Voice of the Nations – What will be in your box?

by Karyn Alexander
April 16, 2010

During a warm afternoon at Winfield House, I was readying myself for the kids’ after-school program. The other volunteers were making Kool-Aid, preparing snacks and cleaning the kitchen from our Bible study held earlier that day.

I heard a knock on the back door. One of the volunteers answered and called to me with a very anxious tone in her voice. “Karyn, there is someone who needs to talk to you.”

Curious, I left what I was doing and walked to the back door. There stood a man. He was perhaps the dirtiest man I had ever seen. It seemed like his gray beard reached his knees. He was wearing ill-fitting baggy clothes that didn’t seem like they could be his. He just stood there looking at me. I quickly guessed he must be 90 years old, but in spite of his age, my gut feeling was to be afraid.

I walked up to him, scanning the room. I was looking for my two daughters, directing them and the ladies to leave the house. If this man was dangerous, I wanted them to be absent from the scene. I shooed all of the volunteers from the house and asked the man how I could help. He stated in a low, monotone voice, “I think I am dying, I need help.”

I was shocked, to say the least, and embarrassed that I thought this poor man was going to beat me up. I was now concerned and thought I had better move quickly in case he was right.

I put my hand out for him to shake, but he was too embarrassed to take it. I invited him into my office, but he would not sit due to his soiled clothes. We talked for hours, unraveling the life story of Robert.

Robert was an alcoholic who had stayed in every rehab center, homeless shelter, and flop house along the 1-75 corridor. He traveled between Michigan and Florida, looking for help for his alcoholism and drug abuse. He was now a resident of a group of men who lived on the local railroad tracks in Augusta. I had no idea what brought him to Augusta; we were situated far off that beaten track. Later, I was to find that he was told it was a quiet place to live, no crime to speak of, and people were nice. He felt it would be a good place to die.

Robert was no stranger to drugs, disease, and self-abuse. I listened to the tired man reach out for help and wondered what I had to offer. In the end, I did offer Robert a warm house, with a bed (something he had not had for a long time), clean clothes, and a family. We allowed Robert to stay at the Winfield House, which is not a homeless shelter, but would have to become one for the time being. We had previously helped the homeless through funding of their own apartment or home, but never had we been an in-bed facility.

Embarking on this new adventure was a challenge for both Robert and me. I cannot write about a two-year experience in one small article, though I will later share some of the funny and not so funny trials we shared together.
Once cleaned up, surprisingly, Robert was a handsome man. He was somewhat fit- looking and only 44-years old! I had to wonder what brought Robert to this end.

Over the months of his stay, Robert shared a life of neglect, family abuse, and much loneliness. Robert was a smart man, yet he lacked education. Engaging in the literacy program in our area, Robert proved to be at a 3rd grade student level. Struggling against much depression, he began to study. Quickly moving to a 10th grade level, Robert gained confidence and began to have hope.

Our children’s programs included a choir, art projects, and sports. Robert engaged with the children, giving him a family where his had simply vanished. Robert did have a mother, brother, and even two children. An unfortunate legacy Robert passed on was one of incarceration. Robert had been jailed on several minor offenses. So, along with drug and alcohol abuse, he had created a cycle his family was to repeat. His son, too, was caught in the cycle, and was now a resident of a state penitentiary.

During our time with Robert, we prayed for God to intervene in his childrens’ lives the way he had with Robert. He had renounced his old ways and had given himself over to a new life. It was his hope that he would see his son and daughter do the same.

After a two-year stay at Winfield House, Robert felt ready to be on his own. His mind was stable and his hope intact, with only one thing stopping him. After a doctor’s visit, he found that his health was in jeopardy. Robert was a world-class smoker. Physicians diagnosed that cancer had spread rapidly, coming first in the form of lung cancer. A lung removal proved to be a temporary fix, as the cancer ravaged his body.

Robert shared with me that, in all of the places he had ever stayed, Winfield House was “truth.”  I wondered what he meant and asked for an explanation. He felt that everyone else tried to change him, but we had only tried to love him. We had provided a solid foundation of love and family from which he could work. I felt proud of this, as we had no real “plan” and just wanted to see him succeed.

After only two years with us, Robert died from the cancer and a hard life of self-abuse. He was only 46-years old.

As I was cleaning his room, I found a gift from Robert. The gift was a small 4”x 6” box. In the box held everything dear to Robert. There was a scarf I had knitted for him. There were pictures of his two kids, our Winfield kids in their choir robes, and a letter from his mother. The most poignant piece of the box was a letter from Robert himself. It was titled, “My Story.”

In his letter, he recounted his life and all that he had done. He thanked God for helping him get clean and thanked me for giving him a chance to be loved and start a new life.

I looked at this tiny box filled with pictures, a phone card, cough drops, and photos of those he loved.

It seemed strange that at the end of our lives, the only thing that really mattered was whether we were loved and could love in return.

Robert had found an eternal destination and left the earth with a clean body and mind.

I was very sad for his life cut short, but I was happy to say that at Winfield, we were not only able to help people live right, but die well. The box, I will cherish it forever. It holds one of life’s greatest lessons.

I ask you: what will be in your box?


Karyn Alexander
Executive Director, Winfield House (windfieldhouse.org)

Winfield House brings the good news of Jesus in a practical way, giving hope to God’s people.

Voice of the Nations: Rev. 5:9 “With your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe, people, language and nation.”
Send questions or comments to: KarynBAlexander@aol.com


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