In December 2011 I had the opportunity to meet Rodney Epps and his niece Kia Houston, family members who – for the second year in a row – used their Christmas Holiday to prepare dinners for and to deliver those dinners to people in Baltimore City who are currently homeless. In November of that year, Rodney and Kia organized a poetry event to raise money to buy scarves and gloves for those to whom they were delivering these dinners.
As this powerful interview will show, although oftentimes we are tempted to wait for “a movement” to make change, each one of us has the power to influence and impact someone’s life without a movement – or while waiting for one. In this special interview, Rodney Epps and Kia Houston tell how they are making doing just that a family tradition.
Diane Bell McKoy
Associated Black Charities
Click here to see the video
Interviewer: What is it exactly that you all are doing and why did you decide to take this on?
Rodney Epps (RE): In December 2010, recognizing that I had been blessed so much in my life; I decided that I wanted to give back the blessing. I looked around and saw a need; there were people who are homeless all over Baltimore. You always hear people say that you are only one or two paychecks away from being homeless; that saying resonated with me. I got to talking to my nephew Curtis and his wife Raina about what I wanted to do. I started with the thought of doing 50 dinners for the homeless. I talked to my kids about it and asked if they wanted to help. My kids thought it was a great idea and Curtis and Raina said that they had been giving out gloves and hats and such for the past few years. And that is how this came about. That Christmas, 2010, it was about 8 of us, mostly family and a co-worker. They came over to help and I made turkey dinners, fresh vegetables, cake. We had three car loads of people helping us carry the food. We went to places where we knew the homeless congregated and we just started passing out dinners. I think that they were startled at first, but just to see the delight in their faces from realizing that someone thought about them . . . that was such a joy. It made a lasting impression on me and my kids. So in October, November, of 2011 my kids came to me and asked when we were going to do it this year. So for Christmas 2011 I wanted to do 100 dinners and also to pass out a present for them . . . something that they had to unwrap . . . a hat, gloves, and a scarf. I started talking to Kia about doing a talent showcase because I felt that if I could get the attention of more people, if more people knew what I was doing, it might inspire them to get involved.
Kia Houston (KH): Rodney had originally thought about doing a music talent showcase because everybody loves music; it joins people together. I thought about a poetry slam. Rodney knew poets like Talaam Acey and others, and we began to plan for the show.
RE: Kia and I decided to ask people to donate hats, gloves, something, as part of their entry fee. KH: 70% of the people who came donated something. I did not participate with Rodney in 2010 but when my uncle told me how appreciative the people were and how much fun the family who participated had, I knew I wanted to be involved this year. I wrapped up all the gifts and packed up the car and jumped out and gave out the dinners. My mom gave out all the dessert and I gave out the gifts. My uncle made enough dinners – barbeque dinners and turkey dinners with all the trimmings – to feed 100 people.
Interviewer: How did you feel afterward?
RE: I was on Cloud Nine. People don’t know how blessed we are and I don’t think that people take that into consideration. WE ARE BLESSED no matter how much we complain about our jobs or the bills we have. We are not sleeping under a bridge or out in the cold. To be in a position to do something for somebody that will make a difference, that is a blessing.
KH: This taught me to be more to be appreciative of what I have: a roof over my head, the ability to get in a warm car and drive to work. This taught me to be appreciative and not take anything for granted,
Interviewer: Did people engage you in conversation?
KH: Not a lot. One woman asked for 2 extra dinners because she had children to feed, so we gave her 2 additional dinners for her children and some children’s hats and gloves, too. Giving those gifts made it even more special. They all opened the gifts we had given them right in front of us. They were so excited to receive presents and to have something to unwrap, as well as something to eat!
Interviewer: What do you want your daughter to learn from this?
KH: I want my 3 year old daughter to learn the spirit of giving and to never ever think that you are above someone else. I want her to see and know, even at such a young age, how truly blessed we are; that we have a family who loves us surrounding us.
RE: Our last stop was around City Hall. One man had a church across the street and he was doing a service right there, in front of the church. All the people who were homeless had gathered in front of that church, in the cold, just to hear a sermon on Christmas Day. That was so awesome; that even in the midst of this challenge, they had faith and hope and were interested in hearing a Christmas sermon on Christmas Day. And then to leave there and go to my mom’s house, where we go every year. Just the contrast of coming from there — from people living in the cold and with a great deal of uncertainty — to a family filled with love where we were all together, celebrating Christmas together. Knowing that the people out there were also someone’s mother, father, niece, and child. So celebrating with family after that experience was also truly a blessing.
Interviewer: What would you say to those reading this? What would you want them to know, to take away from what you are doing?
KH: I hope that this inspires families to do the same thing. Not that they have to cook dinners, but that we can all do something as simple and important as just acknowledging a person who is homeless when we see them on the street. We all have the power to make someone’s day just by acknowledging them as people. People who are homeless are STILL people. You can say hello or good morning; they are people. I hope that what we do inspires other families to give back in some way.
RE: I hope it lets people know that you are not alone in this world. “Family” comes in all shapes, ethnicities, and income levels, rich and poor. Whatever and wherever you are, you are not alone. We are all connected and there is power in that connection.
Interviewer: Are you going to do this again in 2012? What would you do differently?
KH: OF COURSE!! In terms of what we’d do differently, we’d like to add more people. And I’d love to partner with another family.
RE: That would be good. We’ve also talked in my family about possibly adopting a military family as our something different. A lot of times military personnel come back to no one: no job, no family. Our plan for this year is to do an outing to the homeless once every three months. Even if all we’d be able to distribute is soup and sandwiches, what we are doing should not be confined to the holiday. People need help all year long.
Interviewer: What if people wanted to get in touch with you about doing this?
RE: You know, people may want to give something, but not necessarily their time. I would encourage people to think about giving their time; to go out and to do something. That is worth more than just giving us money; it is worth more than being able to say “yes, I donated.”
Interviewer: Rodney and Kia, you and your family are inspirations! Any final thoughts before we say goodbye?
KH: Like I said before, we just hope we inspire other families and other people to get involved and to give back, especially in Baltimore, because even one homeless person is one too many. We have too many resources – although we may not believe that we do – for anyone to be homeless. We need to put more focus on changing this situation. No one should be homeless.
RE: I would say to anyone to embrace the joy of blessing someone else. You cannot even fathom the idea of the amount of joy it brings; I didn’t. I didn’t until I did it. I could not imagine how it was going to touch my spirit until after I did it. I want everyone to experience that joy. What we do is not just for them; we do it for how it touches and enriches us. I, Kia, and all our family want to thank everyone who participated in our Poetry Slam . . . everyone who came out and contributed in any way . . . and especially we want to give a special thanks to our family for understanding why we were running late in getting to our own Christmas dinner!