Aimee Smucker noticed the little dog as she left a Sarasota, Fla., drugstore. The animal lover couldn’t just walk by, so she reached down to pet the Yorkie attached to a leash held by an older man. She learned Trip was his mother’s dog. Since her passing, Trip was the only possession he had of his mother’s.
Aimee asked the man’s name. We’ll call him Charles. “I sensed Charles might be homeless. He had this aura of depression, and he looked like he had no place to go,” she said. “Soon, he showed me a nasty hole in his ankle where he had a tumor removed as a result of skin cancer. I knew I couldn’t just walk away.” After buying some medication for the sore and dog food for Trip, she called her husband, Jake.
“Whenever you answer the phone and hear a loved one crying, it’s a memorable experience. Aimee had just gone a couple of blocks to the pharmacy, so I was surprised to hear her so upset,” he said. “When I heard her pain and motivation to help, it didn’t take long for me to get up off the sofa to go meet Charles and see what Aimee needed. But all I did that night was listen — listen to his story.”
Jake and Aimee promised they would see him when they could. About a week later, they invited him to dinner at their house. “The first few months, we hoped for a quick fix, something to get Charles off the streets. But there are no easy solutions,” Jake said. Struggles with addictions and the judicial system make transitions to something more stable extremely difficult.
Throughout the year, the Smuckers have been a stabilizing presence for Charles, having him over for meals, helping him receive a SNAP food card and, most important, being present. Initially wary of churches, Charles is now a semi-regular attender at Covenant Mennonite Fellowship. “He’s found a community that cares about him,” Jake said. Recently, he’s been employed as a construction worker.
A few days before Charles served time for homeless-related activities, Trip disappeared. “Visiting Charles in jail and telling him we hadn’t found Trip was very difficult,” Aimee said.
When they met Charles, the young millennial couple who moved to Sarasota in 2015 were looking for friendships that went beyond superficial. “Charles is a talker. He’s got 50 years of personal stories about life in Sarasota, and he’s not shy about letting them all out in the open. I think I told him the second day I met him that I probably knew him better than anyone else I’d met in my two years in Sarasota,” Jake said. “We talk about substance abuse, arrest records, faith and religious beliefs and broken relationships. The kind of things most coworkers and church friends gloss over and cover with a façade in everyday life.”
They invited Charles and his friend Mike over for Thanksgiving dinner. “Living in Florida, with our families in Kansas, we had no obligations Thanksgiving Day. They may have arrived late, without the creamed corn they said they’d bring, smelling like smoke and booze, but we were happy to have friends there for Thanksgiving dinner,” Jake said. “Mike, who couldn’t remember the last time he was in somebody’s home, stopped me before we dropped them off and said, ‘Hey, you really don’t know how much this means to me. Thank you for the Thanksgiving meal.’ ”
This Christmas season, I’m reminded that sometimes the best gifts aren’t found under a Christmas tree. It’s gifts of time, compassion and friendship that people appreciate most. These gifts appear unexpectedly, enriching lives for people who are willing to take risks.
JB Miller lives in Sarasota, Fla., and attends Covenant Mennonite Fellowship.