The SUV pulls up to the curb, just underneath a busy elevated highway near downtown Birmingham, and a man dressed for business steps out bearing gifts.
For Regions associate Jeff Lee, this is a morning ritual. He usually brings along breakfast. But on a dreary, cold December day, he totes two bags of sundry items – from hand warmers to lotions to moist towelettes.
It’s all for Marcus.
They are close to the same age, separated by only a few months at birth, and both grew up in Alabama. They both were high school athletes. Marcus’ dreams of playing college ball as a football free safety ended with an injury. Lee followed his ambitions out of high school in Dothan to Auburn University, as a baseball walk-on for the Southeastern Conference power.
Propped under layers of blankets, Marcus sees the man approach and breaks out into a grin.
“How are you doing Marcus?”
Jeff Lee is a blessed man. He has a great job, as Deputy General Counsel at Regions, and a wonderful family. He is a man of faith.
A year ago, he co-chaired Regions’ fundraising efforts for United Way of Central Alabama. On a regular basis, he hosted lunches with business and civic leaders across the metropolitan area and would talk about the various needs in the community that could be served by giving.
Yet something was missing.
“I’ve been working in this spot for 25 years,” Lee said from the comfort of his high-rise office. “As long as I can remember, I’ve passed this same man living under a bridge overpass that’s 50 feet in the air. I can tell you from experience that homelessness is a problem here because I see it every day. They need our help.”
He shared his stories with leaders. When he shared this with United Way’s Joanne Patterson, she listened for a second, then challenged him.
“Instead of talking about something, you can do something,” Patterson said. “What will you do?”
What Jeff Lee did next initiated a genuine friendship.
“The very next day, I decided I was going to take this man breakfast,” Lee said. “I had everything I’d say scripted – like any good lawyer. On the 30-minute drive into town, I’m thinking of everything that could happen, except for one: What if he’s not there?”
Lee pulled up, and no one was around. So he shared the breakfast with the security team in his building and decided to try again.
The extra 24 hours gave him time to contemplate the negatives. What if the man didn’t want anyone to approach him? What if he was offended?
“I decided I’d forget the script. I would introduce myself, ask him his name and ask permission to bring him something to eat every day.”
Still, there were nagging doubts. Lee wondered about his own safety. Lee would be going into a situation that lacked familiarity or immediate help if something went wrong. Maybe 100 feet from where Marcus lives is a makeshift memorial for a man nicknamed Street James, a homeless fixture who was fatally wounded in an adjoining homeless camp two summers ago.
Still, something pulled Lee forward.
He got out of his car, made eye contact and, with breakfast in hand, headed toward Marcus.
“My name is Jeff. What’s your name?”
Marcus replied first with a grin, then his name.
“Marcus, I’ve got something for you, here,” Lee said. “If it’s OK, I’ll stop by every day with breakfast.”
Marcus waved Lee over, and the two began talking, cementing a friendship. As Lee left, he felt an emotional charge.
“I’m a Christian, and the Lord had seen me drive by Marcus for 10, 15 years without stopping,” Lee said. “Yet today He is looking down on me saying, ‘Good job.’ For once, I know He is really proud of me.”
Jeff shared his story with friends and family. Co-workers were moved, too. When his office floor celebrates birthdays, the response is to bring supplies for Marcus and other homeless people they encounter in lieu of gifts.
At Thanksgiving, Lee, his wife, Gay, and daughter, Grace, delivered three plates of a holiday meal – one for Marcus and extras in case anyone else showed up. Lee’s daughter was the last to get out of the car, and as she did Lee thought he heard Marcus greet her by name.
Lee was caught off-guard. Marcus had never met one of Lee’s children, and while their daily conversations covered much ground, he hadn’t mentioned his daughter by name before.
After visiting, the Lees returned to the car to head home and Grace said, “Dad, I can’t believe he remembered me.”
The story came to clarity quickly. The week before, while Lee was away on a hunting trip, Gay and Grace visited Marcus. Fearing he would be unprepared for cold weather, they delivered sweatpants and a top and warm socks.
Lee, his family and co-workers would like to do more. He has connected Marcus with a local church that provides hot showers. He’s looking into a laundry service that will provide Marcus and others with clean clothes on a regular basis. He is worried about Marcus’ health long term, but most of his attempts to help further have been rebuffed.
“I’m happy,” Marcus said simply, when asked if there was anything anyone else could do to help.
“Marcus has never asked me for anything,” Lee added. “He always says thank you for listening. There is a kindness about him, and while I hope I bring him comfort I can say this with certainty: I get far more out of our visits and our friendship than he does.”