Angels on Earth
This time of year gets people thinking about giving back. For many Mobilians, though, “giving back” is simply a way of life year-round. Here, meet a handful of locals who take philanthropy to a whole new level.
EMBRACING THE ELDERLY
What did you say your name was?” It’s a question Charlean Brown hears a lot from one particular woman in the nursing home she visits. Brown has answered it countless times. After she answers once more with a patient smile, the resident sighs contentedly. “Well, I just love you, Charlean,” she says to Brown. “I remember you because you always come in with a pretty smile.”
There truly is no better introduction for a woman who spends much of her life putting positivity into the world. Since she was a young girl, Brown has made it her business to visit with the elderly of Mobile. Some of those she spends time with have no other family and no other visitors for months or even years at a time, so Brown has “adopted” them as her own.
A special education teacher by trade, Brown has built a life around loving. She says over and over that her passion is bringing joy to others. “I’ve been doing this for 40-something years, and I’ll just put it like this: I love going. I’ve never had a complaint.” Brown speaks earnestly and laughs easily. It’s no wonder how her smile could be so memorable.
Born in California, Brown came to Mobile with her great-aunt and uncle (“But I call them Mother and Father”) at age 4. While in middle school at Most Pure Heart of Mary Catholic School, she began visiting hospitals and nursing homes with her class. As they grew older, most of her classmates eventually stopped going; she never did. In fact, it never occurred to her to stop. “It was in my system,” she explains. “They needed me to drop by and say, ‘Hi, how are you today?’ It’s something you need to experience for yourself to understand. When you go there, just be aware of being humble, kind and loving.”
This altruism has always come naturally to Brown, but she realizes that may not be the case for everyone. It takes work, she says, to find what service truly calls out to you and instills a fire in your heart. “If you don’t like something, move on to something else. Along the way, you’ll find what you really like. It doesn’t have to be giving money, but just letting people in need know that someone cares for them,” she shares.
Part of Brown’s drive comes from her acknowledgment that many of the people she visits are left forgotten in these homes. In her experience, people don’t like to talk about assisted living or nursing homes. Perhaps, she theorizes, it’s too frightening to think about age creeping up on us, or maybe it’s painful to think of loved ones in that state.
“It breaks your heart sometimes. I try to fill in the gaps and show how much kindness there is in the world.” It’s taught her to not be afraid to live her life because, as she’s learned, “you never know when you’ll breathe your last.”
Brown tears up not long into her reminiscences. She dabs at her eyes frequently, even as she laughs and smiles, recounting all the people she’s met and how they’ve touched her life. The way she tells it, she’ll never stop being the positive source of comfort needed in the lives of the lonely. “They are just like a child with no parents. They need someone to take care of them. And that someone is going to be me!”
Zenzo "Coach Z" Ndlovu
REACHING OUT TO REFUGEES
Running up the field, a teenaged Zenzo Ndlovu dribbles the soccer ball between his bare feet. He dodges opposing players as he makes his way across the dirt. Finally, he lands a powerful strike and turns to celebrate — he scores. Growing up in Zimbabwe, Ndlovu –— fondly known here in Mobile as “Coach Z” — didn’t play soccer with cleats until he was 16 years old. “You talk about no running water, no electricity, walking 15 miles to and from school — that’s 30 miles a day!” he says jovially.
Now, Ndlovu runs a nonprofit soccer league in Mobile called Soccer4Life. His aim? Using the sport to guide and mentor the underprivileged and refugee children living in the city. “We hope to bridge the gap and give kids an opportunity to play soccer and, in the process, have a mentor that teaches life skills,” he shares.
Originally from a small rural village, Ndlovu really got into soccer after moving to a larger city. After high school, he even played semiprofessionally before coming to the United States to play soccer for the University of Mobile. For a few years after that, he conducted soccer camps, both locally and in Zimbabwe. That’s when the idea struck him. “Finally flying back from Zimbabwe, God gave me a name: Soccer4Life. That’s when I had the idea to register this program as a nonprofit and solicit donations and be able reach out to the kids.”
