And then when he starts to tell his story, you find it rich, compelling, and candidly sincere. It’s the story of a hard worker, a romantic, a father. And it’s the story of a man who has, twice in his life now, found himself living in Champaign’s TIMES Center—a transitional housing facility and soup kitchen that receives food from the Eastern Illinois Foodbank.
In a way, it’s baffling that Rodney has ever needed help like this. He is an educated man with a CNA (Certified Nurses’ Assistant) degree. At every job he has had—most of which have lasted 8 or 9 years—his boss has singled him out for promotion because of his hard work. But it has just never seemed to be quite enough. He has twice lost his apartment—most recently, it was cleaned out by thieves who stole everything of value and literally destroyed everything else, forcing him back to the streets. He lived in doorways, lobbies, anywhere he could rest his head for three years, until finally landing back at the TIMES Center, which, in his estimation, saved his life.
If he wanted to be, Rodney has plenty of reason to be cynical. His parents both died of lung cancer, his mother while she was still quite young. He lost his wife in a divorce, and his children live far away. He has battled with and defeated alcoholism. He slept on the street. Five years ago, he was diagnosed with lung cancer, and went through a full regimen of chemotherapy and radiation until it finally went into remission. Last fall, he contracted double pneumonia—no doubt from living on the street—and suffered a related heart attack that almost killed him.
But Rodney is far from cynical. Instead, he is positive, reflective, gracious. Rather than dwell on how difficult life has been, he prefers to reminisce about the amazing people that have helped him through it. Like his mother, who worked more than full time in a local diner—and still found time to walk him and his brother to school every morning.
Or people like Alberta Jones, the owner of the diner where his mother worked. Rodney couldn’t remember a time Alberta’s diner was ever closed—even to non-paying customers. “She was one of those extraordinary women, like you see on Little House on the Prairie,” he remembers. “If someone came in without enough money to pay for the meal, she’d serve them anyway. She’d even serve people’s dogs.”
A little while ago, a new resident came to the TIMES center—a man who, in Rodney’s estimation, had literally nothing. The man expressed admiration for Rodney’s hat; naturally, Rodney gave him one of his that he’d been saving in his locker. Plus six pairs of socks, just for good measure. Then, when one of the TIMES Center workers handed the man a bag filled with toiletries and basic necessities, it became too much to bear—he began to cry with gratitude. “I don’t know what to do,” he said, “to show you how grateful I am.” Rodney’s answer was eloquently simple: “just do the next good thing.”
It is clear that Rodney equally appreciates the people who long ago taught him to be a good person and the people who now treat him as one. And his “pay-it-forward” philosophy—when we have something to share, we should—is truly a lesson we can all take to heart. Here at the Eastern Illinois Foodbank, we are so proud to be even a small part of Rodney’s story, and the equally amazing stories of tens of thousands more receiving help—and hope—throughout our network.