Opening an email from an organization where she volunteers, Cathy Valenzuela learned about Howard, an older man who was in a wheelchair and had to live in his shed because his house had become uninhabitable. Cathy immediately rallied her Bell Bank co-workers to see if they would contribute Pay It Forward funds to help Howard.
It’s easy for Ron Wilson to become emotional when he talks about Howard. Ron volunteers with La Mesa Ministries, a Mesa, Ariz., organization started in 2014 to build relationships with people who are homeless and working poor.
Howard has attended La Mesa from the beginning.
“I would go pick him up to go to La Mesa, and he would open the door and he would kick things back in to close the front door and wouldn’t let you in,” Ron remarks.
Howard, who lives in the Mesa home his parents bought in the 1950s, has a hoarding disorder.
Growing up, Howard delivered newspapers and was awarded for his customer service. He has also worked for the same security company for decades.
“He has an income, pays his taxes, knows what prescriptions to take and when, so mentally he’s pretty sharp,” Ron explains. “Great sense of humor, lot of stories. So he can handle many things very well. But stress is just a real challenge.”
Howard is part of a close-knit community of friends who took care of him as they could. It also helped Howard to carry around a doctor-approved emotional support mannequin he called Bob.
Then COVID hit, and Howard’s situation spiraled. Bob’s body, made of foam, deteriorated, and as Howard’s hoarding worsened, he looked at rats that were infesting his home as his new companions.
Eventually, he allowed friends to help him clean out his home, but it was too much for them to handle alone, so La Mesa got involved.
While La Mesa started as a food ministry and church service, it has grown to include a resource center that helps people with housing, addiction and employment.
“Our ministry is all about relationships and community with those who have no family,” explains Rick McClellan, La Mesa Ministries executive director. “The number one cause, we believe, for homelessness is the profound catastrophic loss of family. And we’ve become the family for many of these men and women.”
Bell employee Cathy Valenzuela volunteers with La Mesa Ministries teaching finance classes to the working poor and homeless. When she learned about Howard, she knew Bell’s Pay It Forward program could help, so she asked her co-workers if they wanted to contribute. In the end, she received more than $5,000.
“We couldn’t have begun to do this without Cathy and Bell Bank’s Pay It Forward,” notes Rick. “I get teary-eyed just thinking that these people don’t even know Howard and they were willing help. That’s what’s so moving – seeing the community come together for someone in need who can’t get out of the pit that they’re in. Pay It Forward is just remarkable, because without it, Howard would still be living in a shed.”
Howard’s house hadn’t had running water for five years, but when the plumber arrived, he couldn’t do anything because of the rodents. Once an exterminator took care of the rat issue, a 40-foot dumpster was filled with the things Howard had been hoarding. Then his home was renovated including replacing the hot water heater, toilet and shower, installing a washer and dryer, painting, trim work, fixing the lighting and breaker boxes and replacing the blinds.
“My biggest joy is knowing he’s no longer living in a shed,” Rick comments. “He has running water, he can use a toilet and he’s got a place where he can live a life that he feels comfortable living. And that’s what it’s all about.”
Ron says they’ll continue working with Howard on the responsibility of homeownership.
“He understands that he needs to take some responsibility and accountability for what goes forward,” Ron notes. “He is very, very, very grateful. It’s very exciting seeing him change.”
“Knowing we made such a big difference in somebody being able to live comfortably in the heat and the harsh conditions, it just makes my heart feel full,” Cathy says. “Reaching out and helping people is an inconvenience, and we have to be willing to be inconvenienced in order to be human. That’s the difference with La Mesa and why I have such a passion for what they’re doing.”
Cathy was also able to use the Pay It Forward program to help Caroline, who was living in a car with a broken air conditioner. Caroline worked delivering pizza and was taking the finance class Cathy taught, so she could figure out how to move on from living in her car.
“She’d come out of a really toxic environment and was afraid to go into shelters because she wasn’t sure how safe she would be, so she chose to live in her car instead of a shelter,” Cathy notes.
The Pay It Forward funds Cathy was able to raise covered multiple car repairs, car insurance for the next six months and additional funds so Caroline could start looking for an apartment or room to rent.
“We’re given the opportunity to serve others in so many ways,” Cathy comments. “It’s not only to pay it forward, but it’s also the volunteer opportunities, the ability to connect with our team members and go and do something good for the community. There aren’t many employers willing to give you the time off to serve your community, and recognize you for doing it.”
This story can also be read at https://bell.bank/, it was published there as one of their Giving Stories.