03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

What a Difference a Year Makes: Lessons From a Family $1,000 Away From Homeless

There couldn't be a better time to write the final chapter in the story of the Hobson Family, who exactly twelve months ago (and for several months thereafter) were $1,000 dollars away from becoming homeless. Today, I have many of you to thank for being able to say "What a difference a year makes" with a smile on my face.

In August 2008 I met Debbie online through a Florida Barack Obama Presidential campaign support group. Like hundreds of others the campaign group had suddenly sprung up online, and members were busy posting energetic welcomes and enthusiastic bursts of support for the candidate when someone mentioned something about "The American Dream". Despite all that Debbie Hobson, a woman barely in a position to support herself let alone a political candidate, had done for Obama - hosting a house meeting and organizing local fundraising - she was at the end of the road many Americans had just begun to travel themselves. It was the road to financial ruin, and it was widening from a country lane into a major expressway.

Debbie wrote:

I too have hope, but my American dream is about over. My husband lost his job. We have two kids, and at any moment my lights will be turned off. Come Friday my phone and computer will no longer be working. Today we are heading to the food bank in hopes of finding food. . . My last hope and prayer is Obama. I may be homeless on Election Day but I will sit with the rest of the women and stand up for our future, for my children, to bring back what once was a wonderful country and can be again.

Her message went on a bit longer, but already I couldn't turn away. In the spirit of the Obama campaign and the man himself, I couldn't stand idly by and do nothing. I asked her how much money she needed to keep the lights on. Little did I know then that a brief email interlude would turn into a year-long relationship and several articles on this blog published in an attempt to keep Debbie and her family off the streets, out of the shelters. I'm not normally much of a joiner, nor a bleeding heart, but there was something about Debbie's message that rang true and as I was to discover over the ensuing months that both her story and her family's efforts to find employment were on the level.

For six months after meeting her online Debbie and I kept in touch. I not only sent her money myself, but shamelessly used this column and my personal network of friends, family and colleagues to help raise money for her cause. Again thanks to many of you, we raised just enough to keep Debbie and her family in their home. Better still, we raised enough to send her husband - once a hospital administrative professional - to truck driving school. At least as a truck driver he had a guarantee of work and therefore, an immediate income. Still, as the elation of Election Day and the cautious optimism of Inauguration Day came and went, the economy continued its downward spiral and in the end, my efforts alone weren't enough to build a bridge to prosperity for Debbie. I felt I had failed.

I remember the day in late February this year when Debbie and I had our last conversation. Although her husband, Randy, had completed truck driving school he was waiting for his first trucking assignment and cash flow for the family was near zero. I myself was tapped out, and donors were not forthcoming. The bitter end had finally come and Debbie couldn't scrape together all the rent for February - she had about half of it. Even if her landlord let them stay in the house, she couldn't pay the phone/Internet bill, so we knew that - despite being three hours away by road - we wouldn't be speaking for a while.

With a quiet sense of acceptance Debbie was aware the end had come and despite having already faced what she thought was their personal low (a year out of work for both her husband and herself and no more unemployment), also knew that things could go lower still. Yet to my unending amazement, after so many months of living on the financial edge she now had the fortitude to face it. For my part, I knew I had to let her go. Still, I cried bitter, silent tears and prayed for a miracle. A few days later I tried her phone and email just to check. Sure enough, both had been disconnected.

You know the saying. "Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it."

About a month later an email from Debbie unexpectedly pinged my inbox. Stunned, I waffled between dread and excitement to see her name in the from line before suddenly realizing that if she could email me at all, Debbie must be in a better position than she was when we'd last spoken. Slowly I read how Debbie's story had played out in ways I never could have expected.

A mere few days after our final conversation in February Debbie had received her tax refund from the IRS (how she was getting a refund I have no idea but there was the check). The refund, combined with the small amount of donations I'd been able to help raise in February was enough to cover not only her February but also her March rent, and keep Debbie's family in their home.

At the same time, her husband landed not one but two - count 'em, two! - jobs. The first was a gig working all night, both Fridays and Saturdays, cleaning and sweeping parking lots. It paid $200 a week. The second materialized from, believe it or not, a posting Debbie, with everything to gain and nothing to lose, placed on Craig's List advertising her husband's availability for local or regional trucking runs. Miraculously, he was contacted almost immediately for a regular trucking job making deliveries locally Tuesday through Thursday, allowing him to keep his weekend parking lot cleaning. The trucking job paid $2,700 a month. The combined income from both jobs was enough to put them in the clear financially.

