Memphis panhandler attracts big hearted givers | Community Spirit
Do you look at the beggars on Memphis street corners or do you avert your eyes? Yes, some are crack heads trying to hustle for the next rock or alcoholics trying to rustle up some cash for the ten thousandth trip to oblivion. But others are people that just need a break.
Last week, Tom Lewis took a look at a panhandler working the concrete median at busy Park Ave. and Ridgeway while driving by. Tom kept on driving. The big, bearded bear of a man says he made it about a mile before the heart tugging condition of the pauper turned him around.
“His walk had an unusual gait and he had a deformity,” Lewis said, “so I had to go back and learn this man’s story.”
The panhandler, Carl Brown, Jr. had a motorcycle accident after graduating from a Memphis high school in 2003. He wasn’t wearing a helmet. The crash bashed in Carl’s head. The resulting damage is profound. A portion of his frontal lobe is missing. If you look from a certain angle, you can see where Carl’s head met the curb.
“My head was this big,” Carl motioned his arms as wide as they would go.
Carl lapsed into a coma after the accident, and awakened only to undergo what has become a grand total of some thirty surgeries over the years at The Med. The crash also shattered Carl’s ankle, creating a walking style that demands a Quasimodo level limp. The fact that Carl is alive today speaks volumes about the expertise of doctors at the Med’s Trauma Center.
Carl eventually moved in with his mother, but she was unable to take care of him. So she dropped him off at Downtown’s Memphis Union Mission in 2004. Carl stayed a few months and eventually began living under a bridge on Madison Ave. He’s been there for months, surfacing by day to beg for enough money to eat.
Intrigued by Carl’s story, Tom Lewis went and bought lunch. As the pair dined while perched on the back of Lewis’ pick-up parked on the concrete median on Ridgeway near Park Avenue, Tom asked Carl what he wanted to do.
“I want to find my father in Seattle and go home," he replied.
Carl’s parents are divorced; his mother lives in Memphis and father resides in Washington State. Even if they came up with money for a plane ticket to Seattle, Tom reminded Carl that he couldn’t board an airplane without a photo ID. Still skeptical, Tom pressed Carl for his father’s phone number. Carl said he thought his grandmother in South Memphis would have his dad’s number. He thought his photo ID was tucked away in a family Bible. Carl is a man of faith.
“God is my best friend. I know I am going to be OK,” Tom said Carl told him during their lunch on the back of the pick-up.
Tom put Carl in his truck and drove to meet Carl’s grandmother in South Memphis. The beggar’s story panned out. Tom called Carl’s father and confirmed the chronicle of unfortunate events of Carl’s young life. Tom then brought Carl home to meet his wife, the noted ophthalmologist, Dr. Cathy Schanzer. The good doctor refused to allow Carl to return to the streets. The once homeless man stayed with the couple who treated Carl to a Mississippi River ride on their boat and then carried him to a corporate suite party at AutoZone Park for the Redbird’s game on Saturday night, August 13th.
The next morning, the trio appeared at St. Patrick Church for Mass. When the pastor welcomed first time visitors and offered each an opportunity for introduction, Tom told the congregation the abbreviated version of Carl’s story. Then Tom announced that in order to help fly Carl to Seattle, he’d be panhandling with his new friend on Monday at Park and Ridgeway.
Instantly, Carl was overcome with emotion. He used his t-shirt to dab a gush of tears rolling down his face. “These people are so good,” Carl said. Some parishioners embraced Carl. Father Tim Sullivan, St. Patrick’s pastor, decided to collect a second offering for Carl’s journey home. The faithful donated $338. Tom took Carl back to his East Memphis home and made signs that read, “Send Carl to Seattle.”
Tom started sending e-mail messages to friends, announcing that he’d be panhandling alongside Carl on Monday, August 14th at Park and Ridgeway. They held the signs aloft on Monday as Cathy and Tom’s friends and perfect strangers responded to the appeal. “The average donation was $20, I guess,” Tom said.
In just three hours, they had collected $1,665. Tom and Cathy bought a plane ticket, and on Tuesday morning, August 16th, they drove Carl to Memphis International Airport with a check for a grand total of $2528.20 to begin his new life. His father said he’d open an account for the money and take care of his son.
“He is so excited,” Tom wrote about Carl in his latest e-mail. “He also says thank you." Tom and Cathy even connected with the offices of a Memphis priest who is now the Catholic Archbishop of Seattle, J. Peter Sartain. The hope is that Catholic Charities in Seattle might find a job for Carl.
Has Tom Lewis uncovered a key to solving homelessness in Memphis? “I don’t feel like what I did was complicated at all,” Tom said.
“It wasn’t hard to connect those dots. There’s got to be a story with each of these guys,” Tom Lewis said in reference to those who call the streets home.
Tom Lewis and Dr. Cathy Schanzer have a long history of helping the down and out. They’re Memphis based medical missionaries, having served in Nigeria, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique. But their most significant medical missions have taken place in the African country of Sierra Leone. The pair made annual trips to Africa starting in 1988 and stepped up their efforts in 2006 with twice a year missions to a remote village called Serabu, Sierra Leone. They opened a permanent eye clinic there and founded a charitable foundation called Southern Eye Institute (www.southerneyeinstitute.org) to fund their missionary efforts. They’ve opened eight outreach clinics and employ 17 people full time. Dr. Schanzer’s surgery schedule is packed on their bi-annual visits.
Tom Lewis and Dr. Cathy Schanzer prove that genuine compassion united with an investment of a little time and effort can change a life in dramatic ways. We don't know exactly what will happen to Carl Brown, Jr., but the generous spirit that sent Carl's life on a new trajectory shows what can happen when a passing stranger doesn't avert their eyes and takes a look at the less fortunate in our midst.