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Giving Back

Colombian Immigrant Draws on Childhood Experience to Mentor Florida Youth

Erika Obando, 47, was 5 years old when she was smuggled from Colombia through the Bahamas to Miami by her parents. The family was subsequently detained. At the time, however, Obando recalls that police officers did their jobs with empathy and compassion.

The first photo of Erika taken in the United States. (Courtesy of Erika Obando)

“They saw where we came from,” Obando said. “These were officers who were arresting families en-route, so I guess being part of that experience moves you in a way. I have no idea what’s going on today but there is definitely a lack of empathy.” Back then, Obando said children were not separated from their families when they were caught illegally entering the U.S.

“We stayed in a facility that catered to families where the women and children stayed on the first level and the men, whether they were fathers of a family or single, lived on the second and third floor,” Obando said in an interview. “Twice a day, we had the ability to meet in the courtyard with my father. We were also allowed to eat all three meals with both my parents present.”
Obando became a resident in 1987 during Ronald Reagan’s amnesty program and eventually a United States citizen in 1997. The family settled in Elizabeth, New Jersey where Obando faced another obstacle.

Erika at age 8. (Courtesy of Erika Obando)

“I was beaten quite often by my mom,” she alleges. “She was a severe hoarder and so the conditions of the home were detrimental. My mom and dad would fight all the time because my dad didn’t want those conditions and my mom had an illness, which turned into severe depression. The living conditions were atrocious and I would receive the brunt of her anger.”

Obando escaped at the age of 14 after confiding in a friend who was becoming a nun about her home situation.

“I didn’t want to tell the authorities because I was afraid of what would happen to my parents,” she said. “My friend told me about a home next door to a convent that catered to women who didn’t have anywhere to stay.”

The nuns who managed Home of Nazareth, which was located less than a mile from Obando’s family home, offered Obando shelter after she explained the situation.

Sister Filomena from the Nun’s House. (Courtesy of Erika Obando)

“My dad ended up signing me over for the nuns to rightfully care for me on a temporary basis and to stay at their house,” she said. “I lived there for two years.”

Obando graduated from high school, married and had a child. Today, she lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida and works as an author, lecturer, and advocate for at-risk teen girls with organizations such as the Pace Center for Girls Broward, Women of Tomorrow, Johnson & Wales University, Lynn University, and Junior Achievement of South Florida.

“I feel like I have a responsibility,” she said. “I didn’t go through all that to say it at a party or at a bar. I went through that because there is a purpose for me at the end of the day and that is for me to give back and help empower people who feel like they just can’t keep going. I’m here to show and tell them that ‘Yes you can go on.’”

Erika with her partner Dwayne Norman and her son Cristian Chavez. (Courtesy of Erika Obando)

Obando uses the book “Without a Voice: A Woman’s Journey to Resiliency,” which she wrote and self-published in Nov. 2020, to teach during coaching sessions with others.

(Courtesy of Erika Obando)

“I empower the youth,” she added. “I am part of a lot of nonprofits here that particularly cater to young women in at risk situations. They bring me in as a mentor so I can help them through different challenges like depression or anger management and I teach life skills.”

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Features Giving Back

From Torpedo Builder to Education Entrepreneur

Yolanda Kennedy once built torpedoes for the United States Navy. Now, she’s building a better future for more than 100 young people each year.

The youngest of nine children raised by a single parent in Cherokee County, South Carolina, Kennedy always displayed a passion for learning. “I was a pretty good student” with a strong aptitude for mathematics, she said, earning business and middle school education degrees and teaching math in her hometown of Gaffney. 

Growing up in a region rife with poverty, Kennedy was mindful of how her mom had to stretch a dollar. Although Kennedy yearned to go to college immediately, “I didn’t want to put the struggle on her,” she said, and instead signed up with Uncle Sam. Her first Navy assignment took her to Hawaii, where training in electricity and electronics prepared her to help build the Mark 46 antisubmarine torpedo. She later served as a military paralegal before retiring to her hometown after 20 years of service. 

Disturbed by the memory of a sister who was kidnapped and murdered, “I knew I wanted to do something for the community,” Kennedy said, so she dug into her pocket to start a community center. Its mission is fundamental: help young people—from preschool through college—become more educated and responsible so their aspirations can become reality.

Launched in 2008, the Academic Technology and Wellness Academy (ATWA) provides about 135 students a year with free or low-cost programs that expand upon the curricula of Cherokee County’s public and private schools. ATWA offers after-school care and tutoring for kids aged 4 to 13; “life lessons” on topics such as behavior, money, and etiquette; Teen Talk Tuesdays via Facebook Live; pregnancy prevention classes; and a summer camp providing instruction in reading, writing, and mathematics along with field trips. Transportation from area schools to ATWA is free, as are hot, balanced meals.

Kennedy mentoring a teen at the ATWA. (Courtesy of Yolanda Kennedy)

While her focus is on young people, Kennedy also stages a Feed The Veterans event each November to demonstrate the community’s appreciation for their sacrifices.

At ATWA, Kennedy makes it a point to withhold program fees if it appears a family is incapable of paying. That’s especially true of tutoring. “We just help them as they need help,” she said. “Mostly, it’s math, and since I’m a math professor, I don’t mind helping.” Over the years, the academy’s growing popularity has prompted local philanthropists and businesses to support it. “We never turn a child away, whether they can pay or not,” Kennedy emphasized. 

Kennedy takes a selfie with children at the ATWA. (Courtesy of Yolanda Kennedy)

“Her program has just been very successful with both of my grandsons,” said Vickie Littlejohn, grandmother to a 6-year-old who sang in the academy’s choir and a 14-year-old with Asperger syndrome who blossomed when the robotics team he joined won an inter-school competition. “It just made such a big difference in his life and it prepared him for school as well, interacting, because he goes to a regular school,” she added. The robotics program helps students enhance their teamwork and creativity and deepens their problem-solving skills. It is headed by Tony Adams-Wray, Kennedy’s husband.  

While last year’s COVID-19 lockdown prompted a scaling-back of in-person programs, it also gave Kennedy the opportunity to introduce the Teen Talk series, which proved to be a big hit. During the one-hour interactive sessions where teens are mentored by their peers and adults, discussion topics are chosen based on “what’s troubling teens today,” said Shanese Dawkins, the series’ director. Over the past year, talks were given 48 out of 52 weeks.

“We had a young lady on. She was pregnant as a teenager [. . .] dropped out of school for a little while, went back, got her GED [. . .] went on to get her master’s and then she got her doctorate,” Dawkins noted. Another speaker, a graduate of Gaffney High School who received a four-year college scholarship, explained to young men how athletics is not the only pathway to success.

Jonna Turner, ex-CEO of the Cherokee County Chamber of Commerce, believes the innovative curriculum at ATWA not only helps kids overcome childhood challenges, but also prepares them to enter the job marketplace. “What she’s doing is preparing these students to be productive citizens,” Turner said. “So I feel that with Yolanda’s mission and her passion and her vision to educate students of all ages, and the partnerships that she is growing in the community with manufacturing companies, with community colleges, [and] four-year institutions, I mean, that is a definite investment into the future.”

