Today's American Story with Bob Dotson comes from Wilmington, Delaware, where I happened upon a man who is taking some of his homeless neighbors on a Florida spring break. That's right — a spring break for the homeless. A trip, hopefully, to a better life.
Rollie Richardson got to know the homeless in the parks near his home. I followed him one morning as he went looking for friends hunkered in the cold.
"Have you had breakfast?" he called to an old man who was hobbling along, using a softball bat for a crutch.
"Watch your foot there," he said. "Watch your foot, big guy." Rollie guided the old man around some ice. He was quietly gathering some of his homeless neighbors from winter's worst and trying to help them find lost dreams.
He drove them nonstop, from Delaware to Disney World, for nothing but a smile.
"There goes Mickey!" shouted Rollie. A half dozen faces that had forgotten how to smile, did. They followed Mickey Mouse as he rode by them on a float. "Just believe," called Mickey to the crowd, "and your dreams will come true!"
The homeless used to be people he stepped around on the way to the bank, where he was a vice president, until one day, he made the kind of choice the homeless make. Friends offered him drugs and he took them.
"I had tried smoking," Rollie confided. "Never liked smoking. I had tried drinking. Never liked drinking. So I said, 'I can do this one time.'"
"You were 51 years old?"
"Fifty-one years old!" Rollie shook his head incredulously. "Can you imagine?"
His wife, Delores, couldn't. "I was devastated!"
But Rollie had stuck by her when she had breast cancer, so she was determined to help her husband of 38 years. Delores sent Rollie to rehab eight times.
"He had changed so much. He was a monster in our house."
"Rollie, what finally turned you around?"
"I went into a house to do drugs and one of my old basketball players was in the house. He said to me, 'You're going to hurt a lot of folks because they look up to you.' "
That was a decade ago. The day Rollie stopped taking drugs. He got a new job, coaching kids, and started cooking up an idea with the money he made.
Every Saturday he would entice the homeless with a gourmet breakfast, then offer to help them solve their problems. He took McKinley Teagle to a quiet corner.
"You've got to suffer with drugs, man. So I'm here for you."
"I know you are, sir."
McKinley Teagle had heard this message many times, but — in Rollie — he saw himself. A man once hooked on cocaine. A mirror of hope in the vast uncertainty of life.
"To me it was a wakeup call," McKinley sighed deeply. "Got to get it right!"
That's why he ended up at Disney World on his 30th birthday. Rollie was taking him to a rehab center.
In the past five years, Rollie Richardson has helped a hundred homeless to try and find a better life. All this costs him about $159 a week. He could get a grant or donations, but feels it's important to pay this himself.
"It's an example that you don't need much to help another person."
Faith Sandiford-Bey was one of the first he helped. She's now been clean and sober for five years.
"I was at my bottom," she told me. "Nowhere to live. On the streets. Eating out of trashcans. Everybody would turn me away. Nobody wanted to help a drug addict or a prostitute, thief, liar." Faith paused reflectively. "But he did."
Now she's working as a credit counselor.
Why would someone like Rollie — who escaped a nightmare — willingly help complete strangers find a way out of theirs?
Rollie watched the homeless having fun, then turned back to me. "Everything is gone when you lose your joy."
And Rollie Richardson knows firsthand that joy can lead you back to hope.
Want to contact the subjects in this morning’s American Story with Bob Dotson? Here’s the contact information:
H. Fletcher Brown Boys & Girls Club
1601 North Spruce Street
Wilmington, DE 19802
Email Address: firstname.lastname@example.org mailto:email@example.com
Boys & Girls Clubs (H. Fletcher Brown): (302) 656-1386