In 2007, he registered Soccer4Life, hosting soccer camps around the area while building his larger vision. Five years later, his first team began playing games in local leagues. In the last four years, his organization has grown from eight players to nearly 120. “My goal is not the [program’s] growth because if you do well, you’re going to grow,” he shares. “I just want to stay focused on the mission and don’t want to compare myself to anybody else. If [other causes or programs are] growing faster, whatever. I just want to be happy doing what I do and make sure that the kids are impacted.”
As a transplant himself, Ndlovu’s largest target audience is Mobile’s refugee population. Families from the Congo, Sudan, Pakistan, Tanzania and other countries have settled in communities around the city. For them, adjusting to a new culture can be a challenge. Ndlovu explains how simple things, such as grocery shopping or how to keep up with homework, can be completely new experiences.
“We’re talking about kids born in makeshift homes whose lives never had any type of structure, so social life is nonexistent,” he continues. “It’s like starting fresh from scratch to teach them basic manners — how to keep stuff clean, keep up the uniforms. It’s not only soccer we’re dealing with.”
He met his first refugee family in 2007 — a Sudanese family of 12 attending his church. Ndlovu introduced himself and, over the next year, grew to be close friends with them. He helped the children with homework and took the parents to the grocery store. Oftentimes, he didn’t return home until midnight after having spent all day with the family. He now sees this as an important part of his journey to bring Soccer4Life into existence: “I got to understand the refugee mind, why they think the way they think. It was a training ground for me. So now it’s easy for me to look at the refugee and understand why they do what they do.”
Ndlovu reaches more than just the kids, too. He works closely with parents to help them adjust to their new home. He explains that, culturally, African parents aren’t heavily involved in their children’s social lives. But since those children are now interacting with American children, the parents have to step up their participation — attend games and practices to support their children. Now, many of those parents coach on his teams. “These guys didn’t know anything about soccer, and now they’ve transformed into championship-winning coaches.”
And he’s not kidding about that. At the time of writing, three of his teams (split into age groups) have advanced to state championships, and the 15-year-old team has won five out of the six games played this season.
“Soccer4Life is like my child. I see myself there. I thought about how nice it would be for a child to have a coach who says, ‘Hey, good job! High five! You did good work.’”
Soccer4Life emphasizes more than just winning on the soccer field. “We care about education,” he says. “We tell them if their grades are bad to stay home and study.” He recounts a story of a parent coming to him to explain that a player wasn’t doing well in school. So Ndlovu spent a week going to classes with the student, sitting beside him throughout the day to help him keep focus. “We’re not worried about them becoming professional soccer players overnight as long as we fulfill our mission, which is the mentoring part.”
Ndlovu sees a lot of himself in his players, and he does what he can to bring smiles to their faces. He keeps a bag of candy in the soccer van (which is often running carpool to bring players to and from practice if their parents can’t) and a backpack full of clean socks in case someone needs a pair. “Because I grew up very poor, I was always that kid on the outside looking in, wishing, hoping. So when I was in a position to do something, I just wanted to make sure that there’s no child left behind.”
PATRON OF THE PETS
While working at one of her community outreach nonprofits, Jenn Greene got the idea for her next one. Downtown at the Delta Bike Project, a fix-it-yourself shop serving Mobile’s in-need population, her dog Charlie garnered a lot of attention. “People would ask me, ‘How did you get your dog to look so healthy? Why is his fur so nice?’ And I just said, ‘I don’t know.’” For Greene, she didn’t think she was doing anything beyond basic veterinary care for her pup: good food, yearly shots and plenty of love.
She thought for a while about why Charlie struck a chord with the Delta Bike Project patrons. How could she help their dogs get what Charlie was getting? Thus, Delta Dogs was born.
