Her house in Atlanta’s Grant Park section is special to Barbara Brewer. She spends long hours making it comfortable, cleaning and decorating, working hard to provide a good home for her sons.
This is her first home, really, and she’s especially proud because of the love that went into building it. “I’m home,” she says, though still unable to believe how her life has changed for the better. “I never thought I could say ‘home’ and mean forever.”
At 37, Barbara is beginning to dream again, to see a future full of hope and love. She has made new friends, and has learned a lot about the generosity of people. She also used to think of Amoco as just a large, faceless company. She knows now that it is people with big hearts.
In Barbara’s neighborhood, though, there are families less fortunate. For years, Grant Park was plagued with all the problems of inner-city communities: high crime, deep poverty, poor education, and economic depression. Now it’s one of 20 Atlanta in-town neighborhoods undergoing renovation. As new life pours in, and communities such as Grant Park become fashionable for the upwardly mobile middle-class, poor families are squeezed out.
As a result, homeless and under-class youths wander the streets, their only role models for success are pimps, pushers, and prostitutes But they, too, have dreams. What they don’t yet understand, though, is that statistically they are destined to remain chronically poor. They look for ways to make their dreams happen, and find ft by selling drugs, stolen merchandise, and sometimes themselves.
Growing Up in an Underclass Community
Barbara used to be a lot like these youths. She grew up in an underclass community in North Georgia with 13 brothers and sisters, plus a few nieces and nephews. Her parents had nothing.
She learned to read quickly, and by the third grade, she was reading Greek mythology. Her insatiable appetite for books, however, caused problems at home. “Reading made me talk strange and think strange,” she says, “and that alienated me from my family.”
What she remembers most about her undisciplined childhood was growing up in a world without love, surrounded by people who did not abide by rules. She dreamed of a better life someday. She was too young, too naive, to understand the empty promises of her world.
As the years went on, Barbara came to realize that she was trapped. A shattered marriage left her with four sons to raise alone. She existed from day to day, knowing that somehow she was different, yet unable to change her fate. Her dream of a better life seemed hopelessly beyond her grasp.
“I had no idea how to get out,” she recalls with some bitterness. “To even have a glimmer of hope, you need someone on the outside who cares about you and wants to help. If that doesn’t happen, you eventually give up. You begin to say to yourself, ‘I was born like this, I live like this, and I’ll die like this.’ There grows inside you a hopelessness that’s impossible to explain.”
It was just a matter of time before her environment caught up with her. At the age of 32, she found herself in a maximum security prison facing a life sentence for being an accessory to armed robbery. Barbara’s dream of a better life was gone, her family broken. The hopelessness was crushing.
“That’s when I knew that something was wrong with me and my life,” she says. “Other people aren’t caged like animals, but here I am.”
Barbara desperately tried to understand what made her different from people outside prison, outside poverty. “I had to find out what was wrong with me and the people I grew up with so I wouldn’t keep doing this to my life,” she says. And with characteristic determination, she vowed to change.
Her First Love: Books
Barbara found comfort and courage in her first love: books. She read the Bible and other books that offered her the glimpse of a better life. She began to see a pattern of destruction in her life. But how, she wondered, do you change a pattern ingrained since birth? A year passed, then another. Barbara continued to read, continued to grow. Slowly, she began to change.
In part it was the books that changed her, finding new role models in characters and people she read about, and in part it was her own desire to change. One piece to the puzzle still was missing, however. She met two people, prison volunteers, who visited her each week and brought her books. Their message to Barbara was simple: Your life is special and we care about you.
“They turned my life around,” she says. “These people didn’t treat me like a criminal. They really cared about how my life turned out. That was big news to me because I didn’t think anybody cared.”
The harder Barbara worked to change, the harder these people worked to help her. While in a half way house program for women inmates, she was allowed to work at a vinyl-siding company. This gave her a first look at the world from a new perspective. What she saw intimidated her. How would she live? How could she break the cycle of poverty that put her behind bars?
A Job Nonetheless
Barbara was permitted to use her income to pay for night classes at a stained-glass studio. She became good at creating art objects from glass. Her talent prompted the studio’s owner to offer her a full-time position as an instructor and custom stained-glass artist. Low income, to be sure, but a job nonetheless.
As the date neared for Barbara’s release, she felt cautiously optimistic. However, she still faced obstacles; big ones. She hadn’t seen much of her sons during the last five years. They were scattered in foster homes; her eldest had abandoned her.
Even if she could find them, would they want to come back to her? And most important, could she provide them with a decent home on what she earned?
The Two Clicked
Then she met Darien Cooper. Darien, a worker for Family Consultation Services (FCS), stopped in to buy vinyl siding for her home. The two clicked.
“She [Darien] knew that I worked out of a prison,” Barbara says. “We talked about my life and what I had been. When she understood how far I had come, she offered to help me the rest of the way.”