My mind reeled at the irony of it. Among all possible parties to play the role of eleventh-hour savior, there was our good ol' US government - the IRS no less - just doing its job. No, they didn't send the Hobson family any rebate checks or mortgage incentives or even the welfare Debbie had tried to get the family on. Just a regular old tax refund saved the day. You could choke on that kind of irony.

But it's the overabundance of lessons I've learned from this experience that I want to share with you. Because they're not just my lessons, they belong to all of us. And if we're going to pull this nation out of its recession, we're going to have to take them to heart and the sooner, the better.

Here we go:

  • Focus on Building Bridges vs. Expecting Bailouts. Our government isn't going to save the day. In fact, our government is virtually bankrupt, and in the end we're going to have to save it (if we want it, that is). We're going to have to save ourselves, and to do so we're going to need one another. Think about extending a hand up vs. getting a hand out. Build your tribe (if you're not sure what I mean go learn from master Seth Godin here; he explains it in a business context but guess what? it's life). If you're in need of assistance, don't be afraid to ask the people who can actually help you, and be prepared to offer them anything you can in return, even if it's just time, attention, or favors. If you're in a position to give assistance, do it (and see the next lesson below). We dug ourselves into this hole with the help of some unscrupulous operators along the way, but ultimately we have only ourselves to blame for being duped. Recovery is not about being saved, it's about saving ourselves.
  • Be The Change You Wish to See. Indulge me a moment of channeling Ghandi, but "being the change" doesn't mean wishing you could be the change, contemplating being the change, or counting on someone else to be the change. It means getting off your ass and being the change yourself! I'm talking action here. I'm talking Debbie not being shy about helping herself by going to food banks and scouring for jobs for her husband on Craig's List. I'm talking Ashton Kutcher's million Twitter followers challenge to raise100,000 for the No More Malaria fund on World Malaria Day April 25. As @aplusk said immediately after he landed his millionth follower: "Today we have done something extraordinary. We have shown the world that the new way is here. It is present, and it is ready to explode. You guys are all of it."
  • It's Always Darkest before Dawn. I'll be the first to admit how much it can suck to learn this lesson, but it's a good one because it will give you faith. We're taught to give up too soon in this country, probably because we expect life to be easy. Guess what? LIFE ISN'T SUPPOSED TO BE A CAKE WALK. Yep, maybe "faith" sounds airy-fairy wishy-washy to you, but I'll testify to the fact that if Debbie and I and countless others hadn't had it she would have been homeless a long time ago. Faith gives you the power to hang in there when the going gets tough. Faith makes it possible not only to believe in others, but - hell, forget about others - to more importantly, believe in yourself. Because in the end you are all you have.
  • Don't Try to Direct The Universe. Here's a good one related to faith - TRUST. You wanna talk airy-fairy, go ahead, but the fact of the matter is your intentions matter, and the energy behind them rather than the specific actions they lead to is enough to move mountains. I could never - even if I'd tried to - have guessed how Debbie's story would have ended. I would never have predicted the IRS saving the day. But moreso than me, Debbie believed until the end. She didn't have to know how the miracle would happen, she only had to trust that it would.

If your inner critic is raging as you read this, I won't try to make a believer out of you, but maybe Lynne McTaggart and her Intention Experiment will. Or if you're a real mainstream media lover, go read the latest Dan Brown book (then wake up to the fact that basically his heroine is Lynne in disguise).

Debbie's ultimate lesson for me personally is best expressed by Steve Lopez, author of The Soloist (a book about the author's unlikely friendship with a homeless musician) recently made into a major motion picture. The movie concludes with these words of wisdom from Lopez. I couldn't possibly say it better, so in all due deference to the author I quote:

A year ago I met a man who was down on his luck and thought I might be able to help him. I don't know that I have. Yes my friend Mr. Ayers now sleeps inside. He has a key, he has a bed. But his mental state and his well being are as precarious now as they were the day we met. There are people who tell me I've helped him. Mental health experts who say that the simple act of being someone's friend can change his brain chemistry, improve his functioning in the world.

I can't speak for Mr. Ayers in that regard. Maybe our friendship has helped him, maybe not. I can however speak for myself. I can tell you that by witnessing Mr. Ayers' courage, his humility, his faith and the power of his art I've learned the dignity of being loyal to something you believe in, of holding onto it, above all else of believing without question that it will carry you home.

Most of the above (except the part about being mentally ill, which she is not) applies to my relationship with Debbie. But I ask you: Have you ever had a Soloist moment? Ever met that one person who, on your typical day you'd ignore or not even notice but who for some reason one day compels you into action? If you haven't, keep your eyes open. If you have, you'll know the gift is priceless.