him, and his smile stretched from ear to ear.
That night, as I lay in bed the little boy’s grunt still rang in my ears. What kind of future would that child have if he never heard language?
The next month, I couldn’t work with the Starfish Sisters, for Momma was coming to visit. Daddy was flying to Orlando while Mom was taking the train. (She’s petrified of flying.)
I arrived at the train station early to pick her up. I double checked to ensure my SUV was locked before walking into the open air station. Sitting on a bench, I took in my surroundings. Piles of trash and leaves were on the floor. The dank odors of trash hung in the air.
Alone, I was in a vulnerable position. The train station was not located in a nice part of town, anyone could walk up behind me and put a gun to my skull. I clutched my designer purse tight against my chest and kept an eye on both doors.
It was then, someone started snoring. I jumped off the bench, ready to run for it, but stopped…
I recognized those shoes.
His stilettos were cast aside on the floor beside him. It wasn’t just Louis and I in the train station that day.
I sat and studied him.
His mascara was smeared under his eyes. He was lanky and long, with fingernails painted bright red. His lips were still stained from the lipstick he wore the night before.
I listened to the rhythm of his breathing. A maternal love filled me for this bi-racial man, for I was raising bi-racial men of my own. I wondered what his mother was like, or if he even had one. I longed to wake him and ask “What happened to you? Tell me your story!” But I lacked the courage. I hadn’t the courage to tell this beautiful twenty-something boy ‘Somebody loves you’.
For thirty minutes, I watched him sleep. He was peculiar, and although I knew he was far from innocent, he appeared to be curled up on a bench too small for his frame. He tugged his filthy blanket up around him, and switched sides.
Ashamed,I glanced away. Was toothpaste really all that important? I questioned why was I willing to dump tons of supplies in a deaf couple’s bag, yet I embarrassed this boy for going through the line as many times as he could.
I repented and prayed God would intervene in his life, and someone with more courage than I would come along and tell him Jesus loved him.
The train rolled in interrupting my reverie, and I stood to greet my mother. Once we collected her baggage, and re-entered the waiting area, I looked around for him, but he and his stilettos were gone. My chance to help save a starfish disappeared.
Later, I realized if he awakened he would have seen the toothpaste police clutching her purse to her chest. Who am I to think he’s peculiar? I am just as peculiar as he for what I held tight…what I valued enough to protect.
Before my sister Tricia died she said, “We worry about so many things that don’t really matter in the end.” Wisdom comes to those who taste death. Name brands, getting into that smaller size (loosing those baby pounds ugh!), our titles at work, impressing others with our cars, houses, bodies, and selfies, take our focus away from God and others, and places it on ourselves. People are mourning, feeling inadequate, rejected, scared, unattractive,and unloved.
Life is too short. Those things we hold so tight don’t really matter, so let them go, for how else will you be able to get your hands dirty picking up something (or someone) that does?
Please note: Mending Hearts needs your help. Stephanie Richards has been fighting Orange County for her tax exempt status. If you can give anything at all please click the link below to read about her situation further. Thank you.