At its inception, Delta Dogs focused on providing care to the pets of the homeless in Mobile. In the intervening four years, the organization has helped more dogs and owners than she would have ever envisioned. “We still work with the homeless,” she explains on the front porch of Cream and Sugar in Oakleigh, “but the elderly, disabled, veterans and others in crisis make up about 90 percent of who we help now.” Along with Dr. Jennifer Eiland-Wilder of Ark Animal Clinic (“the Jenns,” Greene jokes early on), Delta Dogs provides medication, vaccinations and education for how to care for many pets (obviously dogs, but they also see plenty of cats, rabbits and more). Greene says they receive about 10 or 15 applications a week, all by word of mouth.
It’s a simple idea — keeping animals healthy for owners without financial means — but it’s still very rare to find a group that focuses on that need. Greene knows of only one other — in Austin, Texas. “And I call them constantly asking for advice,” she adds with a chuckle. “It’s expensive to have a pet, but that doesn’t mean that people in need shouldn’t be allowed to have that support. I can’t imagine not having my dogs or cats.”
Greene says there’s a tendency to point fingers and complain about a problem without offering a solution. In her mind, it’s not anyone’s job to pass judgment. “My dog makes me laugh 100 times a day. We find that for some of our clients, these pets may be the only ‘person’ they see all day. Pets are their companions. So instead of saying, ‘They shouldn’t have that pet,’ I can say, ‘How can I help you?’ They want to care for their pets; they just don’t have the means.”
Delta Dogs also has a larger mission. They’re not a “one and done” stop for random rabies shots or inconsistent checkups. They provide stability and continuity in care, something that can be tough given the circumstances but is worth it. Seeing their clients — furry and non — every year or twice a year also means they get to teach people how to properly care for their animals. Take heartworms, for instance. Someone who had never been to a vet before may not even know that heartworms are a problem or how to prevent them. “With just a little care and investment from us, the pets are completely fine,” Greene shares.
In addition, she hopes that Mobile may join other cities across the nation, including Montgomery, to put common sense spay-and-neuter laws in place. “Shelters are full and overflowing every day, and part of that is because we don’t have a spay-and-neuter law in our community. We do what we can to help the animals that are here, but we won’t make any progress until the laws are updated.” As she says, it’s bad for everyone. Animals live short, painful lives without the care they need, and unwanted or nuisance animals hurt communities, particularly communities in poverty.
Delta Dogs also partners with Animal Rescue Foundation as well as Eagle’s Landing, a transitional housing community for veterans. Many of the residents there have PTSD. This is where Greene and Eiland-Wilder come into the picture, providing veterinary care to the veterans’ emotional support animals. "We have pit bulls, labs, even a husky [that we work with]. I love working with Eagle’s Landing because I feel like that’s where Delta Dogs can play a very hopeful role in the community.”
Oftentimes, Delta Dogs meets people in the worst situations of their lives. “When you have someone who’s in crisis, you want to help them as much as you can. You get personally invested in every person because you hear the stories, and every person living below the poverty line has a story. We’re just a tiny piece to the solution.”
The biggest lesson Greene has learned? Most people are unified through animals. “I thought we were going to get more negative feedback because of preconceived notions about who should have a pet, but we’ve found it to be the opposite,” she says. “People identify with our mission, they understand what their own pets mean to them.”
And Greene hopes Delta Dogs continues to grow and change. Greene and Eiland dream of one day providing temporary housing to board pets of women and families in crisis, all while gathering more support to reach more people in need.
“That’s one cool thing about Mobile: You can come here, and if you want to invest and engage yourself in making the community better, you can do that. There are a lot of people doing that. And with Delta Bike Project and Delta Dogs, we’re doing that, too.”
SANTA WITH A BADGE
Sirens blasting through a neighborhood isn’t typically cause for celebration. But as blue and red flash across front lawns and people emerge from their homes to see what’s going on, there’s another sound emanating from the police cruiser’s loudspeakers: “Here Comes Santa Claus.”
