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A Lesson From Louie MAG
In my neighborhood is a homeless shelter. The first few years I lived here, I walked by it like any other building; the only person I interacted with was a man with Down syndrome who often got lost and needed to be helped back. But this summer, my eyes were opened to the others who call this shelter home.
It all started when I met Louie, a 73-year-old man with dwarfism. He was wearing mismatched gloves, had just two teeth, and sported a long, mangy beard that seemed to function as a storage place for leftover food.
“I'm Louie. Wanna join me?” he asked. I was there with my youth group to make lunch for the residents. Louie had four meatball subs on his plate. I was wondering how such a small person could eat so much. He reached up to shake my hand. Hesitantly, I took his. I was terrified of him. We sat down at a table in the small cafeteria where 30 other men were eating. The stench was almost unbearable.
Then we started talking … or Louie began to talk, I should say. I suppose when a person has to fend for himself for so long, he learns to take advantage of whatever company he can find. He spoke in the same manner as my grandpa, recounting his life.
As a child, his dream was to become a doctor and help others with dwarfism. Unfortunately he was born at a time when many believed that dwarves had small brains and were incapable of going to school. And so he was denied an education and declared mentally inferior. As a teenager, he wanted to join the military, but when he tried to enlist, they laughed and sent him walking.
Louie's type of dwarfism causes his limbs to be short with an average-sized torso, which leads to severe back and leg problems that prevent him from doing many types of work. With no skills and no opportunity to go into entertainment – the customary career for dwarves in the 1940s and s – Louie was forced to live on the streets.
What amazes me most about Louie is that he never let his dwarfism imprison him, even though the world tried to keep him captive inside of it. He volunteers at the hospital as an escort, pushing wheelchairs, and visiting any dwarf who ends up there or anyone else who needs company. His favorite job, he told me, is visiting children, because he sees the world as they do. He told me that he had just rented his first apartment and it even had a toaster oven! Then, he gave me some advice that I will always remember.
“God always makes 'em just right,” he said. “If a person was born with one arm, he's not missing an arm; he's only supposed to have one, while you and me are supposed to have two. God made me this way on purpose. I'm not short; I'm just as tall as I'm supposed to be, just not as tall as some people. You remember that.”
I helped Louie pack a few meatball subs into his pockets, and said good-bye. This time, when I shook his hand, I meant it. I never knew that heroes could come with such dirty fingernails.
Louie taught me that all people are equal and deserve empathy. It's a lesson they teach in school, but for some reason I hadn't absorbed it until that day. “There's no difference between a black man and a white man,” they say. This fact is very true, but I wish they would add, “There's no difference between a black man, a white man, the president, Hannah Montana, and the man sitting on the corner downtown.” Louie gave me a dare that I want to pass on to you: Love everyone as your equal in an active way.
With Louie's words as my guide, I am in the process of forming an organization called Jeans for Joy. I've spent a lot of time with homeless people in my community, and although many soup kitchens and shelters exist for them to spend the night, there aren't many that provide for their other needs. Through Jeans for Joy, I am collecting new or slightly used blue jeans and backpacks, as well as new underwear, socks, toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap, water bottles, and Bibles. My friends and I then fill a backpack with each item. When we have enough supplies, we plan to pass out the backpacks and spend time with people who are craving someone to talk to.
I love these people; I really do. It crushes me to see them imprisoned by homelessness – chained by unpaid bills and debt, and in some cases alcohol and drug addiction, physical and mental disabilities, depression, prostitution, and a world of other struggles. It is my hope that more people will take the time to notice these people and remember that God makes 'em “just right.”