“We’re just trying to reach as many youth as we can,” said Kennedy.

Neil Cotiaux is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in newspapers, magazines, and business journals, mostly in the Southeast and Midwest. His work has largely focused on community and economic development, immigration, and health care. He works out of Spartanburg, South Carolina.

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Features Generation to Generation Giving Back Kindness in Action Small Farms

Building Beautiful Friendships, One Cup at a Time

Tea has always been a part of the Stowe family. What initially started as a traveling tearoom in 2011, bringing tea and baked goods to families all over Middle Tennessee and parts of Alabama, has transformed into what is now a physical tearoom on a 68-acre farm in Campbellsville, Tennessee. Three Sisters Tearoom is run by Jennifer Stowe and her three daughters, Julia, Andrea, and Meredith.

The Stowes would drive in the family car and set up base at various sites, including local senior centers, nursing homes, and libraries, to bring tea and cookies to local communities. The family would organize discussions about the history of tea, teach patrons about the different kinds of tea, and offer tea tastings.

The girls enjoying a cup of tea outside their Airstream camper trailer in 2011. (Courtesy of the Stowes)

Three Sisters Tearoom

After the family’s barn burned down in 2014, they had the idea of rebuilding and transforming the place into a physical tearoom. “We just thought maybe we didn’t need to travel so much bringing tea to people—we could have them come to us,” said Jennifer, mother to the three girls. Despite sitting on a large farm, the tearoom itself is tiny, with maximum indoor seating accommodating up to 20 guests at any one time. Weather permitting, there are an additional eight seats outdoors. “Six years on, that little tearoom has been home to all of our events and gave our traveling tearoom a home,” said Julia.

The three sisters: Andrea, Julia, and Meredith. (Courtesy of the Stowes)

All three sisters have a role in the tearoom, from greeting guests, to baking the numerous sweet treats on offer, to washing dishes after a long day of entertaining guests. “Meredith was only six when the tearoom first opened. She was our greeter and just hugged everybody! And a lot of our clients are seniors, some of them widowed, so it meant a lot to them, getting a hug from a little girl,” Jennifer told me.

Jennifer’s second daughter, Andrea, is responsible for the analytical and organizational aspects of the family business, like filling out the spreadsheets, scheduling, sending newsletters, and other administrative duties. Julia oversees the baking. “She has mastered the scones. We have our signature lavender white chocolate scones, which she makes so well with lemon curd,” said Andrea. The youngest sister, Meredith, still greets all the clients, even at the age of 13. She also irons all the tablecloths.

Julia’s famous lavender white chocolate scones. (Courtesy of the Stowes)

Operating a family business has its advantages. Jennifer said if she didn’t have the chance to run the tearoom with her daughters, she probably wouldn’t run one at all. “For me, it’s really the best situation. I get to do something that I love, express creativity, extend hospitality, and work with my most favorite people in the world.” The tearoom simply serves as an extension of the Stowe family home, and this translates into the domestic comfort and warmth it provides to its patrons.

The most important part of running a tearoom is building a community, Julia told me. “It’s very much a place to build friendships, and seeing people through the years who were strangers now become very dear friends, both with us and each other, is a treasured aspect of having a tearoom.”

A Place of Deep Friendship and Community

The tearoom served an important role to the local community after the pandemic lockdown restrictions were lifted. “Mom brought a lot of joy into their lives,” said Meredith. “It was just a time for them to come and enjoy peace, and spend time with people after being home for so long.”

Jennifer explained that a lot of women who visit her tearoom have suffered many heartbreaks and tragedies, whether that be losing their husbands, jobs, or other family members. However, the tearoom offers them much-needed solace and friendship.

One of the most touching aspects is the uniting of patrons, regardless of age or experience. “When you see a senior and young adult who just find similar passions and can converse about it, that, to me, is just amazing,” said Meredith.

Three Sisters Tearoom patrons share many smiles around the tea table. (Courtesy of the Stowes)

The tearoom also offers events, one of their popular ones being their Afternoon Tea Flight, which involves learning about a different country each month. “We enjoy tea the way they would have it, and we eat their food,” said Jennifer. The owners provide a small presentation on the origin of the tea, along with cultural aspects like music, food, and even the use of incense. The tea flight starts from China, continuing all the way through Europe, and eventually landing in the United States. Each attendee receives a little passport and gets a stamp for every Tea Flight attended. Jennifer said it offers customers the opportunity to experience different cultures, something they may never have gotten the chance to encounter coming from a small town.

They have even featured yak butter tea, a popular beverage in the Himalayas of Central Asia, particularly in Tibet. This drink was traditionally drunk by the Tibetan people of the North to provide energy and to keep warm in the harsh winters.

Literary tea events are another community favorite, where, according to their website, ladies of all ages are invited to join book discussions over delicious cream teas. The event features a perfectly curated, themed menu that reflects the essence of the book.

Fresh Produce Straight From the Farm

Three Sisters Tearoom uses locally produced ingredients in all the items on its menu, including eggs, greens, tomatoes, corn, potatoes, rhubarb, peppers, and even fruit. The family grows just about everything on its 68-acre farm.

Andrea tending to her tomato plants on the family farm. (Courtesy of the Stowes)

The family also owns many animals, including chickens (for meat and eggs), ducks, and a small herd of Highland cattle (for milk and meat), as well as a few dogs and cats.

The tearoom is sometimes closed for a week or two during the height of summer, when the garden is bursting with fresh produce. This allows the family to finish canning and processing the food and to get ready to open again the following week.

Looking to the Future

Over the years, the Stowes have brought much joy to the lives of everyone they have encountered. They grew from a simple traveling tearoom to building a beautiful paradise for the local community to visit and relax in. But their journey doesn’t end here. The family has plenty of exciting plans for the future, from organizing tea talks on the road to taking their love for tea into classrooms, libraries, and historic homes in the form of educational classes and lectures.

Jennifer has also written many titles and tea-themed books, like “Book of Days: An Artful Guide to Life-Long Learning,” “Afternoon Tea: Rhymes for Children,” “Infused: Tea Time in Fine Art,” and “Wee Bites and Nibbles: Manners and Menus for the Tiniest Tea Drinkers.” Her daughter, Julia, is a graphic designer and frequently aids in the artistic production of the books.

The family’s old barn was repurposed into a tearoom. (Courtesy of the Stowes)

Other short-term plans involve planting more perennials to liven up the grounds, building a courtyard garden, and building an outdoor room where they can serve tea and host more people.

Outside of the tearoom, the girls share their admiration for tea with their friends in college and while traveling. “It draws people and builds relationships, even outside of the tearoom business,” commented Andrea.

“Our tearoom is certainly very dear to my heart,” said Julia. “And whatever different paths it may take in the future, it will still be part of our lives in some way.”