It’s December 2015, and Joshua Jones and a few partners have a surprise in store: a trunk full of toys they’re ready to hand out. “After we gave the gifts, we played flag football with them for two hours, and the kids all loved it! That ball that we just gave them, we’re playing football with. It was cool,” Jones says.
Just a few weeks prior to that day, Jones and the criminal apprehension team arrested a man in this neighborhood. As they were leaving, he noticed a child in the house — the man’s younger brother. “I decided that I wanted to go back and reassure that child that it was going to be okay,” Jones shares nearly two years later. “This happened the first week of Christmas break. So my partners and I went to Dollar General, bought some toys and returned to the neighborhood.” Thus, Mobile’s Santa with a Badge was born.
Originally from San Antonio, Texas, Jones joined the Mobile Police Department in 2012 soon after graduating from the University of South Alabama. Even before playing “Jingle Bells” through his cruiser’s loudspeakers and handing out gifts, he searched for ways to reach out to the communities he served.
“I grew up without a father as the only boy with my mom and three sisters. I had to grow up fast, and I missed out on a lot of aspects of childhood,” Jones says. “I see a lot of those trends in the areas that we serve. For me, it’s always been about building that bridge for those children to know their current circumstances don’t have to be their lifelong circumstances.”
Santa With a Badge, then, is truly part of a larger goal to show Mobile and the people he polices that he’s actually more than the badge — he’s a human, and he cares. “People hate police. It’s just a reality. We’ll always be looked at as the villain, even though we’re supposed to be the heroes.” Jones says this matter-of-factly, no anger or bitterness in his voice. He understands how people come to believe that, particularly when young children watch him arrest their parents, siblings or friends. But it’s important, he says, to break that perception. “You have to create these positive interactions with the kids so they can see we’re human. And eventually it’s no longer Officer Jones, it’s Mr. Jones.” He says the kids are more likely to come to him for help or advice that way. “We’re not just there to destroy their families. We care.”
“The greatest investment we can put into them is time,” Jones says. “Money is fine, but if a child sees that you’re willing to spend the time to get to know his issues and help them become better, he’s more likely to respond to that than the money. Because money is disposable. Time, they’ll remember that forever.” He shares a story of visiting one of the men he used to mentor. That boy now plays college football, and Jones decided to stop by a game. Jones has a soft smile as he recounts the experience. “When he saw me, he ran past his parents and came over to hug me and pick me up. This is a big guy, now,” he says, chuckling. “He was so tall, I looked up and told him that he should be mentoring me now. He will never forget the times we spent together, the time I spent fussing at him, encouraging him, coaching him. I never had to spend a dime to do that.”
In addition, Jones is also part of the mayor’s executive protection team and a member of the National Guard. He’s organized a “push-up team” for Senior Bowl, where National Guard members who’ve never been to college get to participate in game day activities with ROTC members of the school.
Each year since 2015, Santa with a Badge has grown. As he’s shared the idea with the city, he’s been met with overwhelming support and donations of toys, even from outside Mobile. (He’s even received donations from California!) Unlike some of the national organizations, Jones thinks people appreciate being able to see where their donations are going to help children right here in Mobile. They were able to distribute more than 400 gifts last year.
And this year, he’s hoping for the biggest event yet. “This year, I want to be able to pull into those neighborhoods in a U-Haul truck!” he says with excitement. He explains that donation bins are set up in all Mobile police precincts, including Mobile police headquarters, for anyone to drop off toys for donation.
In the end, the toys aren’t even the most important part of what Jones is looking to accomplish; it’s merely a tool. His larger vision means creating lasting bonds and positive memories with the citizens of Mobile and helping the youth take control of their futures. And that’s something you can’t do from the outside.
“When we say ‘Protect and Serve,’ a lot of times, the service aspect is only being covered by the patrolling. But that’s not it. Serving is getting into your communities and helping the folks change the way they live, the way they see their community and themselves. You can’t have protect and serve without either part. You have to put them together.”
