What started as a simple act of human kindness on the part of a school secretary led to an entire community uniting to provide a Hobbs family a new home on Wednesday night. But the family’s needs could have been overlooked had Jackie Gill not volunteered to give a student a ride last November.
“I’m the first face people see when they walk in the doors,” said Gill, who has worked at Will Rogers Elementary School for 23 years. “Sometimes I’m pushy and the parents at this school will tell you I’m noisy. But if you listen, people will talk to you. Sometimes people just need a little kindness.”
God knows Jessica Shorter and her four kids needed some.
But it’s not like the family was looking for a handout.
Shorter, a New Mexico Junior College graduate, had been scraping by after losing her job as a child support enforcement officer more than two years earlier.
She found herself out of work at about the same time she was diagnosed with a ventricular brain disease that affected her balance, causing her to repeatedly fall at work and home.
Still, Shorter was able to make ends meet by sometimes working two jobs as a certified nursing assistant and substitute teacher while also attending USW. “I loved working, I loved the flow of things, I loved the fast pace and being busy,” she said. “But then I realized something was wrong with my balance.”
The family’s downward trend continued as the home they lived in – one which her parents had occupied for decades before her and had most recently been used for storage – began to fall apart around them. Pipes continually burst causing damage and eventually leading to a partial roof collapse. Shorter ultimately decided turning off the water was better than wading through a flooded house. And when the winter months closed in, she draped blankets over drafty windows and slept with her children on a fold-out couch in the living room. “It was warmer that way,” she explained.
“I would try to remind my kids – where we are living now, we still have it a whole lot better than people in (underdeveloped countries.) Even though we don’t have running water, there are always people who have it worse. I tried to keep them focused and humble and appreciative for everything they had.”
As life’s other complications set in – mainly multiple health problems in her extended family -
Shorter tapped into her savings account,clipped coupons and cooked on a hot plate. But the devout Christian’s faith was shaken when her car was repossessed in the middle of the night. “They were putting my car up on that (hitch) and my baby girl saw it and she was just in tears. Plus the neighbors were watching. It was a humbling experience,” she said. “The whole time this is happening I’m thinking I’ve angered God in some way.”
Still, Shorter made do. She took a bus to college. She walked to and from the grocery store – now slowly and shakily with a cane. She kept her children clean and well clothed, sometimes bathing at the homes of relatives. And she grew more and more secluded as conditions at her home deteriorated. “I never let anybody come into my house at all,” Shorter said.
“I don’t believe in asking for help.”
Gill, that noisy Will Rogers secretary, was an exception. “I don’t cry a whole lot but one day she just looked at me and saw my face,” Shorter said. “I don’t remember her saying anything but her presence just calmed me down. She knew something was going on.”
The knowledge that the family was struggling prompted Gill to step forward when Zhoii was cast as the Cowardly Lion in a school play last November. Because the family had no transportation, the 9-year-old would need a ride to and from rehearsal each night for a week.
“There was a rule that kids couldn’t walk to those rehearsals because it was after dark and so far away so I thought, ‘Good grief, can’t I pick her up and transport her?’” Gill said.
On those evenings Shorter would rush to meet Gill outside when the secretary dropped Zhoii off from play rehearsal. But one night Gill made it all the way to front door before Shorter intercepted her. “I’m sure she got a little glimpse inside the house,” Shorter said.
During the ensuing weeks, Gill became closer to the family. She drove them all to Zhoii’s play performance – “she stole the show,” Gill said – and on a clothes shopping spree. All the while, Gill was making cautious inquiries about the condition of Shorter’s home.
“I told her it looked like she could use some windows and a roof,” Gill said. “I kind of got her to start talking to me about the house but she was very guarded. Then I told her about my church’s Project Homefront.”
A member of Crosswinds Community Church, Gill eventually convinced Shorter to apply for the home renovation project the church conducts each spring. But doing so would mean the Hobbs woman would have to take the painful step of allowing strangers to inspect her home. “I never let anybody in my house at all. Even my family didn’t know how I was living,” Shorter said.
“I thought if we don’t get picked (for Homefront), then they would know my secret. I paced and paced and straightened up the house as much as I possibly could that morning, but there’s no way to arrange a crappy situation.”
Later that day, Gill and Jay Carey, Crosswinds’ pastor carpenter, arrived at the house to inspect the structure for repair issues. “I took a deep breath and I let them in,” Shorter recalled.“They toured the house real quietly and didn’t say much, but I could see it in their faces…
“I came out of there and stood at the curb and cried,” Gill said of that first glimpse inside the Shorter house.“I knew it was too much to repair. I knew we couldn’t help her.”
Actually, just the reverse was true. After prayer and consulting with Crosswinds staff, the decision was made to demolish the house. The reconstruction would be the biggest project in the eight year- and 35-project history of the church program. Which is why, a couple weeks later, a backhoe knocked over the dilapidated structure at the corner of Fowler and Corbett. “When I went over there to watch the house fall, I thought it was going to be joyous but I just bawled like a baby,” Shorter said of the day her house was leveled. “It was like I was free of my kidnapper. It hit me to the depths of my soul.”
Volunteers soon moved a modular house onto the property and constructed a wheelchair ramp – all while vans full of new furniture – courtesy of Miller Waldrop – arrived and people from more than 20 organizations loaded cabinets with new dishes, pantries with linens and towels. In the meantime, Will Rogers teachers took on the task of decorating Zhoii’s bedroom. In addition to putting a sleeping bag in the little girl’s closet so she could invite friends to her house for a first-ever sleepover, they made sure to hang a picture taken of Zhoii in her Cowardly Lion costume, the role that got the ball rolling on a new life.
“I had no clue that this thing was going to grow like it did,” Gill, said hours before the unveiling on Wednesday.“The tentacles have gone everywhere in the community.”
In the Hobbs version of Extreme Makeover Home Edition, more than 100 people stood in the street later that night while Shorter and her family were driven to the scene, then caught their first glimpse of the new house as a large truck which had been blocking it pulled away from the curb.
Propped up by a cane and the arm of Crosswinds pastor Brad Reimer, Shorter slowly walked up the ramp, prayed with her family and Reimer on the porch, and then entered
the front door of a three-bedroom home lit by candles, new lamps and the warmth of human compassion.
“No more buckets” Shorter said laughing as she flushed a toilet.
Earlier in the day,
as she contemplated what lay in store, Shorter said she worried about
falling in front of a large crowd she knew would be on hand. But she was
confident that God was leading her journey. “All of those
years stuck in that house and praying about that house and now
it’s really happening. It’s like something off TV,” she said. “It’s
surreal. I feel like I’ve won the lottery.”
outside and standing on the front porch after walking through her new home, Shorter
waved to volunteers lingering to see her reaction. Choked with
emotion, she could utter only a few words of gratitude.
Gill likewise was lost in a blur of happy tears. But her words from earlier in the day still rang true.
“People just need a little kindness,” she said.