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Entrepreneurs Features Giving Back Kindness in Action

‘Don’t Forget the Poor’

Children play outside their house in Colonia de Carton in Piedras Negras, Mexico, on July 8, 2021. (Charlotte Cuthbertson/The Epoch Times)

Sky Cross is a nonprofit, strictly volunteer-led charity organization that operates along the Texas–Mexico border. Its mission is to provide food, clothing, medicine, and first-aid supplies to impoverished children, families, and orphanages. The organization works closely with missionaries of various denominations who offer education to the poor, primarily in Mexico, in substandard villages called colonias, which lack basic living conditions such as running water, sewers, and electricity.

The organization was founded in 1995 by retired U.S. Air Force Col. Terry Bliquez and his wife, Kathy. David Young serves as the current president, having been a board member and mission pilot since 1998. Before that, Young worked for the Civil Air Patrol (part of the U.S. Air Force), another nonprofit organization, which performs search-and-rescue missions.

When Bliquez first discussed Sky Cross’s mission with Young, it sparked a keen interest. Young would often accompany Bliquez on aid missions to the U.S.–Mexico border to deliver clothing, medicine, and nonperishable food to the needy. Together, they flew multiple times to migrant centers and orphanages, such as those in Nuevo Progreso, Mexico, and Matamoros, which is across the river from Brownsville, Texas.

Young said Sky Cross used to dispense secondhand clothing as well, but those deliveries have slowed down exponentially due to the pandemic. The organization has, however, distributed about 15,000 masks and more than 600 gallons of hand sanitizer across the migrant communities it serves.

The Importance of Helping the Needy

David Young, president of Sky Cross, unloads boxes of masks from his aircraft in Eagle Pass, Texas, on July 8, 2021. (Charlotte Cuthbertson/The Epoch Times)

“The primary purpose of Sky Cross is to help provide food for the needy people, the poor on the other side of the border—they’re very, very poor. Many of them come up to the border hoping to be able to come across, and they end up being in the colonias on the border, such as the one in Matamoros,” Young said.

Years ago, people in colonias such as Matamoros would dig holes in the ground, scavenge coverings for the holes, and live in the burrows. Young remembers “being over there one time and looking at what they had on a grill that they were cooking outside—it was fish heads that they had scrounged for,” he said. “I was amazed that people could even survive with that type of food.”

Sky Cross delivers nonperishable food in the form of beans, rice, cornflour, noodles, and more. “I feel like God has placed in my heart a love for the poor and for their plight,” Young said, after being asked why the mission at Sky Cross resonated with him so deeply. “It’s such a blessing to me personally to go out and be amongst these people and, with my resources, be able to help them live a better life.”

Young said that when he was growing up, his parents instilled in him a deep desire to dedicate time and effort to helping those in need. “My dad was a homebuilder, and he would donate his time to work around the church. He had me help paint the back end of a church building one time—it demanded stacking scaffolding because it was so tall. He and I donated our time and efforts to that when I was just a 14- or 15-year-old boy. My father enjoyed giving himself to the community, and that carried over to me.”

Making a Difference in the Lives of the Poor

Children play outside their home in Colonia de Carton in Piedras Negras, Mexico, on July 8, 2021. (Charlotte Cuthbertson/The Epoch Times)

Through donations, Sky Cross also helped the Matamoros colonia develop to a point when residents could build a school. To support efforts like this, the Mexican government will provide water and electricity once a school is built, in turn helping the colonia become a sustainable community.

Many children in poverty-stricken communities such as Matamoros suffer from malnutrition. According to Young, children’s hair will often show signs of this. “Normally it would be black, but they would have red streaks in their hair, which was showing that they were not getting good nutrition. With time, those red streaks went away,” he said. “It’s a blessing to be able to do that and witness that as time goes on.” For Young, results like these are important, highlighting the difference Sky Cross makes in the lives of needy children.

Young said that his time at the organization is completely voluntary. Nobody who works there is a paid staff member, and 100 percent of the donations go straight to helping the poor. Young’s personal assets, including airplanes, fuel, and other equipment, are also put to charitable use for the organization, transporting volunteers to the border.

Aside from filling his role as president at Sky Cross, Young serves as a board member for a school in northwestern Peru that has 200 students. Together with his wife and family, he also helps more than a dozen children at any given time along the Texas–Mexico border. The Youngs provide money each month to keep those children in school rather than out scavenging the dangerous fields in search of food and money.

“We sent a couple on to the university; one of them became a dentist and came back. They are now practicing within one of the colonias there in Mexico,” Young said.

Sky Cross helps upwards of 30,000 people each year. It has supported six orphanages and helped build clinics in several Mexican colonias along the Texas border, providing quick access to medical care for families in need. “We’ve built a school in Nuevo Progreso where they would train the women to sew and work on computers. We have seen the results of that, to where the people will get out of the cycle of poverty and actually begin to have the skills to go out and earn a living,” Young said.

Physically Poor but Spiritually Rich

Through his time volunteering for Sky Cross, Young has learned many important life lessons—especially about how the needy can find happiness in the midst of their poverty. “The children are especially amazing to me. They can take a simple ball and have fun with that and laugh and enjoy life because they don’t want anything else. And what spoke to me is that some of the things we take for granted in our own society are more precious to them,” Young said.

“What I have learned in doing what I do is that the poor will find joy, and have more faith in their poverty than a lot of people that have all the things they would want in life. We in America need to understand that even the poorest of us are probably richer than 95 percent of the world. We place too much emphasis on the material things in life and not enough on the spiritual.”

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A Love of Learning Features Giving Back Kindness in Action Reading

‘I Am Here for a Purpose’—Exonerated After 27 Years, John Bunn Gives Back Through Literacy

John Bunn (Samira Bouaou)

Wrongly convicted and incarcerated at the age of 14, John Bunn has endured many struggles from a young age. Born and raised in Brownsville, New York City, to a single mother of three, Bunn had to learn to fend for himself without much guidance. Having lost his father before he was born, he spent the majority of his teenage life without the support of any male figures.

“In the environment I grew up in, the males would come around to exploit, not to come around with love and affection,” he said. 

‘I Grew Up in Prison’

Bunn was forced to spend 17 years of his life behind bars, in an environment devoid of sympathy.

“It was predator-prey. If they [prisoners] felt you got a weakness, they took advantage of you,” he said.

He spent a further 10 years on parole, fighting for his innocence.

Before he was arrested and taken into prison, Bunn struggled with illiteracy; which only escalated while he was incarcerated.

“When they had me on trial, they told me to write down any questions I had. I couldn’t write down anything. I didn’t know how to express myself. That was the most trapped and embarrassing feeling you can ever imagine,” he said, breaking into a sob. 

With the help of teachers, he finally learned how to read and write by the age of 16. It changed the course of his life. 

“It made me stronger. It made me feel like I could fight for my life,” he said. Learning how to read and write is what drove Bunn to later go on to become a facilitator of an anger management program while in prison. From there, he met many other young men struggling with the challenges of illiteracy. “And I would talk to them about my illiteracy issues. And I told them that this was not something to be ashamed of,” he said.