FOCUS ON VETERANS
Yellow ribbons wrapped around trees. American flags flying on front lawns. “We support the troops” bumper stickers spotted around town. Signs of support for the men and women who fight for the United States aren’t hidden from view. For John Kilpatrick, however, one incredibly important support component is much harder to find: mental health recovery resources.
“Last January, the Community Foundation of South Alabama published their Veterans Needs Assessment, which reports there are more than 64,000 veterans in south Alabama and that 50 percent of them report having had some sort of mental health issue,” Kilpatrick shares.
Where many see numbers on paper, Kilpatrick sees the individuals they represent and the collective struggle they face. He knows it because it’s a struggle he’s faced himself. Having enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve in 1986 and in the National Guard in 1998, Kilpatrick built a career in the Armed Forces. Currently a lieutenant colonel in the Army reserve and Commander of the 7223rd Medical Support Unit, Kilpatrick returned from his most recent deployment to Kuwait in February 2016.
And in 2016, Kilpatrick and a team of other veterans came together to create Veterans Recovery Resources, a nonprofit geared specifically to connecting veterans so they can help each other through the often difficult reintegration to normal life after deployment.
During the late 1990s, Kilpatrick found making those connections without help almost impossible. In 2009, he again noticed this discrepancy while working at the Pentagon. “I was assigned to write the order to expand the Army’s confidential alcohol treatment program,” he shares. “The idea was that a soldier could self-report a drinking problem and get help without affecting his or her career. The problem was it only addressed the clinical needs and did nothing to establish that connection with others in recovery. That was the spark that really made me realize the need to connect service members and veterans in recovery.”
VRR is an organization for veterans, by veterans. Because of that, they are uniquely equipped to face this challenge head on. They recognize that recovery encompasses a wide variety of struggles, which can range from severe PTSD, depression or social isolation to alcohol and substance abuse or even suicidal thoughts. Through coming together and connecting with others who have been there, Kilpatrick believes, getting better becomes a less daunting journey. He points out that most large-scale recovery programs involve some element of fellowship.
“To get sober is one thing, and that happens in a clinical environment, but to stay sober you really have to change your whole life,” Kilpatrick explains. “You have to change everything, and it’s difficult to do without a support system and without a community of folks helping and supporting you in your recovery.”
And the best people to prop you up in times of need, he says, are those who’ve been there. He adds, “When you are in the throes of addiction or in a mental health crisis, you feel ashamed and isolated, but we are never alone. There is always hope, and our worst experiences will become our greatest source of strength once we work through them.”
Getting this network off the ground takes money, but Kilpatrick has a plan. Veteran Recovery Resources received a $2,000 grant from the University of Alabama. Plus, as of this printing, Kilpatrick and Veterans Recovery Resources are in the middle of their capital campaign. They’re looking to raise $1.5 million to build a treatment facility in Mobile for veterans., and they’re a third of the way to their goal.
After this initial infusion, the organization will be completely financially self-sufficient. VRR will provide outpatient and residential services as well as support to lead healthy, productive lifestyles within the community.
“We are focused on those veterans, service members and first responders for whom a residential intervention is needed,” he shares. “The VA has just 20 beds available in Biloxi; there are none in Mobile even though we have a higher concentration of veterans.”
VRR has the potential to impact many lives on the Gulf Coast, but Kilpatrick shies away from the word “legacy,” instantly turning the focus back to his organization. “We’re looking to create not just a place to recover but a place to work that’s grounded in recovery in the way we treat our employees, donors, volunteers. We want every aspect of the organization to be grounded in recovery.”
Beyond the peer-to-peer network he’s aiming to create, their plan also focuses on getting veterans in recovery out into the community, working jobs, volunteering — doing all the things healthy people do in life. “The best gauge of success is how big our fellowship becomes. When we’ve got hundreds of veterans living in the Gulf Coast area connected through this common goal of recovery, I think that will be a mark of our success.”