It all began three Christmases ago. I was depressed and dispirited, alone, broke, and teetering on the brink of homelessness. I couldn’t visit my family in California, and I’d lost the understanding of two people I’d believed to be close to me. So, I did what I always do when my emotions threaten to overwhelm me, I wrote. I didn’t plan what I wrote, I just let it come. And Jesus on a Park Bench was what resulted. Little did I know where that wee, fictionalized, version of my story—completed and self-published on Christmas Eve, 2012—would take me.
My intent was just to use the allowed five promotional days on Kindle Select to give it away free as the only gift I could give to my friends and family. I honestly thought it was too late for it to do anything sales-wise and that perhaps it would bring me some income during the next (2013) Christmas season. But, to my great surprise, during those five promo days the story was downloaded over 1,000 times—in the US and elsewhere—and it took off. Basically, it has remained in the top 100 of the Inspirational category on Amazon ever since, now ranking in the top 25. It has brought me much needed income for the past two years. And it has blessed me in so many ways that aren’t monetary, I can’t even begin to name them.
Jesus on a Park Bench has brought encouragement not only to me, but to thousands of others. Early on, I got a private email from a man who said he was going to use it to help him through some very hard times, and I’ve received 127 reviews on Amazon to date that are nearly always positive from readers who say that the story makes them think, reminds them to be grateful for what they do have, and inspires them. So, when I put the story into print in August, 2013 via Amazon’s CreateSpace, I got the great “NUDGE” to do something special with it. I have since held two giveaways, one last year on December 23rd, and one this year, on the same date, the date the story of Jesus on a Park Bench begins.
Last year, I raised enough funds to purchase 150 of my books and 150 $5.00 McDonald’s gift cards and passed them out to the homeless at the St. Vincent de Paul Henry Unger Kitchen in downtown Phoenix. Because my story mentions Jesus, I couldn’t do the giveaway at Central Arizona Shelter Services (CASS) complex as I’d originally planned. But the folks at CASS put me in touch with Max Goshert, volunteer coordinator at the time for SVDP, who was in charge of the big blue kitchen next door to CASS where the homeless ate breakfast and lunch. Max was very helpful, and the giveaway in 2013 went extremely well, although I had to turn away about half of the people who lined up when I ran out of books with gift cards stapled inside. After the books were gone, I also gave away nearly 50 hats that my friend, Yvonna Burkle, had hand-crocheted and knitted. It was a wonderful experience that humbled me.
Because I had to turn away so many last year, I made it my goal to reach all who might line up at the Henry Unger Kitchen this year. I vowed to raise enough money to buy 300 books and 300 gift cards, a total of $2400. I began early with a couple of speaking engagements—one with the Gilbert Optimists (who gave me a total of $179 for the project) and one with the Mesa East Lions (who, because they were so small in number, could only vote to buy seven of the books, which helped me). Then, I grew so busy with new editing and publishing ventures, I failed to find any more time to work on the project until the beginning of October. At that point, I was leery that I wouldn’t even come close to the goal I’d set but determined that I would do the best I could nevertheless.
However, a new friendship I’d made through Jesus on a Park Bench was the key to receiving what amounted to a miracle. Vicki Young, a woman from Mesa, where I live, had read the story and loved it. She gave me a five-star review on Amazon and contacted me via this website to ask whether I could edit her children’s stories about an angel dog. I wrote back that I was happy to do so, and her first story in the Brando’s Heavenly Adventures series, Brando Meets Prince Zachariah, is now out on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle formats. (I have become both editor and publisher for three different people this year.)
Anyway, once we met, we found we had much in common. Vicki believes that God brought us together, and so do I. She is a member of the Mesa East Lions, and she got me the speaking engagement with them that I referred to earlier. (Thank you, Vicki, for that, and for your assistance with the sign-ins at the giveaway this year.) And even though the Lions couldn’t do much to help me with my project, I was prompted to join them and help them with their projects, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
After I joined, the president of the club, Bill Schaffer, helped me by getting me a better fundraising venue. I’d been helping to raise funds for the Lions’ White Cane project—which buys glasses and provides other vision and hearing products and services for needy children and adults (including the very same homeless that I dealt with downtown). We did this at the local Ranch Market, on Main Street just east of Greenfield Road. Bill introduced me to Candy, the manager there, and told her about my project, which got my foot in the door. (Thank you so much, Bill!)
