We are the help we're looking for

ONE OF the main objectives of this column is to provide solid examples of how we are not, in fact, heading to hell in a handbasket.

This is ostensibly for your edification and entertainment, and also because I need to confirm for myself that beyond the political clustercusses and bureaucratic rat storms, people really are decent and every problem has a solution.

Sometimes I have to do the journalistic equivalent of turning over rocks and poking at bugs with a stick to find some good news that doesn’t sound like propaganda.

This week, however, y’all handed me a proverbial flower.

Still, probably because I was distracted by all the monkeys on my feed (and I don’t mean poor Harambe, rest his soul), it wasn’t until it had popped up three times that I clicked on the link to a GoFundMe page titled “Roberta needs your help!”

click to enlarge We are the help we're looking for
Roberta has nothing left to do but smile smile smile at your unexpected generosity, Savannah.

Posted on May 19, the campaign aimed to raise $1500 to cover the dental work desperately needed by Roberta Hopkins, a well-known fixture on the local coffeeshop scene. Maybe you’ve seen her riding her bike around town or tapping out prose on her laptop or even guffawed with her as she directs her laser-sharp commentary to whatever daily drama is going down in national politics or in front of the Sentient Bean.

A sidewalk social scientist and thrift-shop fashionista of the highest order, Roberta attends the Unitarian Universalist Church on Sundays and can wax poetic on everything from existentialism to Edith Wharton. Her Tumblr, The Center for Thaumaturgy in the Public Interest, is a trove of wit and wisdom, and the ‘zines of her thoughtful, funny musings fly out the door at Starlandia. (Thaumaturgy is the “capability to work magic or miracles,” and I really think it ought to be a college major.)

click to enlarge We are the help we're looking for
Roberta has nothing left to do but smile smile smile at your unexpected generosity, Savannah.

Roberta is also homeless and transgender, which has made it difficult to seek treatment for her dentile deterioration as she isn’t eligible for care through the local shelter system. (If you agree that forced-gender bathrooms are dangerous for trans people, think about staying on the men’s side of a homeless shelter.)

She rode into town on her bike from St. Augustine six-ish years ago and often doles out advice to newly-arrived transients on the best church meals, safe sleeping spots and other ways to survive another day. Roberta prefers to camp with a few friends away from the tent cities that surround Savannah, which she reports “are crammed with tents and tarps and piles of garbage.” If you’ve met her, you know she is fiercely self-reliant—never one to “fly the sign,” as she refers to begging for change at intersections.

“I have a very different attitude than most homeless people,” she shrugs, her grey eyes dancing as she adjusts the silk scarf tied around her neck.

“Most of them just want to stay in their same milieu, but I like to be in town.”

In spite of a lifestyle devoid of indulgences (no drugs, no alcohol, no junk food unless the soup kitchen is serving cake), every single tooth is rotting out of her head. She’s staved off infections with alternative remedies like raw garlic (a natural antibiotic) and holy basil tea (which helps the body adapt to stress), but none of that can regrow enamel.

Every bite of food is a chore, and in order to prevent deadly complications and end the constant pain she’s suffering, Roberta needs all of her teeth pulled and replaced with a set of dentures. Like, yesterday.

The GoFundMe page was created by Roberta’s friend, Corrie Sweat, a stylist at Salon 2010 whose husband, Henry Rocha, works at the Bean. Corrie spends several evenings a week hanging with Roberta while Henry finishes his shift and became alarmed when she learned how advanced the tooth situation was.

“Roberta is such a special person, and I couldn’t stand by and do nothing,” says Corrie, adding that she struggled with figuring out how to help.

“She’s very self-sufficient and never asks for help. She was hesitant to agree to this.”

I’ve got a mouthful of fake fangs myself, and I can tell you that $1500 does not go far for serious dental work. (Pro tip: gold crowns are cheaper than porcelain, though not everyone wants to wear their street cred up front.)

Corrie figured as much, but didn’t want to test the inflammatory nature of the internet with a higher number.

“I’m not a fan of crowdfunding, but I thought a few folks might want to contribute. People can be very opinionated. I just put it up and hoped people wouldn’t post negative things,” she says.

“I didn’t know what would happen.”

Well, what happened was (to employ the favorite phrase of third graders everywhere) that the goal was met within 24 hours. Two weeks later, the fund has risen to more than twice the original amount, and thanks to widespread sharing, it’s still growing, mostly with donations of $20 or less. I wasn’t able to confirm that it will be enough to cover the oral surgery and denture fittings, but Dr. Scott Cohen has agreed to perform this formidable task in the next few weeks. There might even be a few bucks leftover to afford Roberta a couple of days in a modest hotel to recover in safety and peace.

“That says something pretty amazing about our community,” says Corrie, though she bemoans the dearth of active solutions to deal with our growing homeless population.

But hope grows: On Friday it was announced that the Chatham Savannah Authority for the Homeless has purchased a three-acre parcel on which a conclave of “tiny houses” will be built for those without a roof.

Vets will be given priority for the 60 planned 128 square-foot units that will provide AC, heat and full bathrooms. It’s a start, but there are a reported 4000 others living in the woods, under the freeways and on the outskirts of our neighborhoods.

It is a problem still in need of a solution. Until we find it, we have to be the help we are waiting for, a person at a time.

Roberta recognizes that she is one of many living on the fringe here, commenting dryly that “you might not want to go traipsing through the woods picking wildflowers.”

Yet she is infallibly positive, always with her face to the sun, even on a rainy afternoon at the Bean, where we lounged a while on the couch talking thaumaturgy, foreign films and the seemingly sudden cultural conversation of blended gender.(Corrie carefully presented Roberta on the GoFundMe post with the gender neutral pronouns “they/them” out of respect, though when I asked Roberta about her pronoun preference, she replied with a giggle, “Oh, I don’t know, ‘Your majesty’?”)

She is surprised, humbled and pleased by the collective effort to fix her mouth, though she admits she’s nervous about surrendering all her dentes to the dentist.

“I am looking forward to being able to smile again,” she declares, as if her current condition has ever stopped her from grinning a whole lot anyway.

“This is going to change everything.”

It’s a blessed irony—Roberta might even call it absurd—that in these times of raging apathy and wild ineptitude, the simplest acts of kindness are the most effective.

So thank you, people of Savannah, for defying expectations and renewing my faith in humanity for another week.

As I watch Roberta ride away on her bike, skirt flying in the wind, I feel a swell of gratitude for her as well: It does take a special person to remind us of our own capacity to work magic and miracles.


About The Author

Jessica Leigh Lebos

Community Editor Jessica Leigh Lebos has been writing about interesting people, vexing issues and anything involving free food for more than 20 years. She introduces herself at cocktail parties as southern by marriage.
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