Editor's Note: This piece is written by Embrace CEO Sean Sheppard, who met Debbie Clark, a former American Gladiator, on the streets of San Diego. Clark's story, , touched the lives, hearts and wallets of many Americans who offered their support. This is Sheppard's perspective of what it was like to personally know and assist the former Gladiator.
How I met Debbie
For the past four years, I have personally served the homeless population. Through the nonprofit organization Embrace, I oversee the efforts of college students as they feed the homeless two times a week.
I had a different experience on Jan. 6, though.
We were going about our usual business, when a woman and her son approached me.
“Hi, I’m Storm the American Gladiator, this is my son Crayton – we’re homeless,” she said.
I did a double take before answering, “My gosh, you are Storm!”
The students were amazed, and I have to admit, I was too. After small talk and offering her and Crayton food (which she refused because Crayton was allergic to what we were serving), we exchanged numbers and pledged to keep in touch.
What happened next was even more bizarre.
Three days later, while attending a Green Bay Packer playoff party and through small talk, I found out another partygoer, Jane, was the sister of another American Gladiator, Jim Starr, aka Laser.
Thirteen days after that, Jim fired off an e-mail to approximately 13 former American Gladiators, and American Gladiator creator Johnny Ferraro, letting them know that one of their own was in dire need. I was cc’d on the e-mail.
One by one, Malibu, Zap and Dallas responded to me to express their concern. “What does she need?” “How is her son?” “How can I help?” were the most common questions.
On Jan. 30, Debbie took up my offer to use my spare room instead of sleeping on the streets with Crayton.
Life with Debbie and Crayton
I agreed to allow Debbie and Crayton to stay in my spare bedroom, provided that she abide by my rules: no booze, no visitors, put things back where you found them and use coasters on my wooden coffee and kitchen tables.
I also told her that I was offering a roof over their head, not maid service, butler service, chauffeur service or male escort service. Whatever she did to be self-sufficient before meeting me, I expected that to continue. However she was getting Crayton to school before meeting me, I expected her to continue to do so. I wanted a sterile, peaceful, no-B.S. arrangement and if it became anything contrary, she and Crayton would have to leave. She agreed to live by my ground rules immediately.
One must understand that I am a single, 42-year-old male that lives alone in a two-bedroom duplex. I’m an only child who was raised by a single mother. Crayton and I have a lot in common, which is the main reason why I offered to allow them to stay with me (that and the fact that Jim Starr vouched for Debbie as a person). I can’t imagine what Crayton has been through and what he’s seen. He’s just a little boy. Outside of the fact that he’s homeless, I can relate to him in every way.
But living with Debbie was tough.
I like my place to be clean. Debbie is not as tidy as I would like. She doesn’t tell the truth all the time. At times, she talks too much. I think she spoils Crayton too much (something I heard people tell my mother when I was a child). She sings in her bedroom and in the bathroom. There’s food on the floor, on my couch and in my carpet. She watches garbage TV shows. All of their stuff is taking up space in my garage. Their shoes smell. As I texted my best friend, “Someone is always eating food in my refrigerator or burning electricity.”
Now you might think that I’m ripping Debbie and her son, but before you go there, I want you to ask yourself something: Did my rant regarding what I didn’t like about her living here sound like I was talking about a homeless roommate, or just — a roommate? My point is that Debbie is no different from any roommate I’ve ever had, and the truth is, some of my past roommates, I’m sure, had similar, if not identical, gripes about me. Debbie’s not perfect. Neither is Crayton. Neither am I. Neither are you.
Debbie and Crayton are not just homeless people. Long before they became homeless, they were people first. They just happen to be homeless now —just like Mama Rita, Jimmy, Myron, Eddie, Victor and any other homeless person you’ve ever laid eyes on.
As for all of those perceived negative things I said about Debbie? Well here’s the flip side: She funny, she’s a doting mother, she’s a great cook, she has an outgoing personality, she has a handshake that can crack bones, she’s compassionate, she’s entertaining, she’s engaging, she commands a room, she has a wonderful relationship with her child (which is more than most people can say), she’s a fighter, she’s a survivor, she’s resourceful, she’s smart, she’s a woman trying to improve her life, she’s always saying “I love you” to her son, she and her son laugh a lot together.
Aside from being homeless, and some of the factors that led to their current circumstances, this woman is no different from any other person or homeless person I’ve met.
She has a cell phone just like most people and homeless people, she has some income, just like most people and homeless people, she has access to the Internet, like most people and homeless people, she showers and changes her clothes every day, like most people and homeless people, she laughs, cries and hopes for a better life —just like the rest of us.
Debbie's happy ending
I have no idea how the story is going to end for Debbie and Crayton, but I do know that the potential is there for Debbie to make a real difference in this world. Remember the movie ‘Trading Places" with Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd? Murphy, when given the opportunity, went from being a homeless street hustler to a millionaire day trader when he was given the opportunity. Nature or nurture: That was the experiment the Dukes were conducting when they took in Murphy’s character and cast Aykroyd’s character out to the streets.
Like Murphy’s character, Billy Ray Valentine, Debbie has everything it takes to communicate what it’s like to be homeless, what it’s like to be a domestic violence survivor, how to avoid the pitfalls of both, what it’s like on the streets as a single mom, and offer encouragement and advice to all women who have found themselves abused by a man or woman, have a child and nowhere to turn.
If given the opportunity, Debbie can give the homeless community hope because she has the platform to eloquently paint a human picture of homelessness, and dispel many myths surrounding the population. Who knows, the information that she shares may cause legislation to be created that truly does bring about a change in the homeless population and how that population is perceived by society.
Debbie is, at her core, a good woman, flaws and all, who simply needs a bit of a micro-loan, if you will, to get back on her feet and make a difference in the world. I truly believe she can make such a difference with the right counseling and support system around her. Whatever made her Storm back in the day is still in there.
I’m simply doing my part to help provide a slice of that micro-loan despite my own flaws and shortcomings.
We all have flaws and shortcomings, homeless or not.