Candy was reluctant to allow me to fund-raise there at first, but a Higher Power was at work, and she finally agreed that I could set up west of the store entrance. (THANK YOU, Candy! You made it possible for me to reach my goal! I also want to specially thank some of the workers there who either donated, bought a copy of my book, or both, or who were just generally kind to me. Actually, ALL of the workers, and Candy, were very kind to me, so if I don’t mention your name here, it’s only because I never knew it or can’t remember it—you are still very much included in this thanks. Thank you to: Trevor, Patrick, Debbie, Sylvia, Jake, Brad, Vince, Steven, Janice, Stella, Virginia, and the others. You are stellar!)
In 2013, I’d been at the Southeast Regional Library for most of my fundraising, and I did return a few times this year for fundraising, so I also want to thank Char Kaplan for her continued permission for me to operate there, as well as to also thank those who donated to me at the library.
But I was able to do so much more at the Ranch Market in less time than at the library. In fact, if I had been able to stay all day long on each scheduled day that Candy allowed me, I’d have raised triple the amount I did, I’m sure. However, because I’ve also been blessed with more editing/publishing work than ever, plus writing more of my own stuff, I couldn’t do that. Most days, I was there for two to three hours max, until I neared the deadline. Then I did stay all day during the last three scheduled days, right up through December 22nd. I stayed up all night on the 22nd to finish pre-signing and putting gift cards into the last 100 books.
Because things have been so hectic for me this year, I only touched base with Max from the Henry Unger Kitchen in May and then not again until December 15th, when I got another surprise. Max had left St. Vincent de Paul, but his replacement, Samantha Ansell, was more than ready to jump on board, even on such short notice. (Thanks so much, Samantha, for your assistance!)
As always, the course of this project never runs completely smooth. Again, I had some people who said rude things to me about the homeless—and I plan to add a blog soon as a rebuttal to several whose words essentially were, “They can work—let them get a job.” And again, the weather turned unseasonably cold during the last few weeks of my efforts. But all-in-all, fundraising was very much easier this year than last.
The day of the giveaway was NOT easier. My daughter, who is in a personal crisis situation, called me late on the night of the 22nd, needing her mother’s comfort. I had 39 cell minutes left, and I hadn't had time to replenish them, but I wasn't about to turn her away. I didn’t realize, however, as I hung up with her, that I had only ONE cell minute left. I didn’t find that out until the next morning as I was trying to coordinate with my helpers, Vicki and Yvonna. After talking for that one minute with Vicki, my cell cut out—although I thought, at first, that hers had. Then I thought Google maps had given me the wrong directions—7th Street, to 9th Street, to Jackson Street—but it was actually my mistake. Somehow, I’d written Street rather than Avenue, and we all got lost downtown. I was eight minutes late to arrive (supposed to meet the coordinator at 10:00 a.m.) and unable to call Samantha to let her know why.
But—WHEW!—fortunately, Samantha didn’t leave. She hung in there, and we got set up. Things were much more chaotic during the giveaway this year because we didn’t have the backup SVDP workers to do crowd control like last year, and a new system for the bathrooms had also been put in place, which had many lining up for the men’s restroom right next to where I signed books. The guy in charge of the restroom doubled by doing crowd control—unfortunately in a very loud manner. I had an extremely hard time hearing the people when I asked for their names to insert in the books. This wasn’t Samantha’s fault since she’s new, and she didn’t know about the giveaway until practically the last moment. I think she did a great job, all things considered.
Despite the noise and confusion, we got through it, and 235 homeless and SVDP workers received gifts of a hat and book with gift card. NO ONE was turned away, which was the biggest blessing of all. And, because my efforts were overkill this year, I still have 60 books with gift cards to give out next year, so I won’t have to work so hard raising the funds—thank you, Jesus!
Besides my “big brother”, as I like to call Jesus, and all the people I’ve already thanked in this blog, I want to say a special “thank you” to Yvonna Burkle, who, bless her heart, also went into overkill mode and made 400 hats this year. WOW! (You won’t have to work so hard next year, either, my friend.)
And a second, special “thank you” to Vicki Young. Near the end of my fundraising efforts, she not only donated $40 to help me reach my goal, but she also took the 23rd off from work without pay to come and help with the sign-ins—very necessary, since these sheets are what I use for my tax records and to prove I’m on the up and up with this project. Thanks so very much, my wonderful friend.
Another “thank you” goes out to Maria Piork, a writer friend of mine who moved to New York, but who still sent a donation for the project. Thanks, Maria. It means a lot to have your continued support.
Finally, thanks again to ALL who donated. You know who you are, and you will be blessed for it, I can guarantee it. I know that, if even ONE of the homeless we dealt with receives the gift of inspiration that we tried to give them, Yvonna, Vicki and I will also be blessed. We will be blessed even if none of them are inspired to change their circumstances, for we are doing for the “least of them” what we would do for Jesus.
Next year, the project will be heading in a slightly different direction, so stay tuned!