Promising Futures


How did I find myself in this room? Surrounded by artificial light, beeping machines, and whirring ventilation systems, with my tiny daughter, whom I’m not allowed to hold, in a plastic box hooked up to at least a dozen tubes and wires. Elizabeth should be here with me, but she’s still recovering from giving birth to Ruby on another floor of the hospital. I look down at the dirt under my fingernails, dirt that doesn’t come off despite the dozens of times I’ve washed my hands in the past few hours alone. I look up and see a single speck of dust floating through the blue light. I watch that speck float gently through the empty air, and I think about all the dirt, all the life, and all the dreams that are part of our lives no more.

Three years earlier Elizabeth and I had gotten married. We had been committed partners to each other for years, but when we decided to follow through on our dream to start a farm, we decided to get married to make that commitment concrete to ourselves and the world. We were married on the front porch of her parents’ home in rural Springhill, Arkansas. Our gift registry included farming tools. The meal was prepared by friends using ingredients grown by Arkansas farmers. It was a celebration of a very specific dream. Newly married, we set out to find a place to grow flowers and organic vegetables, and found one in an idyllic but very remote spot of land nestled in the forest along the bluffs of the Buffalo River. The nearest town was Snowball, but our farm was a 30-minute drive down dirt roads from there. We worked long, dirty days, planting seeds, building hoop houses, laying irrigation, spreading mulch, and then harvesting, washing vegetables, making bouquets, loading the truck, and taking our produce to market in North Little Rock, two-and-a-half hours away. In our spare time we would go on long hikes down the Buffalo River Trail, go swimming in the river, or find one of the hidden waterfalls in the forest. We were living a dream we had set for ourselves. Everything we planted was growing. Everything we grew was selling. We were happy, hard-working, at peace, and in love. When we found out we were pregnant it felt like the most natural thing in the world. It hadn’t been part of the plan, but we were thrilled, and this child would be just one more seed for us to nurture. We would take turns carrying the baby on our backs as we worked the fields. As our child grew, she would play in the gardens, swim in the river, get lost in the forest, and make her way back with stories of adventure to tell.

On a rainy Memorial Day weekend in 2009, Elizabeth, 24 weeks pregnant and barely showing, had a few shooting pains, then a few more, then enough for us to take a long drive to the Harrison hospital. To my absolute surprise and shock, the doctor told us Elizabeth was in labor and needed to quickly get to a more advanced hospital in Little Rock, three hours away, to have a chance of saving the baby. Twenty-four, gut-wrenching hours later, I found myself in that room, staring at that speck of dust. Powerful feelings were washing over me from every direction. I was terrified for my one-pound, six-ounce daughter. I was wracked with guilt for not being with my wife, who was suffering so much pain and anguish. My heart was breaking for the loss of our farm, and the plans and dreams we had made for ourselves and for Ruby. I was drowning.

For the next several months, those feelings receded only in fleeting moments. We didn’t know if Ruby would live or die or, if she did live, what her quality of life would be. We never got used to the stress and unnaturalness of having our daughter in the hospital, the sounds, the invasive procedures, the constant flow of new faces, never being able to hold her. Elizabeth and I kept as constant a bedside vigil as we could manage, talking to Ruby, reading her books, touching her, and holding her hand when we were allowed to. In those fleeting moments when the stress receded, we found a new dream, one we barely even dared to dream—we dreamed of bringing Ruby home. But where was home?

Elizabeth and I were in a new city, and during these months we had to rely on the kindness of an extended network of friends and relatives to have a place to sleep and other support. We asked friends and relatives to check on our farm from time to time, harvesting what they could, taking pictures of its inevitable reclamation by the surrounding forest. During these months we needed some income, so, through connections I had, I was able to get a job as a part-time grants manager for a nonprofit organization called Our House, which had a mission to provide a pathway out of homelessness, particularly for families with children. I was lucky—my boss understood what my family was going through and gave me the flexibility to do what I needed to do to support my wife and daughter. I worked from the office some, but I also worked from the hospital and from whichever house we were crashing at that week. There were plenty of times that I needed to focus all my attention at the hospital, and Our House was supportive of me during these times.

