They came to the aid of a neighbor in need, they strengthened their communities through acts of kindness, and they showed us all what it means to Live Mutual.
The Unsung heroes featured by MassMutual in 2017 were but a cross-section of the millions who roll up their sleeves in the service of others every day. Among those highlighted were the:
- Texas woman who took in a homeless man .
- Lunch club started by high school students to ensure that none of their peers ate alone.
- Biker group that escorted a bullied boy to his first day of middle school.
They say they’re not heroes, and that they merely came forward to answer a call. We say, that’s what a hero is. Three years later, we circled back to see where they are today. Not surprisingly, they continue to inspire and lead by example.
From homeless to self-sufficient
Texas chef Ginger Sprouse changed the course of a homeless man’s future — and gained a best friend —when she rolled down her window to ask why he stood on the street corner every day. She learned his name was Victor and that he waited there every day, rain or shine, for his mother to drive by. He told her about his challenge with mental illness and that his mother had left him, but sometimes stopped to visit him on the corner when she could.
“Because he couldn’t find her, he just wanted to be there to let her know that he was OK,” recalled Sprouse. “I just thought that was so beautiful.”
Sprouse started a Facebook fan page to help get Victor off the streets, sharing his story with the community, which rallied to help. She helped him get the mental health care and prescription medication he needed, and she hired him to help out in her kitchen. Eventually, she invited him to move in with her family, even building him a separate house in her yard so he could learn to live independently.
A lot has changed since 2017. Victor now lives with a roommate in a historic home in town; he rides his bike to work at Burger King, where he works full time; and he is financially self-sufficient. Sprouse said that they still talk on the phone daily. She takes him to appointments, including haircuts, and they remain as close as family.
“He’s my best friend,” she said simply.
Pictured: Sprouse and Victor. Both pictured with community friends above.
Sprouse also signed a book deal with a major New York publishing house to share their story. The book, called “Kinda Like Grace: A Homeless Man, a Broken Woman, and the Decision That Made Them Family,” has been a success. (The title was taken from a TV interview that Victor once did, in which he summarized his relationship with Ginger as “kinda like grace.”) Sprouse initially rejected the idea of writing the book, but with prompting from the publishers, finally agreed. The terms of her contract? All proceeds are being used to build a house for another homeless person.
The lunch club goes virtual
What do you do when a global pandemic forces We Dine Together (a high school lunch club that has become a safe haven for hundreds of students who might otherwise eat alone) to push pause?
You go virtual, of course.
Taking the We Dine Together model to the next level, students from several Boca Raton, Florida, high schools, including Shea Whitacre, created the Corona Can’t website to help students stay connected while social distancing. Teacher Jordan Hernandez, who co-founded the We Dine Together club in his classroom, said the digital platform has been hugely successful for both parents and students. It was even recognized by Oprah Winfrey and highlighted by the leading social media platforms.
So far, Corona Can’t has organized teacher-student cook-offs (Hernandez said he lost), group workouts with a personal trainer, and free podcasts with immigration attorneys on how to apply for college financial aid while going through the green card process (a helpful resource in a school district with a large immigrant population). It has also offered question-and-answer sessions with college advisors and invited mental health specialists to speak about managing anxiety and depression while social distancing measures remain in place.
“At one point, the website was getting so much traction that it broke down for a short while, but it’s been a fun ride,” said Hernandez. “It’s still totally student run. Community leaders are being proactive in reaching out to deliver content to Corona Can’t. The mission is really helping students develop a sound mind and body.”
Pictured: Members of the We Dine Together Lunch Club.
As for the We Dine Together lunch club, that, too, has taken off. Since 2017, the club has grown from roughly 50 students meeting in a classroom once a week, to 300 students who not only eat lunch together, but also attend after-school activities daily.
“At Boca Raton High, we’re so big now that we’ve had to break up into different rooms,” said Hernandez, noting that they now have local business sponsors who donate lunches. With help from local volunteers, the after-school programs now include free fitness classes from personal trainers and SAT/ACT tutoring.
The We Dine Together model has been replicated in virtually every state, and even abroad, with a club in the Wales region of the United Kingdom.
“We get to watch videos of the principal and students there giving each other support, which is really great,” said Hernandez. “Plus, my kids love to hear that Welsh accent.”
The bullied boy and the bikers
Phil Mick will never forget rolling up to his first day of middle school on the back of a Harley Davidson motorcycle, nor the escort he received from dozens of local bikers. The windows of his school building literally shook—and making noise was just the point.
The motorcade that day was led by local activist Brent Warfield, owner of KDZ Motorcycle Sales & Service in Auburn, Indiana, who had heard that Phil had been ridiculed and even physically attacked by other students during elementary school. He sent a message out to the local biker community, indicating that he planned to drive Phil to his first day of school and invited others to join. More than 50 bikers showed up that morning to send Phil off to school with a message of solidarity and a morning prayer.
Years later, Phil says he still keeps the helmet they gave him that day on his shelf, and wants to own a Harley one day like his hero, Brent. Phil and his mother decided to home-school going forward, but he still stays active with friends and his community through his football team, the 4H club, and his church. He stops in to visit Brent at his shop once a month.
For his part, Warfield continues to fight for children who have been bullied or abused, working with state lawmakers to draft anti-bullying legislation. He also acts as a liaison between school administrators and the families of children who are being targeted at school. If the administrators don’t resolve the matter promptly, he said, he brings in the motorcade (and news cameras) to elicit a better response.
Pictured: Phil and members of the biker club.
Phil still waves whenever he sees the biker club drive by. “We see them all the time,” said Tammy, Phil’s mother. “We’ll be out in public and one of the guys who did the ride will see us and come up and give us a big hug. You would not believe the people who look at us, like ‘You know the bikers?’ Some people even back away, and we just giggle. We’re like, ‘Oh yeah. They’re our family.’”
The ripple effect of kindness
MassMutual salutes the unsung heroes across the country whose selfless deeds create a ripple effect around them. They strengthen their communities, change lives, and remind us all that, although we remain socially distanced in the midst of a pandemic, we will always be … better together.
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