A Wheelchair for John

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — One month later, John has a new set of wheels. The motorized wheelchair, a gift from a local woman who knows exactly how essential such a chair is, has given John back his freedom.

I met John four weeks ago on a snowy Sunday, at the intersection of Route 119 and the Exit 1 off-ramp for Interstate 68. Mine was the second car to stop at the traffic light, which had turned red. That position placed me right beside a man in a wheelchair, asking for donations. When I saw he had a disability—one which could cow even the strongest of individuals—my heart went out to him.

John, you see, has no legs, and only one arm. But he has a smile that will melt your heart, and not one ounce of self-pity.

I couldn’t drive away without giving him something. Without any cash, I offered him the only thing in my car worth having: a leftover cinnamon roll from a nearby Cinnabon. We introduced ourselves and John gratefully accepted my meager gift. But as I reached out the window to hand him the boxed dessert, John dropped it. I watched as he tried using his club hand to pick it up, insisting he could do it.

He couldn’t. Torn between heartbreak and not wanting him to feel helpless, I finally opened my car door. Before I could get out, though, the driver in front of me ran toward us. He picked up the box, and then handed John some cash.

During that brief minute or two, I asked John if he received help from our local social services. That’s how I learned he needed a new wheelchair. His electric chair broke, and he was using a manual one that he could barely maneuver on his own.

When the light turned green I drove away, in my warm, dry car. Wearing nice clothes, my belly full. All I could think of was how cold and snowy it was, how light John’s clothing was, and how much he struggled to accomplish such a simple task. A task that, for most of us, would be as mindless as taking our next breath.

I wanted to reach out to other people, to tell them about John’s plight. Before I even changed out of my dress clothes, I posted John’s story on Facebook. “So, since this is supposed to be the season for giving, if you can, please do. After all, it’s Sunday. And it’s really cold outside,” I posted.

Within minutes, several people commented. They wanted to know if he was homeless. Another woman from Clarksburg, about 45 minutes away, was ready to drive here with a wheelchair for John. The only problem was, it was a manual chair, too. By the time we figured that out, I had driven back to the intersection, where I learned that John wasn’t homeless. In fact, he just obtained housing. I took his phone number and promised to help him find a working electric wheelchair.

That happened today, when Tammy Belldina from Rainbow Tire, over in Preston County, finally met John, when she gave him his “new” electric chair. This chair, however, isn’t just another mode of transportation. It’s John’s legs.

Tammy and I, fellow Prestonians, have been working together for weeks now, trying to make this happen. Tammy has a heart as big as Texas. Which is why she insisted on buying a new $200 battery for the chair—so John wouldn’t have to. (Most of us wouldn’t know how expensive such equipment is; Tammy told me these chairs can cost $5,000 or more.)

Along the way, we’ve both gotten to John better. I learned that he knows how to, and can even drive, a vehicle. In the past, he’s held down various jobs. One year ago, though, his other arm was amputated due to blood clots—the same thing that happened to both his legs. I can’t go into details, but John has what seems like a good medical malpractice case, and I hope we can find a good attorney for him.

Meanwhile, Tammy suggested we begin a fundraiser of sorts. That fundraiser begins right now. John supports his family of three (including his daughter) on less money per month than I live on myself. We’re asking you to send him checks or even gift cards that will help him purchase some essentials for his family.

Tammy has a special request. “Let’s make sure that little girl gets some Christmas presents, and John has some warm clothes to wear,” she said.

I’m personally asking you to help John because, for the last month, he’s helped me. He’s given me a reason to focus on someone other than myself and my own problems. Problems that include the death of a spouse and a lost daughter. After a year away from my typewriter, I’m 5,000 words into the trilogy that began with Sister of Silence.

Jesus Christ was right: there is more happiness in giving than there is in receiving. Helping John has helped me. Plus, as Steve Maraboli says, “a kind gesture can reach a wound that only compassion can heal.” Who knew, that in giving a stranger some leftover food, I would be the one who was healed?

If you can spare a few dollars to help, I will be indebted to you. Please send any donations to: “Daleen Berry, in care of Friends of John,” Citizens Bank, 265 High Street, Morgantown, WV 26508. I will personally see that John gets every penny, and acknowledges your gift.

After all, ‘tis the season.

* * * * *


Dear Readers,

My seventh book, Shatter the Silence, a love story and the long-awaited sequel to my memoir was released May 2016. That’s on the heels of Tales of the Vintage Berry Wine Gang, a collection of my newspaper columns from 1988-91, which came out in April 2016.

For an in-depth look at the damaging effects of the silence that surrounds abuse, please watch my live TEDx talk, given April 13, 2013, at Connecticut College.

Have a great day and remember, it’s whatever you want to make it!

~Daleen

Cleveland Case Shocks World, Shows Dire Need for Amber Alert Changes

Ohio isn’t the only place full of stunned people today. The world joins them after learning that three missing girls—each gone for about 10 years—were found alive in a Cleveland neighborhood Monday.

Before I outline why we’re so happy and simultaneously repelled, let me just say this to the three girls who have now become women, in a manner no child ought to. You aren’t alone. Not by a long shot. And you have nothing to be ashamed of. Your value doesn’t come from what has been done to you—it comes from who you are inside. That’s not an easy lesson to learn after 10 years in captivity, but it’s the single most valuable lesson that will determine how your future unfolds.

Skylar Neese

For the rest of us, those of us who have lived beside or walked down the street past boarded-up houses where we wondered about the sanity of the person inside, please remember this: the next time you hear cries for help or think your eyes are playing tricks on you, do your civic duty like the good folks in Cleveland did. Call 911. If they don’t respond, keep calling.

