You never know where life might take you.
Awash in tears and in the comfort of our embrace, wife and mother Monica Lazare shared how she lost her sight following years of diabetes and a surgery that left her near death.
Dobie Robinson, slightly lucid and taken with occasional body tremors, was found sleeping on the steps of a local church.
Quencin Dean, now wheelchair-bound and suffering from an unknown defect, was picked up by a pastor who found him sleeping in bushes on the roadside.
What they and others Perspective met this weekend have in common is that their paths in life have led to places and spaces where special care and compassion are needed, and each path has crossed and settled at a facility aptly named Home Away From Home.
What we were left with following our visit to the facility was the stirring reality of how one’s life can drastically change because of financial, domestic or health challenges.
And what was equally compelling was witnessing the complexities of homelessness, and the depth of sacrifice involved in caring for those who are unable to care for themselves.
That sacrifice has been further stretched following the passage of Hurricane Dorian whose damage left scores of families with nowhere to turn, with some of whom having since turned to the facility in Freeport in search of a safe place for them and their children to sleep.
Five single mothers, a single father and a total of 10 children live at the facility’s two locations, according to owner and residential care provider Mervie Knowles.
In operation for nearly a decade, the quaint facility primarily offers care for elderly, bed-ridden and wheelchair-bound patients, as well as patients with ailments including dementia and blindness.
As Lazare, who is Knowles’ sister, walked slowly toward us it was not immediately apparent that she was blind, but once we sat to talk, she shared her condition and how life brought her to the residential care facility.
“I had a terrible surgery, almost lost my life,” she revealed. “I had two strokes back to back and then I lost my sight in April .
“My husband, at the time he wasn’t working, so he had to put me here because of financial difficulty,” Lazare said before bursting into tears. “I lost my sight because of my diabetes.
“I had surgery on my stomach from taking the insulin in my stomach and not having it in a cool area where I was living in at the time, so it caused me to get a cyst in my stomach and they had to do an emergency surgery.
“I had no electricity to cool the insulin because of lack of finances.”
Lazare’s 17-year-old-daughter attends St. George’s High School and lives with her at the facility, which during a brief point of smiles and laughter she described as a happy place because they are both well cared for and safe.
“After the surgery,” she mentioned, “I have outbursts of crying because my heart gets so full; everybody goes through different things and everyone may not understand.”
What a person has gone through is the question we pondered as we approached Robinson, a resident of the men’s section of the facility’s homeless shelter who was lying outside on a blue lounge chair as Knowles let him know someone wished to speak with him.
With a Nike hoodie top pulled down just over his eyes that glinted a slightly glazed stare, he hazarded a slight smile as he said, “I been here from the third week of November; I don’t know where I am, how I get here I don’t really know.”
Knowles, who is a nurse by profession, shared that Robinson is in his late 60s and was brought to the facility by the police who asked her to take care of him after a pastor found him sleeping on the steps of his church ahead of a Sunday morning worship service.
“The police first took him to the hospital and the hospital said there was no place for him to stay so that’s when they brought him here to me,” she explained.
“He has no ID and I haven’t met his family as yet, but he told me his name and his date of birth and I don’t think his family even knows where he is.”
Whereas unknown factors in life led to Robinson’s separation from his family, unexpected factors of Dorian’s flood levels and resulting damage brought Whitney Armbrister closer to her mother’s side as displacement from their Hawksbill home caused her to seek refuge at the facility where her mother is an early-onset dementia patient.
“I was here during the storm because my mother is a patient here and of course I didn’t want her to weather the storm alone with new faces,” she began.
“I’m displaced but it gives me an opportunity to be closer to my mother. I’m staying in the efficiency in the back, working on getting the house where it needs to be — what I didn’t take with me beforehand is basically gone.”
Home repair assistance, she said, has come from agencies including the Rotary Club of Freeport, which also delivered tarpaulin to the facility earlier that morning in response to Knowles’ public plea days earlier for aid due to roof damage sustained in Dorian.