As the months went by, very slowly there were signs of improvement. We were able to hold Ruby for the first time, for 15 minutes at a time on our laps on a bed with the ventilator still going, but it meant the world to us. After four failed attempts, she was finally able to get off the ventilator. After three major surgeries, it seemed that the lingering issue with her intestines might be resolved. After about five months it seemed like our dream might actually come true, that we would be able to bring her home. But first we needed a home. And by this time we felt, deep in our souls, what home really meant—a safe place for our daughter to grow and feel loved, for the three of us to be a family together. We found a place to live in the city, near the hospital where she would have many follow-up appointments. We said a quick goodbye to our farming plans and began preparing our new home for its most important arrival.

I will never forget the day we brought Ruby home. When we held her for the first time in our living room, it felt like the quietest place in the universe. Finally, she was free from the noise, the lights, and the constant commotion of the hospital. A quiet moment holding my daughter in our own home was a dream come true. As our tiny child grew, we loved and appreciated Ruby in a way we never would have if we hadn’t experienced several terrifying months afraid of losing her. We celebrated her so deeply: her first steps, her first words, her every word, even her every breath, because we remembered when we couldn’t take those breaths for granted. We also had our own trauma to work through. Being the best parents we could be was job number one, but taking care of each other, and taking care of ourselves, was vital for us as well.

Over those same years, I poured myself into my work at Our House, drawing inspiration from the strength, resilience, and wisdom of our families as revealed in moments big and small. A grandmother grieving for her daughter while rearranging her life to care for her four young grandchildren. A single father moving heaven and earth so he could ride his bike to work by 5:00 a.m. and get his son to our early childhood center each day.A two-year-old girl comforting and reassuring her mother that the shelter they just moved into could be a safe place for them. A mother who, despite many cycles in and out of shelters, learned how to effectively advocate for her son to receive the therapy services he needs. Every parent I talked to, every story I heard brought me back to that yearning for home that I felt, so clearly and so powerfully, when my ability to provide one for my daughter was in doubt.

Elizabeth and I have enjoyed every advantage in the world. We both come from stable middle class backgrounds, we have a very supportive network of family and friends, and we have a great relationship with each other. But even with all of these advantages, one adverse experience wrecked our dreams and nearly wrecked our family. It was only because of the support of family and friends, the care provided by dedicated medical professionals, and a healthy dose of divine providence that we were able to pull through. Most of the homeless parents I meet every day are battling to overcome a lifetime of their own traumas without a fraction of the privilege my family enjoys. In the face of these odds, they are resolute in their desire to provide a bright future for their children. And I am equally resolute in my desire to help them succeed.

So I have a new dream now. I dream that Our House can be the community of support that struggling families need to overcome trauma, find their strength and purpose, and achieve their own dreams. On our seven-acre campus in downtown Little Rock, every day I see signs of this dream becoming a reality. A young child, once timid and shy, now bounding to his favorite teacher for a hug. A teenager finding her powerful voice in music and performance. A mother, after years of working dead-end jobs, landing a job that she loves. A family moving into a home of their own, with a backyard and a bed for every child. And whenever doubt creeps in, whenever I falter, I have a living, breathing, intelligent, creative, nine-year-old daughter named Ruby to remind me that dreams really can come true.

About the "Stories that Change Hearts, Minds, and Policies" Collection

Organizers and Advocates are heroes. Every great hero has a story to tell. The "Stories that Change Hearts, Minds, and Policies" Collection shares stories about challenge, triumph, great personal cost, and outright determination to love and serve Arkansas.

The Foundation put this collection together to share spoken-word narratives from our "Stories that Change Hearts, Minds, and Policies" Story Slam, where we recognized "October is Advocacy and Organizing Month" (OAOM). Our Story Slam was hosted in partnership with the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service and The Yarn. Special thanks to Herstory Writers' Workshop for helping Arkansas Organizers and Advocates find their voices and tell their stories.

Click here to experience other powerful stories of Organizers and Advocates who have transformed Arkansas communities.