The Unheard

Today, Bunn is the founder of AVoice4TheUnheard.org and helps bring positivity into communities, schools, houses, and prisons of New York City.

Meeting other young men struggling with illiteracy was the driving point that led him to found his literacy program after being exonerated.

In 2017, it initially started as a book drive aimed at refurbishing the libraries at Rikers Island and providing under-resourced communities with educational literature, according to the program website.

Today, the program also offers roleplaying activities to at-risk youth where they’re tasked with group interactions. “We put individuals in real-life scenarios and give them the option to put themselves in other people’s shoes. We try to make them think before making decisions. This is what we call consequential thinking,” Bunn said.

Finding His Passion

The program began during Bunn’s nearly 12 years on parole.

“It [parole] put my life in a limbo state. I knew I was innocent. Everybody knew I was innocent. And that’s what I was fighting for,” he said. While still waiting for a final decision to be made on his conviction, Bunn channeled that restlessness into something positive.

“I needed to put my energy into something more progressive,” he said. “A voice for the unheardI don’t even know when it became the whole phrase, but it always represented me and what I felt inside my spirit.” 

After suffering many setbacks and losing out on the prime years of his life while stuck in prison, Bunn refocused his attention on helping others who may be at risk of getting ensnared in the prison system.

“Where I come from,” Bunn said, “we don’t have too many role models. So my message is, if you don’t have anybody to show you the way, you make your own way. Don’t let that be the reason to discourage you from going forward. And that’s what I stand for. And that’s what we stand for.”

John Bunn visiting a school in NYC. (Samira Bouaou)

Making Positivity Cool for Kids

Part of Bunn’s mission is passing his positivity on to others. “The greatest champions have to go through adversities for them to have the empathy to deal with the world from a different perspective,” Bunn said.

“Our main message is about making positivity cool,” he tells me about his organization. He said that in today’s world, children are vulnerable to absorbing harmful messages from the media they consume. A lot of music nowadays romanticizes being tough, drugs, skipping school, and gang culture. But “that’s not real life,” Bunn says. His organization advocates for changing this narrative so that kids begin associating positivity with coolness. 

A Voice 4 the Unheard not only provides prisons and schools with an abundance of literature but also offers numerous resources and networking opportunities to young people and children from underprivileged backgrounds.

“There’s a lack of resources in these communities, and we want to open them up to other resources that they may not know we have available today,” Bunn said. One of the ways the organization is working to bring resources closer to disadvantaged students is by building a network with other nonprofits and educational groups. 

George Garber, who works alongside Bunn as one of the core members of the organization, says, “We’re working on creating a student portal on our website where kids could go and connect with other local nonprofits to fulfill their passions, whether that would be music, poetry, art, or the environment.” 

The team has many future projects in mind, such as building a kids’ center to provide students with a safe physical location to study and access certain educational materials that may not be readily available in their immediate communities.

“A safe place where they can feel like it’s cool to learn at,” Bunn said. 

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Features Giving Back

‘Let Us Do Good’

On August 1, Frank Siller started walking. His route meticulously mapped out and with a couple thousand followers in his wake, the 68-year-old Staten Island resident laced up his sneakers (one of many pairs he packed for the 42-day jaunt) and set out on a 525-mile, six-state personal pilgrimage to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks. His ultimate goal? To follow in the footsteps of the fallen.

“This isn’t only to honor my brother,” Siller said, referring to Stephen Siller, a member of the New York City Fire Department (FDNY), who raced into the World Trade Center after the first plane hit 20 years ago and never returned from the rubble. “I’m doing this to honor all of the 2,977 souls we lost on that day. On this 20th anniversary, I felt we needed something meaningful that would bring us back to the unity that we all felt in those moments and months after the towers fell,” Siller said in a recent interview.

Launching his quiet trek in front of the Pentagon, Siller set off from Washington, D.C., and traveled through Maryland and West Virginia, before paying his respects at the National Memorial in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, located just two miles from where United Airlines Flight 93 crashed. He then journeyed through New Jersey, before he would complete his trip in New York City on the morning of September 11.

Frank Siller training to do his 525-mile walk to commemorate the 20th anniversary of September 11. (Courtesy of Tunnel to Towers Foundation)

“This is more than a walk; it’s a spiritual journey,” Siller relayed about a month before he left on his journey. “With every step I take, I’ll be thinking of my brother, and I know he’ll be with me. This journey very much aligns with our foundation’s motto: ‘While we have time, let us do good,’ taken from a Franciscan prayer. Our organization has accomplished a lot over these past two decades, but we have only scratched the surface. There is still so much good to be done.”

Helping Others

Siller is being humble. He serves as CEO of the Tunnel to Towers Foundation, a New York City-based organization for honoring the country’s military and first responders who continue to make the supreme sacrifice. His organization, which he founded with his siblings immediately after his brother’s death, has committed over $250 million to the families of military heroes and first responders over the past two decades.

In the wake of 9/11, Stephen Siller’s story became well-known: After finishing a night tour with Brooklyn’s Squad 1, he left the firehouse and was headed to a golf course to meet his brothers. When he got word over his scanner of a plane hitting the North Tower of the World Trade Center, he called his wife, Sally, and asked her to tell his brothers he would be late.

Siller returned to Squad 1, picked up his gear, and drove his truck to the entrance of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel. That main city artery had already been closed for security purposes, but Siller was determined to carry out his duty. So he strapped 60 pounds of gear to his back and raced on foot through the tunnel to get to the burning towers. His remains were never recovered.

Today, the foundation delivers more than 450 mortgage-free homes to gold-star families (those whose loved ones died while serving in the line of duty of military service) and catastrophically injured military veterans. Frank Siller has pledged to continue this charity in perpetuity—all in his brother’s name. This walk—and the goodwill that goes with it—is simply the culmination of two decades of philanthropy.

Officially established as a nonprofit in December 2001 by Stephen Siller’s widow and six siblings, the grassroots group started small, with the initial intention of helping children. Siller’s family would meet and toss ideas around for a golf outing, gala, or a 5-kilometer run that would raise funds for a local family in need. When a family friend suggested that the group host a road race that would symbolize the firefighter’s final heroic journey, Siller nearly collapsed with emotion.

“What my brother did on 9/11 was incredible,” Siller said. “I don’t know who else could have made such a sacrifice. Our marquee event—which essentially launched this foundation—was designed to commemorate his very last steps.”

In Stephen’s Name

The Tunnel to Towers race that bears his name, now in its 20th year, recreates Siller’s final run. More than 40,000 participants come out yearly to retrace his steps. Firefighters stand at attention and line the tunnel in Class A uniform, each one holding an American flag and a banner photo of one of the 343 FDNY members who died that day. For Frank Siller, it’s the most emotionally charged day of the year.