“Over 30 have come since the storm”
For Knowles, who previously worked as an auxiliary nurse at the Rand Memorial Hospital and as a private nurse, helping those who have fallen on hard times is something she says she has done for much of her adult life.
When she “followed the call” to open a home for the aged, many of her first patients were those whose families had no money to care for them or had no place to live.
Of her early days in residential care work, which she describes as “the real work” of Christian ministry, Knowles recalled that, “The first ones I took in were the rejected ones; persons who nobody wanted to be bothered with or their families did not know how to take care of them.
“But since the storm we have grown greatly and the needs are greater now. About 30 came in since the storm.”
Having put “every cent she gets” into the facility, securing a facility grant from social services has proven unsuccessful to date, Knowles indicated, notwithstanding the fact that the department sends people to her in need of shelter and special care.
“I am willing to help, but I need them to help me with the willing.”
As for the elderly in her care, Knowles maintains that while people assume no provisions were made for their retirement, unexpected bouts of illness and disease wiped out the savings of a number of her patients.
“We don’t know where life is going to take any of us,” she reminded. “So doing this work here and seeing what they are dealing with and the sickness and the illness and stuff like that, it makes me think that if I get like this one day, how would I want someone to care for me?
“Some of them say, ‘Ms. Knowles I had all kind of money, but when I took sick it took the money.’
“What must we do, shut up the bowels of compassion because that person is broke?”
Both heartwarming and uplifting is the impact that care and compassion can have on the life of someone enduring unimaginable hardship.
It renews one’s hope in the power of redemption, and is an indelible reminder of how a single act of kindness can be the difference that turns someone’s life around.
As we returned to the entrance of the men’s quarters, Gregory Russell emerged in his wheelchair, greeting us with a warm, one-eyed smile that is a testament to a previous injury.
“I got knocked down from a car which left me paralyzed,” he told us. “I had no family like that and nowhere to go, but Ms. Knowles made a space for me.
“I had nothing when I first came so she ended up giving me clothes. If I could get on my feet and God helped me to walk I probably would still stay around to help out because she still could use some help, and I would help her out for all the help she has given me.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Gabrielle Gibson, 19, who was taken in by Knowles at the age of 16 after both her parents died, leaving her an orphan.
Gibson now works at the facility, carrying on the legacy of compassion and care, and credits it with bringing her closer to God and developing her into the woman she was meant to be.
“I have a heart for helping people who can’t do for themselves because I understand that if they were able to do it they wouldn’t want to be here,” she said proudly, “but since they are in this position they would need as much help as possible, so I really admire the work I do here.”
As the day went on and Knowles took time to sit and share some of her more personal life stories, in walked a spirited woman donned in hot pink whose bubbly personality and commanding voice filled the room.
It was Sheryl Russell, a mother of four and former resident of the homeless shelter who wasted no time in sharing her life’s story and what she believes is her life’s calling along with Knowles, a mission to bring hope to hurting people she calls “mission possible”.
A traumatic childhood, a tumultuous marriage and years of emotional distress led Russell to the shelter last year to work on getting her life back together.
Now that she considers herself much stronger and much wiser, she is determined to be a shining example to her grandchildren and a beacon of hope and light to others who have suffered the same traumas that she has experienced.
Lauding her friend for her tireless work in caring for and sheltering those who have no place else to go, Russell’s jubilant tone became more sober as she spoke on the unwillingness of many in society to care for one another, and the need for Bahamians to make “love thy neighbor” more than just a passing phrase.
“What a lot of people are forgetting is the purpose of God,” she reasoned.
“I’m quite sure today or tomorrow if anything ever happened to me, I can sleep anywhere here or eat out of any of these pots, and I would do the same for her.
“A lot of people forgot when God walked this earth that He fed the hungry and clothed the naked and He sheltered them, but He asked one question — are you my brother’s keeper?”