HETRICK: Let's make Thanksgiving more than a prayer

November 20, 2010

I once had the good fortune to participate in a community leadership program. Leadership Greater Hartford combined volunteers from for-profit and not-for-profit organizations. During each class, we learned about issues affecting our community and how we might help address them.

One month, we heard from two men about homelessness.

Vern Baker had once been a faculty member at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But the bottle had taken precedence over Vern’s teaching, research and students. He lost his job, his home and his family. Penniless, he lived on the streets, under interstate bridges and sometimes in the shelters.

Vern lived that way for a long while, and despite many attempts to rescue him. Then, one day, he was lying on a curb when his daughter’s photograph fell out of his wallet into the gutter. That’s when he changed.

Phil Farnsworth was a photographer. He’d worked for The Boston Globe, The Boston Herald and The Hartford Courant.

But as The New York Times reported in a 1989 story about Baker and Farnsworth, Phil preferred “to take photographs dealing with social issues.” He’d done projects on the Guardian Angels, the Ku Klux Klan and poverty in Haiti.

Phil told our leadership class that his interest in homelessness was piqued on a Thanksgiving Day. He said he’d devoured a big meal with his family, watched some football on TV, then turned to the local news. During the broadcast, there was a story about homeless people going hungry. Phil got sick to his stomach when he realized how much he’d just consumed and how little his neighbors had by comparison.

That’s when Phil started taking pictures of homeless people.

“I just started walking the streets,” Phil told the Times. “I went to bridges, soup kitchens, shelters, flophouse hotels. … I tried to cover as many areas of homelessness as there are out there. …

“The pictures I made came from the honesty and friendship which developed between us. When you use a wide-angle lens, you have to get close. It forces you to get involved.”

One day, Farnsworth showed his images to Baker.

“The photographs brought it all back,” Vern told the Times. “Phil showed me a picture of a man laying on a mattress, and I could remember being there. I could smell the stench. I even recognized the floral pattern of the mattress. I’d slept on one just like it.”

After that, Vern wrote a presentation to accompany Phil’s pictures. They took it on the lecture circuit. Soon thereafter, they published a book called “Under the Bridge.”

Through words and images, Vern and Phil helped people understand homelessness. They inspired action and giving. That Christmas, our leadership class helped raise more than $10,000 for a local homeless shelter. Phil let us use his pictures.

A few Fridays ago, a colleague, Karen Grant, asked me if she could take a spur-of-the moment vacation the following week. She wanted to work with Habitat for Humanity, helping to build a house in Mississippi for a family displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

Karen didn’t know it, but when she asked, she triggered memories of Vern and Phil and all the things they taught me about helping, and homelessness, and gratitude.

At a staff meeting on Tuesday, Karen showed us her home-building pictures.

On Facebook last week, I asked what folks are thankful for this year. Responses poured in.

People cited families, friends, colleagues and even pets. Beth said family and friends let her know, “I’m not alone in the big, bad world.”

Lori’s trying to add to her family. She and her husband Nick are thankful that Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Indiana, and his team are helping with their adoption in Vietnam.

Gene said he’s thankful to have a job. He added an exclamation mark after that.

Vicki, who’s known cancer all too well, said she’s thankful for life. So did Alice, who said, “I just love being alive—not that life is always painless.”

Amber wrote to tell me about her dad, a nine-year lung-cancer survivor. Amber now works for the cancer center that saved her dad’s life.

Brenda, on the other hand, is grateful to have “active and relatively healthy parents in their 80s.”

Mike, who is 50-something, said, “I keep hearing about people our age dying! I may not be in the best of health, but I’m thankful I’m healthy enough to start getting back into shape. I guarantee this is the first time in my life I’ve ever been thankful for anything like that!”

And then there’s Marilyn, who’s just thankful “it’s not at our house this year!”

As for me and my house, I’ve learned from Vern, Phil, Karen, Amber and so many others to not only be grateful, but also to act on that thanks; to go forth after Thanksgiving prayer and make a positive difference in the world.

Pass the stuffing?•


Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.


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