“When I watch the tens of thousands of participants gathering at the tunnel, see the West Point cadets running in cadence, it gets me every time,” Siller said. “More than 7,000 soldiers have died in the line of duty since 9/11 [in post-9/11 military operations]. This run is for them. This honors the sacrifice they all made.”

Tunnel to Towers has been recognized as a four-star organization by Charity Navigator, the nation’s largest and most utilized evaluator of charities, for practicing sound fiscal management, organizational efficiency, and program integrity. Keeping fundraising and administrative costs at a minimum, with only a small percentage of funds allocated to overhead expenses, the foundation’s Program Expense Ratio on average is 93 percent, meaning 93 cents out of every dollar goes directly to its programs and services. As chairman and CEO, Frank Siller is an uncompensated volunteer.

“We have been blessed with so many volunteers and so many generous donors,” Siller said. “People support our charity because our efforts are tangible—you can actually see where your money is going and who it is helping.”

Navy officer Austin Reese with his family, who benefited from the Tunnel to Towers Foundation. (Courtesy of Tunnel to Towers Foundation)

The Siller family certainly identifies with the importance of such charity: Both Siller parents died at a young age, leaving 8-year-old Stephen orphaned and in the care of his six older siblings.

“It wasn’t always an easy road but Stephen grew up to be an extraordinary individual and dedicated firefighter,” Siller said. “More than most, he knew that time was precious and accomplished much in his 34 years. He had everything to live for: a great wife, five wonderful children, a devoted extended family, and friends. Stephen’s life and heroic death serve as a reminder to us all to live life to the fullest and to spend our time here on earth doing good—this is his legacy.”

More to Go

Tunnel to Towers has greatly expanded since its inception, growing to include a range of humanitarian projects. Together with the help of benefactors like Home Depot and General Motors, the organization custom-builds specially adapted mortgage-free smart homes that help injured veterans and first responders reclaim their day-to-day independence.

Army sergeant Christy Gardner is an injured veteran who benefited from the foundation. (Courtesy of Tunnel to Towers Foundation)

The foundation also pays off the mortgages for families of law enforcement officers and firefighters who were killed in the line of duty. It provides the same benefit for military widows and children.

This year, the organization also hosted a Never Forget Concert. It continues to fund Towers of Light displays at the Pentagon and Flight 93 National Memorial held on every 9/11 anniversary. The group also pledged to pay off the mortgages of first responders who have died from 9/11-related illnesses and left behind young children.

Siller is now working to broaden the foundation’s reach: He’s asking Americans to donate $11 a month in hopes of funding homes for every military member and first responder who dies or is catastrophically injured in the line of duty. His ultimate goal? To reach 1 million monthly donors.

“I truly believe that God puts us on a certain path in life,” Siller concluded. “This is my path, and I don’t take it lightly. It’s our job to help as many families as we possibly can. I do this for my brother and for all of the men and women who died on 9/11—and all of our military who have made the supreme sacrifice since that day. We are good Americans taking care of the greatest Americans of all.”

Jessica Jones-Gorman launched her career in journalism at a New York City daily newspaper more than 20 years ago. She has worked a general news beat, covered fashion, and written countless features about people who inspire and lead.

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Unboxing Grief

Fran Solomon’s 20 years of working in bereavement care began with an intense personal experience. “My father died in 1998,” she said. “His death was the first of a significant person in my life. I did what I think many people do. I grieved through the funeral, and then I had to get ready to return to work on Monday. “So I put my grief into a box, tied a pretty bow on it, and stuck it on a shelf. I thought I was going to get over it, move on, and with time, forget.

“Fast forward to 2002, my daughter was born. Somehow this beautiful life that had entered mine was accompanied by profound sadness. A friend sat with me and listened to all the reasons for my sorrow. Then there it was. The last thing I said encompassed all my grief,” Solomon said.  “I was grieving that my father wasn’t here to see the one thing he had wanted more than anything —to have a granddaughter. Until that moment, I had no idea that the loss of my dad had had such a profound impact on me. It had resurfaced now many years later, as I welcomed my daughter.”

It ended up impacting Solomon’s own relationships going forward. “Because of my friend’s willingness to sit and listen, I was given an invaluable gift. I was able to understand the association between my sadness around the birth of my daughter and my father’s absence. Had that not happened, my relationship with my daughter could have become a resentful one, resulting from my having displaced my emotions. Through that experience, I came to understand the importance of bereavement care for support, understanding, and appreciation for what grief really is.”

Solomon founded HealGrief.org, a non-profit website that provides the tools, resources, and information to guide one’s journey after a death, through grief and into a healthy post-bereavement equilibrium. It also provides a place to celebrate the lives of loved ones, including pets.

The site provides these tools through offerings like a podcast archive, featuring interviews with a wide array of people who have survived the grief process themselves. The podcast, Let’s Talk Death, can be accessed as a printed transcript, as audio only, or viewed. Central to its mission is removing the cultural taboo that has surrounded death. A virtual support network connects people who are grieving with others who have lost loved ones too. These connections help to dilute the feelings of isolation often associated with grief.

Philanthropy has been a long-term commitment for Solomon. She has been a member of the Cedars Sinai Medical Center Board of Governors for some 20 years. Simultaneously, for a decade, she served as a member of the Board of Directors, as well as the Chair for Our House Grief Support Center, a community-based agency located in Los Angeles.

Now a certified grief-recovery specialist, Solomon lives in LA with her husband, Rick, and their three children, Matthew, Alex, and Lianna. Solomon’s husband serves on the HealGrief.org Board of Directors. He has long supported her work, she said, because he’s realized how much it has enriched her life and the life of their family.

During her work with Our House, Solomon’s focus began to expand beyond community boundaries. She realized that grief is universal. She perceived the need for a place where people across the world could come to celebrate the lives of those they love. She realized that this place also would need to provide resources to help those who are struggling with grief to recover.

Fran Soloman. (Courtesy of Fran Soloman)

Actively Moving Forward is another HealGrief program. Best known as AMF, it began with college students supporting other college students through their grief journey. It evolved into a program supporting all young adults, allowing them to communicate with each other in a way they communicate best—digitally. It’s an app that is a hybrid of a social network, database of resources, and a notification center for daily inspirational quotes. It also offers a community board for posting.

The app since has extended to people of all ages, hosting separate and distinct communities for young adults and for those who are over 30. App members can participate in regularly-scheduled virtual support groups and in book clubs.

“It’s such a gift to hold a safe and sacred space for people to share their most intimate feelings about something so deep within them. And it’s a gift to witness deep friendships emerging from this thing called grief,” Solomon said. “None of this costs our members anything. They can sign up for as many kinds of virtual support as they like.”

“Our members have learned that although grief has a start date, it doesn’t have an end date. Grief is an uninvited companion that we somehow learn to take with us through the rest of our lives,” she observed. Solomon says her work in bereavement care “teaches me to live life to the fullest, to never wait for tomorrow. To tell my family and those I love how much I love them and how important they are to me. It’s a daily reminder of how precious life is and how important it is to be present for those we love.” The site averages about 10,000 new visitors each week, according to Solomon. Poignantly, she reports that the most-visited page by far is “Death of a Child.”

