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From Heartbreak to Hope

How a Mother’s Grief Led Her to Help the Homeless

Writer  /  Christy Heitger-Ewing

An ear-piercing blast rang through the silent, still air causing Sandy Nelson’s body to jolt to attention. You might assume it was a car backfiring or a neighbor testing a stray firework, but somewhere deep in Sandy’s gut, she knew this horrific noise was much more menacing.

Sandy sprang to her feet and bolted towards the driveway to check on her grown daughter, Jenny, but it was too late. She had lost her second child to suicide. In 1993, her teenage son, Sean, died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Now (April 2016), Jenny, who had long been battling clinical depression, perished in the same tragic manner.

With a heart crippled by grief, Sandy was left again to pick up the pieces. She chose not to focus on Jenny’s death but rather on a way to preserve her daughter’s memory.

“Jenny had great empathy for people who were hurting, and she used to say that she’d like to hand out bags of essential items to the homeless,” recalls Sandy, an Avon resident.

Due to financial limitations, Jenny, a single mother of three, was never able to bring this desire to fruition.

So, Sandy determined to do something that would both honor her daughter’s memory and serve those in need. Originally, she envisioned spending $200 to $250 to make 10 to 15 bags that she and her grandchildren could distribute together to the homeless.

“I wanted the kids to interact with the homeless so they could really feel the impact of their mother’s gifts,” Sandy says.

As Sandy shared plans for the outreach project she affectionately called “Love from Heaven,” she was flooded with donations, receiving items such as towels, blankets, snacks, socks, lotions, shampoo, conditioner, deodorant, McDonald’s gift cards, flashlights and first aid kits. Sandy also teamed up with Warren Burns, pastor of Grace Fellowship Church in Avon. The 80-member congregation, which works regularly with various inner-city missions, contributed additional items including soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, combs, hats, scarves and gloves.

Sandy also has a friend whose cousin, Kathy, works with the homeless in Indianapolis. Kathy guided her, Sandy’s fiancé, Jenny’s children, and a couple other volunteers into the homeless camps, tucked back in the woods. Not only did the team distribute the donated items, but they also gave out firewood, hot homemade soup and fresh coffee to those in need.

Sandy’s initial vision of 15 bags grew to 150, each of which contained a hand-written note that read: “Hoping our gifts of love and light bring you comfort, warmth and a renewed faith in a brighter tomorrow. May you know that through our humble gifts, we see you and we care. Love from Heaven, Jenny.”

Though it’s impossible following the suicide of a loved one not to ask, “Why?” a thousand times over, Sandy says this project brought a different perspective that kept her from drowning in self-pity.

“When you’re out in freezing weather delivering bags to people who have no home, your perspective shifts,” says Sandy, who was eager to open her arms and her heart to a population of people who are often shunned, shamed and slandered. “They seemed to appreciate the hugs and care just as much as the food and gifts.”

Considering the dire circumstances that these men and women face daily, you might expect them to exercise an every-man-for-himself mentality. Sandy witnessed the exact opposite.

“They went around, checking to be sure that everyone got a bag,” she says. “If any of them had physical limitations due to illness or injury, someone in the camp made sure to bring them a bag.”

One man, whose body shivered as fierce winds howled, didn’t express concern for his own welfare but rather for that of his beloved dog. He said his greatest hope was to find his canine companion a warm home so she wouldn’t have to endure winter’s bitter air.

This dog lover wasn’t the only one who put other’s needs before his own. When Sandy offered a man a thicker coat than the one he was wearing, he shook his head, insistent that someone else was in greater need of the warmth.

Before they left, a veteran, in his strong military tone, barked out a heartfelt prayer. Sandy says she couldn’t help wondering if she would be shouting praises to God if she were in his cold, wet shoes.

It’s hard to know how we’ll respond to a situation until we are in it, but one thing is certain — pain breeds empathy.

“Heartbreak makes us more sensitive to other’s losses,” Sandy says. “Maybe that’s part of God’s plan in making us better human beings.”

If you are struggling with suicidal thoughts, text 741741 to the Crisis Text Hotline. Or call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.

For anyone who is grieving the loss of someone to suicide, a support group called “Comfort Zone” meets the first and third Tuesdays of every month from 6-7:30 p.m. at Hendricks Regional Health in Danville. Contact Ben Keckler at BFKeckl@Hendricks.org.

About Christy Heitger-Ewing

Christy Heitger-Ewing is an award-winning writer and columnist who writes human interest stories for national, regional, and local magazines. She is also the author of the book “Cabin Glory: Amusing Tales of Time Spent at the Family Retreat” (www.cabinglory.com).

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