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.

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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!


Day 32: Stopping to Smell the Roses

I’m nearing the end of my long, literary journey, having driven more than 2,500 miles to date, from West Virginia to Arizona, and complete strangers have turned into new friends, as I stop and smell the roses – both literally and figuratively. The roses, you see, are the people I meet along the way. Each one unique, with his own fragrance or other gift of beauty.

Like Mandy (not her real name), a single mother of three who did what I did when her children were in danger: she took them and ran. But to do this, Mandy had to give up an excellent job. Although she’s since found another one in Pascagoula, Mississippi, her situation isn’t ideal. And her take-home pay isn’t enough to live on. So she and her brood currently live in a shelter. Not ideal circumstances. Not by a long shot. This woman is not only lovely inside and out, she is kind and smart and clearly a good parent. I met her when I stopped for the night in Mississippi. Even though she was at work, she didn’t have a babysitter so her children were with her. Undeterred and determined to provide for them, she went about her duties while they looked after themselves, until the middle child came up and politely interrupted us.

“I need a time out,” he said, after admitting what he’d done to one of his siblings.

I believe you can tell a large measure about a parent by her child, and that blew me away. How many children honestly admit their mistakes – and ask for discipline? I observed Mandy’s kids while they were there and found them to be quiet, well-behaved and very respectful. Clearly their mother has done a remarkable job. In fact, other guests were enjoying their company, too. Immensely.

But I was taken back in time to 1988, when I covered my first homeless story. Then, a woman and her daughter were living in the mother’s car, after also escaping an abusive relationship. It dawned on me then how dangerous it is for homeless children, whose parents may have to leave them inside a vehicle while they go on job interviews, or who are trapped inside a shelter and often targeted by homeless predators. Those dangers are above and beyond the daily psychological and emotional stressors, of not having your own home to go to. Of not having a routine, or a safe place where you can simply be yourself.

That first story taught me something, so since then I’ve given away my leftover (and utterly too large) restaurant portions to the homeless, and tried to help them in other ways. I know that the biggest percentage of homeless people are themselves either runaways, military vets, or mentally ill. Some of these folks also have addiction issues, often self-medicating to try and relieve their pain. This is yet another danger for the children exposed to these problems.

I’ve also been homeless myself, for a couple of brief moments in my life, but never to the point where I had to rely on a public agency for temporary housing. I was fortunate, because friends and family came to my aid. Mandy? Not so much. Like many women who protect their children when abuse comes into play, her family turned its back on her. Thought she was crazy to go to such lengths to keep her little ones safe.

There is a very long waiting list for Section 8 housing, which is all Mandy can afford, so I’d like to ask for anyone reading this who knows someone in the Pasmagoula area to reach out and help me find Mandy and her children a nice, safe home. So they don’t have to continue living in a shelter, which is not conducive to safety or good health – especially for little ones. You can contact me directly, using Facebook or Twitter or my contact info.

I believe people naturally want to help others. They just have to know when a need exists, and what they can do to help. I believe no one wants to let a hard-working mother like Mandy and her three little ones live in a shelter, so let’s help them.

We can do this!

Note: The photos accompanying this blog were taken on the road, at coffee shops or rest stops, or simply (and safely) while in traffic. Next time, I’ll share some of the stories – and more beautiful scenery, captured with my iPhone – during my visit to the Cochiti Reservation and Santa Fe, New Mexico. If you’d like to guess where I’m going next, and why, I’m hosting a contest at my Facebook group page.

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My seventh book, Shatter the Silence, a love story and the long-awaited sequel to my first memoir was released May 7. 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. Prior to those two books, Guilt by Matrimony was released last November. It’s about the murder of Aspen socialite Nancy Pfister.

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) and Pretty Little Killers , released July 8, 2014, and featured in the August 18, 2014, issue of People Magazine.

You can find these books either online or in print at a bookstore near you, at 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!