Services are offered at no cost to the site’s users. Solomon reports that HealGrief.org, as a 501c3, accepts donations and has received grants. One was from Funeral Service Foundations, who recognized the importance of the app. Traditional bereavement care was disrupted during the time that Covid shutdowns were most intense, according to Solomon. People who work in bereavement care were unsure of the best ways to serve their clients during that time, so many referred them to HealGrief.org.

“Being virtual, we were in a prime position as the continuum for serving those in need,” Solomon said. “In-person care for many will always be necessary, however we have found that people tend to be more comfortable and share more from the comfort of their own homes,” she explained. “We have been able to serve in new ways. People with disabilities or who don’t have transportation, for example, now can access the support they need too.”

“Support is crucial,” Solomon reflects. “Lack of support can lead to poor coping skills, which can lead to addictive behaviors, suicidal ideology, etc. Grief can change the trajectory of a person’s life. We find that when people try to put their grief into a box or shut down their feelings, this tends to trigger displaced emotions and manifest in ways that they themselves often don’t understand. I was a clear example of this.”

The organization provides training to university faculty, staff, and social work students. It works to help faculty become more grief-sensitive and to understand the needs of grieving young adults through its Grief Sensitive Campus Initiative.

“Many institutions offer bereavement leave to faculty,” she observed, “but not to students. Students have had to negotiate their workload with each professor, interfering with their need to be with families. And upon returning, grieving students can’t be expected to function equally with their peers.”

Christine Colbert holds a master’s in journalism. She has written for and edited varied media. Her preferred “beat” is good news.

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An Orphan-Turned-Accountant Gives Back to Undervalued Communities

When he was 8 years old, Andre Henry became an orphan after losing his parents. At the time, he had been living in the projects in Chester, Pennsylvania.

“Having to deal with that type of environment and living there on a daily basis was hard,” said Henry, 29, in an interview. The loss of his parents took him out of the projects and landed him in Section 8 housing with his grandmother where there was a silver lining.

“She lived in the predominantly white neighborhood of Upper Darby,” he said. “My professors, the friends I met, and the students in the school I attended were from a higher economic setup. They influenced me to become a better person and to learn and grow.” After attending Wilmington University, Henry became a corporate accountant and decided he would find ways to create change in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

“Some individuals are still stuck in the projects today,” he said. “I’ve got family and friends who deal with that environment on a daily basis. It hit me hard and, as I grew older, I felt like I had to find a way to give back and help those individuals in need.”

Henry’s fiancée, Ce’Aira Brown, 27, is a U.S. track athlete who has personally benefited from his accounting expertise.

“Being a professional athlete, I didn’t know a lot about taxes until I met my fiancé and he actually helped me get my finances together, which is something I wish I had learned when I was younger,” she said.

Ce’Aira (C) with student athletes. (Courtesy of Andre Henry)

Brown was raised without a mother as a teenager and credits running track in high school for saving her from the pitfalls of young adulthood.

“After my mother emancipated me at 14 years old, I moved in with my dad, my grandfather, and my older brother,” she said. “It wasn’t Section 8 housing but we all had to sleep in the same room. It was crowded.”

Henry met Brown while participating in interstate track meets. “I ran for Upper Darby and she ran for Overbrook,” he said. “I was semi-pro and running at meets unattached. I saw Ce’Aira running track.” Eventually, they became a couple and now Henry and Brown lecture together to teens at public schools about financial literacy and mental health. Henry also maintains a 600-member chatroom online called The Wolf Pack teaching people about investing.

“I offer financial literacy advice on a daily basis,” he said. “I teach people how to invest in vehicles like 529 Plans, Health Savings Accounts (HAS) and self-directed IRAs. I try to help them understand finances overall.”

Ce’Aira (C) with student athletes. (Courtesy of Andre Henry)

The couple’s chat groups take place on the Telegram mobile app.

“We make it all available there while we’re working on getting a platform up on our own social media prototype that we are now creating with a designer,” he said.

A former trader at JP Morgan in Newark, Delaware, Henry also created his own algorithm that identifies trades before they are posted.
“I do high frequency trading while some people do option or swing trading,” he said. “It’s all about what risk you are comfortable with.”
The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) claims that anxiety around money is connected to financial illiteracy, destructive financial conduct, and lack of financial security, with the greatest stress about money expressed by single women and young adults.

About 53 percent said thinking about their finances makes them anxious and 44 percent said discussing their finances is stressful, according to a Global Financial Literacy Excellence Center study.

“Even prior to the pandemic, more than half of American adults were experiencing financial anxiety,” Annamaria Lusardi, Ph.D., academic director of the Global Financial Literacy Excellence Center and University Professor of Economics and Accountancy at GW, said. “A multifaceted approach will be needed to address this problem; including a systematic increase in financial knowledge, which can happen through policy and programs.”

Brown, an 800-meter runner, separately manages an empowerment group made up of some 50 women nationwide between the ages of 22 and 35 years old called Buildup Women Group (BWG).

Her goal is to improve their self-esteem.

“I graduated with a psychology degree from Hampton University in Virginia so I teach them confidence, not to give up and not to compare themselves with others,” she said. “I mentor them daily and send affirmations. On Fridays, we meditate for 30 minutes.”

Because the duo have both overcome adversity, Brown suggested they write a book together. “From Orphan to Self-made Millionaire: The 10 Irrefutable Laws of Purpose” was independently published in May and has led to a chatroom of followers who aspire to write their stories and publish a book, too.

“We’ve both been through a lot and felt like we could help others,” Brown said in an interview. “Once we started writing, Andre expressed himself more than I did and other people are inspired by our success with publishing the book.”

The pair is now turning to what may be their greatest work of all.

“We’re getting married next April,” Brown said.

Ce’Aira and Andre. (Courtesy of Andre Henry)

Juliette Fairley has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, TheStreet, Time magazine, the Chicago City Wire, the Austin-American Statesman, and many other publications across the country.

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Locker Room Contest Leads Texas CEO to Help Michigan High School Students

When Travis Hollman launched the Locker Room Contest, inviting students to send videos of their outdated locker rooms, he had planned to gift the winning school only with new lockers. But when he saw the video tour of Beecher High School in Flint, Michigan, he was motivated to do much more.

“They had no plumbing, no doors on the bathroom stalls, no place to study, no recreation room, and no internet access,” Hollman said in an interview. “The school is so nice now. We’ve got heating, plumbing, doors on the bathroom stalls, and we’re finishing the rec room floor and putting in basketball nets.”

Hollman is the founder and CEO of Hollman in Irving, Texas, the leading manufacturer of team sports, fitness workspace, and custom lockers. Together with his colleague Daniel Gilbert, co-founder of Quicken Loans and owner of the National Basketball Association’s Cleveland Cavaliers, he spent $1.5 million on renovating the Flint, Michigan, school.

