In Your Midst

The Pew Next to You

Easter 2011

A Friendship Born of Volunteer Chore Services

Dwayne Brown opens the door and invites me in. He’s been living in this apartment at the Josephinum since 2003. His whole life is in these two rooms. I can see right away he’s a man of many interests. Floor to ceiling bookshelves are crammed with books of every kind. He’s into science, religion, fiction, poetry, model cars, dinosaurs; the list goes on. At 65, Dwayne suffers from diabetes and neuropathy. He doesn’t get out much these days.

Sitting down in his easy chair, Dwayne tells me about his family. His great-grandparents helped slaves escape through the Underground Railroad in Wisconsin. After the Civil War they bought 450 acres, sight unseen, of worthless, arid sagebrush in the Yakima Valley, and moved west by wagon across the Oregon Trail.

Dwayne’s dad came from poor but hardy North Dakota stock. As a child he endured harsh poverty and physical abuse. In 1931 Clause Brown moved to Washington where he found work on the Rosa Canal, built to bring water from the Cascades to the burgeoning orchards of the Central Washington.

The youngest of four brothers, Dwayne was born in Selah in 1945. He started working in the orchards at age 10. In high school he found a job in a fruit warehouse. Life at home was often bleak. When Dwayne got into trouble, his father would beat him with razor straps, iron cords, or whatever came to hand. He still has scars on his back.

Dwayne joined the Marine Corps right out of high school, but was injured at Jungle Warfare School soon afterward and was quickly discharged and sent home. He was devastated. “It broke my heart when I left the Marines. I felt like the Corps was my home and where I belonged.  I didn’t feel part of my own family. I felt so alone.”

For the next 20 years, Dwayne drank heavily off and on. He lived on the streets more than once. He lost his index finger in a work accident involving a table saw. At one point, he almost committed suicide.

Finally one day Dwayne had an epiphany. Surrounded by fog, he saw a bright light suddenly pierce through. “I realized I wasn’t in charge of my life and I said, ‘God, do the hell with me what you will.’” Since that time, Dwayne says he’s felt God’s presence. “I don’t have that feeling of being alone anymore.”

He went on to reconcile with his father. “I look on it as a blessing that we put all that crap behind us. We became fishing buddies. My dad became a person; he became my friend.”

Today Dwayne has few connections with the outside world. His close friend Chuck died in 2007, and he misses their excursions to buy vintage model cars at Pike Place flea market.

But Dwayne still has one good friend. Five years ago, a new recruit from Volunteer Chore Services named Ed arrived to lend a helping hand.
Ed Authier comes from an aviator family. On December 7, 1941 he was two years old, living with his family 12 miles outside of Pearl Harbor. Fortunately, at the time of the attack, Ed’s dad was away at sea on the aircraft carrier, Lexington, 460 miles east of Midway.

Ed soon followed in his father’s footsteps, going on active duty the very day he graduated from the University of Mississippi and earning his wings in 1964. He spent two years in Vietnam as a helicopter pilot and later served in Korea. He retired from the army in 1980 and eventually moved with his wife Rosemarie to Seattle, where’s he’s worked for the FAA and Boeing. As work has ebbed and flowed over the years, he’s has moved with ease in and out of retirement.

In the fall of 2006, Ed saw a bulletin notice about Volunteer Chore Services. Describing himself as “not a touchy-feely kind of guy,” Ed had his share of reservations. He went to an orientation anyway, and soon afterwards was matched with Dwayne. Their first visit was tentative. Dwayne didn’t think Ed would ever come back. But Ed did return, and their relationship grew.

Nowadays, Ed stops by Dwayne’s apartment about once a week to washes dishes and vacuum. Often he brings groceries or drives Dwayne to the store. He sometimes does a bit of handy work, and has even custom built some shelving for Dwayne to display his collection of model cars and trucks. There are times when Ed comes by just to sit down and visit.
Volunteer Chore Services (VCS) was born during the economic downturn of the early 1980’s when billboards implored, “Will the last person leaving Seattle, please turn out the lights?” Cuts to the state budget put elderly and disabled people at risk. In response, Catholic Community Services partnered with local parishes to create the VCS program. The idea was to use parish volunteers to fill the growing gaps in the safety net that protected vulnerable people.

Today VCS is still going strong, matching volunteers (many from St. James) with low-income adults who need personal assistance to stay independent. As the current recession has deepened, requests for VCS help have risen sharply.

In January Governor Gregoire described her proposed budget as “ugly” and called on the state’s citizens to fill the need: “It’s up to the nonprofits, it’s up to the faith community; it’s up to us. It’s up to our families and our friends and our neighbors to help out those we know, and those we don’t know or never met.”

You don’t have to tell that to Ed Authier. He’s been helping Dwayne out for a long time and he knows it’s a two way street. Reflecting on his years of service, Ed says “After a while, you develop a friendship. I get more out of our visits than Dwayne does.”

For his part, Dwayne is filled with gratitude and respect. “If I was in peril of losing my life I couldn’t say a bad thing about Ed. If I’d known people like Ed when I was growing up, my life would never have gotten into the mess it did. I never thought I would have another hero. But I do. Ed is my hero.”
Dwayne thinks Rosemarie, Ed’s wife of 49 years, has a lot to do with his generosity and kindness. He tells me to be sure to watch Ed when he talks about Rosemarie. “His eyes always dance.”

As I get ready to leave, I notice the Norton edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost on Dwayne’s desk. “Hey, Dwayne, are you reading this?” He picks the book up tenderly and opens to a passage midway through. “I love this edition,” he says with a smile. “The footnotes explain the history of the words and all the mythology.” Dwayne’s a Renaissance man all right. What’s up next, I muse. Paradise Regained?

Suzanne Lee is the Pastoral Assistant for Outreach at St. James Cathedral

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