Darien helped Barbara apply for a low-income house through FCS, and got her church to sponsor her. (A sponsor helps a family adjust to the community and home ownership.)
To qualify for a house, the candidate must have an income near the federal poverty level; income stability (from employment and/or public assistance); personal stability to make home ownership an asset, not a liability; and sponsorship by a local social group. Barbara satisfied all criteria. If accepted, the owner takes title of the house with an interest-free FCS mortgage. FCS uses the payments, about $1 50 per month including taxes, to purchase future home sites.
Barbara and the Coopers became good friends. Darien and her husband DeWitt, a construction foreman for FCS, took care of one of Barbara’s sons, 17-year-old Billy, until her release from prison.
Meanwhile, Amoco Foundation Inc. agreed to donate $20,000 to FCS for materials to build a three bedroom, single-family house. But there were Amoco people in Atlanta who wanted to give more than money. They wanted to give of themselves as well.
FCS had asked for 10 to 12 volunteers each weekend to help build the house. Each Saturday, about 30 Amoco people from nine locations across Atlanta showed up to work. The employees represented five separate Amoco subsidiaries, including Amoco Fabrics and Fibers, Foam Products, Container, Oil, and Performance Products, as well as corporate support staff.
“As word spread about Barbara,” says John Giroux, president of Amoco Foam Products Company in Atlanta, who also volunteered time to the project, “more and more employees showed up each week to help out. Some even brought along their spouses and kids. The spirit became contagious. Most of the employees didn’t even know each other, but they all pitched in and became a single Amoco team.”
Hammer and Paintbrush in Hand
Bud Olson, president of Amoco Fabrics and Fibers Company, also headquartered in Atlanta, helped spread word about Barbara. He, too, turned out, hammer and paintbrush in hand, to help in the construction.
“There is something in all of us that is satisfied only when we’re helping others,” Olson says. “Instead of donating money, by volunteering you can see what your efforts are doing to help turn someone’s life around for the better.”
There were no reservations about building a house for an ex-con. The volunteers knew that most underclass families are involved with the law, and have one or more family members incarcerated. Criminality and poverty go hand and hand.
Evonne Scheerer, manager of distribution, environmental, and safety affairs for Amoco Foam Products, was among the more than 100 Amoco volunteers. “I was totally impressed with Barbara,” she says. “My husband and I figured that if the Foundation could donate money, the least we could do was donate some of our time. We felt really good about it. Barbara was so grateful that it made you want to do more to help her.”
Betty Longon, the coordinator for volunteers for Amoco Foam, says the experience left her with a sense of fulfillment. “It was wonderful how everyone helped out. I was touched to see Barbara get a new house and everything coming together for her.”
A Country Barn-Raising
In the spirit of a country barn-raising, work on Barbara’s house proceeded rapidly. Each Saturday, she was allowed to visit the construction site to pitch in with the others. On those occasions, Amoco people offered her encouragement and support. “They didn’t just say they cared about me, they did something about it,” she says. “I’m not a criminal anymore. To Amoco, I’m Barbara.”
Last summer, Barbara was released from prison and took possession of her new home. For the dedication, Amoco volunteers raised an additional $500 to give her a few housewarming gifts. Surrounded by her new friends, Barbara proudly clasped a photo album of the experience and tearfully remarked, “This is a special house, a house built with love. But you’ve given me more than a home, you’ve given me your hearts.”
Bob Lupton, founder of FCS, says that Barbara was a prime candidate for the homeless. “She had all the characteristics of the underclass coming out of prison, her family structure shattered, unable to find a job that pays anything but minimum wage,” he says.
“But she was fortunate enough to meet people with compassion, who said to her ‘We will be your family and support you as you’re coming out,’” he says.
The Spirit of People
Lupton says that Amoco’s involvement – the first company to donate money and volunteers to build a house with FCS – is a signal of something new happening in the spirit of people. “There is a movement in middle America to once again get involved in helping people,” he says. “Amoco has struck at the heart of the homeless issue by providing an alternative, while at the same time discovering the excitement of helping someone in need.”
Now Barbara is putting her life back together. Her sons Billy (17) and Joe (19) have come home and are working on FCS projects. Soon she hopes to take custody of her youngest, Jody (14). That leaves 21-year-old Clyde and a grandson she’s seen only as an infant. She lost touch with Clyde while in prison.
Once her family is together, Barbara will consider her own future. “I’m very lucky,” she says. “But for everyone like me who gets a chance to break out of the cycle, there are hundreds of women who will never find the encouragement and support to get out.”
It is to those women that Barbara hopes to devote her life. “I’m going back to the prisons,” she vows. “This time I’m going to show others a way out and say, ‘Hey, look. I’m brand new. You can be too.’”
This article originally appeared in Amoco Torch magazine, 1983
Copyright © Joseph Massucci