(Courtesy of Hollman Helps)

“I’ve always been pretty good about giving back, and when you meet these kids, you just get more motivated,” Hollman said. “If Beecher High School had been a public building, it would have been condemned, but because it was a school, it stayed open.”

Up until the 1960s, Flint, Michigan, had been one of the wealthiest cities in America, but the end of the industrial era and the automotive boom ended in urban decay, urban flight, and water contamination. “Flint has one of the highest crime rates because they’ve got no police funding,” Hollman said. “Property valuations have come down so much.”

“There is supposedly this racial divide in America, and Beecher High School is 100 percent African American,” Hollman said. “I wanted to prove to those kids that there is no divide. It’s the media making that up. We still love everybody. We saw on the video that the school was in bad shape. There was no heating, and the showers didn’t work. What mattered was that they were students at a school in need.”

(Courtesy of Hollman Helps)

The Locker Room Contest is part of Hollman’s Higher Education and Learning Program (HELP), which is a division of the Hollman Family Foundation.

Although COVID-19 made it a challenge to travel to the school and oversee progress, Hollman said he’s proud that the commitment was maintained. “The cost of wood increased, and the price of gasoline has almost doubled,” he said. “All that stuff impacts our business, and it also impacts our giving. If it costs 20 percent more to build in raw materials and it costs 30 percent to 40 percent more to ship the product, it gives us less that we can do.”

Hollman sits on the executive boards of a domestic violence charity as well as Big Brothers Big Sisters, and his wife, Stephanie Hollman, is the star of the Bravo TV reality episodic “The Real Housewives of Dallas.”

“My wife and I decided we had to help,” Hollman said. “We just want the students to have a little bit better life and to keep those kids off the street.” Because of the renovations, Hollman said the school has become a favorite place for Beecher students, who are staying at school until 10 o’clock at night. “If just one doesn’t die from a gunshot wound because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, then it’s a win.”

(Courtesy of Hollman Helps)

Juliette Fairley is a graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Born in Chateauroux, France, and raised outside of Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, Juliette is a well-adjusted military brat who now lives in Manhattan. She has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, TheStreet, Time magazine, the Chicago City Wire, the Austin-American Statesman, and many other publications across the country.

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30 Day Fund Small Business Assistance Continues Despite COVID’s End

When Virginia-based tech entrepreneur and angel investor Pete Snyder realized COVID-19 had created an economic crisis for small businesses, his wife Burson Snyder and he began calling friends in the philanthropic community to raise funds.

“Small businesses are the backbone of our country,” said Snyder, who serves as CEO of Disruptor Capital. A former candidate for the governorship of Virginia, Snyder founded the 30 Day Fund in April 2020 as a 501(3)c to distribute forgivable loans to small businesses.

One entrepreneur who benefitted from the 30 Day Fund is Tina Miller, who owns Walkabout Outfitter, a local outdoor supply store in six locations across Virginia. “In our case, we were decimated, just decimated,” Miller told NBC News. “It was also important that somebody cared about our small business.”

The Walkabout Outfitter is among the more than 2,500 small businesses that the 30 Day Fund has assisted. “Trying to keep up with the need was a constant challenge, but thanks to the good hearts of people all across the country, we were able to raise significant funds to bolster small businesses and help them survive another day,” said 30 Day Fund board member Generra Peck.

The Snyders called it the 30 Day Fund because they thought 30 days would be the life of the fund, but more than a year has passed since the pandemic emerged and businesses are just beginning to return to normal operating policies. “Businesses have had to endure more than a year of closures and restrictions, decreased sales, staff reductions, and uncertainty after uncertainty, but The 30 Day Fund is still focused on helping small businesses in the short term and has plans to continue its tradition of entrepreneurs ‘paying it forward’ to help those in need,” Peck told the Epoch Times.

As previously reported, paying it forward implies businesses that receive funds will, in the future, reinvest money back into the fund, which will then be allocated to another needy small business owner. “We are overwhelmed with the number of people who want to help,” Snyder told Virginia Business Daily.

Pete Snyder (Pete Snyder/Facebook)

The Snyders financed the 30 Day Fund with an initial $100,000 in capital. “It has raised more than $45 million through all of its efforts in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Mississippi, Georgia, New Jersey, and Arkansas,” Peck said in an interview. The fund provides up to $3,000 to selected small businesses that apply for financing. Beneficiaries are chosen based on a three-minute video and a one-page written application, and once selected, the business owner receives the money within three days.

“We don’t have time for red-tape,” Snyder said in a statement online. “We don’t have time for delays. The VA 30 Day Fund is designed to be quick and easy. … We will provide small business owners with both funding and hope so they can keep their employees on payroll and keep working to lift our communities through this crisis.”

30 Day Fund partners include United Way, the Kimsey Foundation, and Maltese Capital. Virginia State Senator Mark Obenshain (R-Rockingham) and his wife Suzanne are on the fund’s advisory board.

“The 30 Day Fund has assisted other leaders to replicate its model with efforts in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Mississippi, and New Jersey,” Peck said. For example, in December 2020, Dave Portnoy, founder of media company Barstool Sports, created The Barstool Fund – an affiliate of the 30 Day Fund.

“There’s no right or wrong reason why we’re choosing one business versus the other,” Portnoy said of The Barstool Fund. “They speak to us for whatever reason. I wish we could help them all. We’re going to help as many as we humanly can and try to keep these small businesses alive. So, that’s the plan. Is it perfect? Probably not, but it’s better than nothing.”

Portnoy has stayed true to his word, raising nearly $40 million for 391 small businesses through The Barstool Fund. Businesses that have received financial assistance through The Barstool Fund include Iconic Fitness in Escondido, California, The Donut Experiment in St. Charles, Missouri, Flame Nightclub in Duluth, Minnesota, and Social House of Soulard in St. Louis, Missouri.

Roughly 43 percent of Americans have been inoculated against COVID-19, and most states have rescinded government-mandated shutdown orders. And while those changes are helping businesses return to normal operating procedures, Peck said many are still reeling from a year of hardship and uncertainty. Others are struggling with a worker shortage in states where employees can earn more collecting unemployment benefits with additional federal pandemic assistance than reporting to a job, according to media reports.

“While the challenges these businesses face today are not the same ones they faced in the beginning of the pandemic, many are still struggling to fully recover, and the 30 Day Fund continues to be here to help,” Peck said.

In January, the Snyders announced they were stepping down from the day-to-day operations of the fund. Since then, former Virginia Secretary of Commerce and Trade Jim Cheng has assumed a senior leadership position.

“Even though we’ve been at this for nearly a year, we are just getting started,” Cheng said in a statement online. “The ‘pay it forward’ movement the Snyders started is catching fire all around the nation and will be helping thousands and thousands more struggling small businesses in the weeks and months to come. I look forward to ensuring the continued success of the Virginia 30 Day Fund.”

Jim Cheng (30 Day Fund/Facebook)

Juliette Fairley is a graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Born in Chateauroux, France, and raised outside of Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, Juliette is a well-adjusted military brat who now lives in Manhattan. She has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, TheStreet, Time magazine, the Chicago City Wire, the Austin-American Statesman, and many other publications across the country.