Don’t ignore that little voice inside you that says something is wrong. It’s called intuition and it’s there for a reason—to warn you when danger is nearby. When the police do show up, don’t just stay inside and hide behind the curtains, either. Step outside and tell them exactly what you know. Being dispatched to a call by a 911 operator is much different than looking into the eyes of someone who has seen humans being treated worse than animals.

Thankfully, there are many wonderful and incredible highlights to this story. Among them, a courageous Amanda Berry (no relation to me that I know of) has enough presence of mind and fortitude to scream for help. A Good Samaritan then helps Berry claw her way to freedom. He does this by kicking down the door to the house where she, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight have been held hostage in cruel and inhumane conditions.

A little girl, obviously the offspring of one of the kidnapped and raped women, comes out with Berry. She, too, has been held against her will, making for a fourth kidnap victim. We learned she was at least permitted to leave her temporary prison at 2210 Seymour Avenue, going to the park with one of her captors on occasion. We’ve since learned this child is Berry’s daughter, born six years ago. You don’t have to be a math major to figure that one out. (In another ironic twist, to me at least, the little girl’s name is Jocelyn—and the name of one of my daughters.)

What is most appalling to me is what these men—these animals who comprise the brothers Castro—did to these three women’s unborn babies. They said they were beaten so badly that five other conceptions ended in miscarriage. That in itself is bad enough. But going without medical care after a miscarriage can lead to infection or worse, hemorrhage. Equally troubling—and because of my past experience, this is my biggest concern—is the psychological damage these women have suffered.

Then there is Charles Ramsey, the Good Samitarian whose heroism and candor have earned him a spot on every early morning news show in America. Somebody get that man a limo and a tux—since he clearly knows what to do when he sees evidence that simply doesn’t look right.

Unlike the Cleveland police, who summarily dismissed, ignored or simply didn’t respond to repeated calls for help about the strange happenings inside this domestic prison. Happenings like nude women on dog leashes, crawling in the dirt on all fours outside in Castro’s backyard. That’s the most grievous evidence they overlooked, but it certainly isn’t the only thing. The neighbors who reported that, though, said Cleveland cops didn’t even bother showing up to investigate. (Although police did show up at the bus driver’s house on other occasions when they were called. If you can call knocking on the front door and walking around the side of the house an investigation.)

Then there is the as-yet-underreported piece of this story: the Amber Alert that didn’t happen. At least not for Gina. According to the Associated Press, because no one saw her being abducted in 2004, the police wouldn’t issue the alert. (Gina simply didn’t come home from school.) The girl’s father, Felix DeJesus, was told “the alerts must be reserved for cases in which danger is imminent and the public can be of help in locating the suspect and child.”

Felix DeJesus has since said people “will listen even if the alerts become routine.” And of course they will. When a child goes missing, the world stops. Everyone who isn’t psychotic knows what a missing child means—and why it’s crucial to drop everything and begin looking.

“The Amber Alert should work for any missing child,” Felix DeJesus said in 2006. That’s regardless of why they’re missing.

Sadly, Gina is not alone. Right here in Morgantown, W.Va., we have a family who wasn’t so fortunate when their daughter came up missing last July. Skylar Neese’s body was found in January. Last week two of her closest friends, girls who are Skylar’s age—she was 16 when she disappeared—were charged with fatally stabbing her.

Ever since their daughter disappeared, Skylar’s parents have fought to see the bill they got passed during this year’s session of the State Legislature become law. Skylar’s Law would force West Virginia police to report possible abductions here early on—using an Amber Alert to do so.

This is how the bill currently reads: “Skylar’s Law will require law enforcement agencies to report a suspected abduction or missing child to the Amber Alert authorities in the initial stages of investigation to facilitate their safe return.”

Now all Dave and Mary Neese are waiting for is Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s signature. And in cases where the last thing on a child’s mind is to run away, it’s clear this proposed law could make a huge difference when that child goes missing.

It’s the difference between coming home alive and well—or returning scarred from 10 years of sadistic violence you’ll never forget. 

* * * *

My next book, Guilt by Matrimony, about the murder of Aspen socialite, Nancy Pfister, comes out November 17. My memoir, Sister of Silence, is about surviving domestic violence and how journalism helped free me; Cheatin’ Ain’t Easy, now in ebook format, is about the life of Preston County native, Eloise Morgan Milne; The Savage Murder of Skylar Neese (a New York Times bestseller, with coauthor Geoff Fuller) and Pretty Little Killers (also with Fuller), released July 8, 2014, and featured in the August 18 issue of People Magazine.

You can find these books either online or in print at a bookstore near you, at BenBella Books, Nellie Bly Books, Amazon, on iTunes and Barnes and Noble.

For an in-depth look at the damaging effects of the silence that surrounds abuse, please watch my live TEDx talk, given April 13, 2013, at Connecticut College.

Have a great day and remember, it’s whatever you want to make it!

~Daleen

Editor’s Note: Daleen Berry is a New York Times best-selling author and a recipient of the Pearl Buck Award in Writing for Social Change. She has won several other awards, for investigative journalism and her weekly newspaper columns, and her memoir, Sister of Silence, placed first in the West Virginia Writers’ Competition. Ms. Berry speaks about overcoming abuse through awareness, empowerment and goal attainment at conferences around the country. To read an excerpt of her memoir, please go to the Sister of Silence site. Check out the five-star review from ForeWord Reviews. Or find out why Kirkus Reviews called Ms. Berry “an engaging writer, her style fluid and easy to read, with welcome touches of humor and sustained tension throughout.”