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Former Homeless Singer Launches Dallas Nonprofit to Assist the Unsheltered

When LeTitia Owens relocated to Atlanta, she thought it was to pursue a singing career. Instead, she unexpectedly became homeless and began living out of her car. “Because I was in my car, I had a certain calm about it,” Owens said. “I knew I could lock my car doors at night and feel secure but I would see families on the street and wonder how can they deal mentally with not having a secure place to sleep at night?”

The experience, which lasted three months, opened her eyes to a world she hadn’t previously noticed.

“I’m looking out of the windows of my car, seeing people pushing baskets and carrying a backpack or a trash bag full of their belongings,” Owens said in an interview. “I wondered what they were doing out at 3 and 4 in the morning not realizing that I was in the same situation except I had a car to sleep in.”

The singer-songwriter began cultivating relationships with other homeless people in order to learn how to survive.

“I felt that as long as my things were with me in my car, I didn’t mentally feel like I was in a negative situation but of course I was trying to figure out what my day-to-day was going to look like,” she said.
When it came time to shower, Owens disclosed that she would befriend people and ask to use their bathroom.

“Once they let me in, I would tell them that I needed to take a shower or I would go to the YMCA or different gyms,” she said. “I found ways to make a shower happen but it’s a tough situation to be in overall.”

Eventually, a friend offered her a couch to sleep on and from there she moved back to Dallas for a job.”

“It’s an extreme measure to move into a shelter and it’s usually because they’re not so nice,” she said. “They don’t have a warm feeling. You don’t feel at home when you’re at a shelter with a bunch of people who are strangers.”

Owens was so touched by the unsheltered people she met on the streets that once she was back on her feet, she founded a nonprofit 501(3)(c) called Where Are You? Outreach (WAYO). Through WAYO, Owens invites the unsheltered to events she hosts twice a month where information about finding food, shelter, bathrooms and fuel are shared.

“We also provide food, clothing, toiletry items and a lot of my homeless men are shoeless, so I get their shoe size and provide them with shoes,” she said.

Last year, the singer-songwriter was nominated by Councilman Casey Thomas II to serve as vice chair on the Citizen Homeless Commission for the City of Dallas.

“It is a volunteer position that takes up about six hours a week,” she said. “You just have to have a heart for those that you’re serving. We have different Zoom calls that we get together on sometimes two or three times a month.”

On August 21, Owens will be giving away housing vouchers for temporary housing in apartments and hotels along with Dallas Councilman Tennell Atkins from District 8.

Recently, according to media reports, the city of Dallas received $21 million in federal funds through the American Rescue Plan Act, and Owens is applying for funding from that pool to acquire a building that would create housing exclusively for African American men who make up the largest homelessness demographic nationwide.

“If we could help homeless Black men, we could help lower the number of homeless people overall,” she said. “It’s usually having to do with getting jobs and just having an income to provide for themselves.”

Owens with volunteers and a few clients she is assisting.(Courtesy of LeTitia Owens)

About 30 percent of homeless black men are military veterans, according to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.

“One of the things that the Citizen Homeless Commission is able to do is assist with recommending who should receive funding because there are so many areas that don’t necessarily get the support they need,” Owens said.

The WAYO office is currently at 5057 Keller Springs Road in Addison but the headquarters will soon be relocating to a larger space in the Jacksonville area so that Owens can offer more services on site to people who are experiencing homelessness.

“I want to be able to provide resources on a regular basis because right now I have to do pop-up shops at different organizations, parking lots and churches,” she added.

To donate, visit the Where are You? Outreach for Homeless website (WhereAreYouOutreach.org).

“I rent chairs, tables, provide food and if I’m not able to get these resources from my sponsors, then I have to buy all those things,” she said. “It adds up.”

Owens with volunteers at an event she hosts twice a month. (Courtesy of LeTitia Owens)

Juliette Fairley is a graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Born in Chateauroux, France, and raised outside of Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, Juliette is a well-adjusted military brat who now lives in Manhattan. She has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, TheStreet, Time magazine, the Chicago City Wire, the Austin-American Statesman, and many other publications across the country.

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Backyard Heroes Honors Texas Military Veterans With BBQ Pergola, Pit and Patio

Daniel Garza often helps teachers and military veterans buy their first home. As a result, his real estate business has grown and now he’s committed to giving back.

Backyard Heroes is a monthly event in which military veterans submit their war service stories for publication on social media sites, such as Facebook. Military veterans with the winning story are gifted with a $12,000 barbecue accessory for their backyard.

“I wanted to give back to our Armed Forces because we’re losing some of our older veterans who are retired grandfathers and the whole purpose of the event is to recognize their service to our country,” said Garza.

So far, 200 stories have been submitted by email to Backyard Heroes for consideration and the first monthly award is expected to be announced before Labor Day.

“It’s sponsored by our construction company because we now do one hundred percent financing for veterans,” Garza said in an interview. “We have received some story submissions from younger veterans and also from the sisters and daughters of fallen veterans from the Korean War, World War 2, Vietnam and more recent wars as well.”

Every month, a veteran or if fallen, his or her family, will be honored at various Rio Grande Valley Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) posts based on their submitted story. Afterward, sponsors will help build in the veteran’s backyard a barbecue pit, a seating area for friends and family and a covered pergola to provide shade while grilling.

“Our labor is free and we’re getting the lumber at cost but we might have to build with metal because lumber is so expensive right now,” Garza added. “We got together with the veteran hospital and military recruiters. We’re all super excited.”

In addition to showing his appreciation to military veterans, Garza also highly favors teachers.
For the past five years, Garza has been organizing a teacher appreciation event for Thanksgiving in which teachers receive a complimentary turkey. Despite statewide COVID-19 restrictions last year, Garza’s GIVE for Teachers was a success.

“The teachers picked up cupcakes, turkeys, fixings and other goodies but it was all drive through,” he said. “There were 400 cars that came through the car lot.”

The Bert Ogden Fiesta Nissan dealership at 5001 S I69C in Edinburg hosted the 2020 event and Garza managed to raise enough money to gift a $1,000 check.

“Everybody’s a little bit more relaxed with the whole masking now and being in public,” he said. “I think we should be able to get back to our regularly scheduled GIVE for Teachers event in November.”

Garza had intended to host a wine tasting for teachers with a live jazz band every three months but the planned quarterly event has turned into just a giveaway.

“We haven’t been able to host any events for our teachers,” he said. “All we have been able to do is giveaways. We had a $1,000 giveaway, a $500 giveaway, gift cards and a couple of Cricket Arts and Craft Machines.”

Juliette Fairley is a graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Born in Chateauroux, France, and raised outside of Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, Juliette is a well-adjusted military brat who now lives in Manhattan. She has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, TheStreet, Time magazine, the Chicago City Wire, the Austin-American Statesman, and many other publications across the country.

This article was published in American Essence magazine.