“Family” is the word that comes to mind when I think of Ricky Reams— it means the world to him. When Ricky and I met two years ago at Housing for New Hope’s Phoenix House transitional housing program, the first goal we tackled was saving for housing. Ricky saved with remarkable fervor, stunning me by reaching his goal of $500 in just four months. But what I will never forget is that the only time he ever deposited less than planned into his Safe Savings Account, it was in the name of family: he wanted to give his grandchildren gifts for the holidays.
Family was also essential to Ricky’s ability to work. Two months after he successfully moved into his own place, we reconnected to work on job searches. After revamping his resume, drafting a cover letter, and practicing tricky interview questions, Ricky was able to find work – he just had trouble keeping it. He confided that ever since moving away from his hometown of New Haven, Connecticut, he had been struggling to hold a job: “I get depressed because my family always in Connecticut and I couldn’t go check on ‘em and see ‘em like I want to. So I just get isolated and shut the world down.” Knowing that being separated from his family made it difficult for him to maintain employment, my co-advocate Stephanie Colorado and I set about making sure he knew he could have “family” in Durham, too. Every Thursday morning, we met Ricky at Whole Foods to play cards, talk about life, share stories, and just spend time together.
Today, Ricky will have been employed as a Donations Ambassador at Habitat ReStore of Durham and Orange Counties for almost half a year and will proudly tell you, “Everything been going so good at that job! I love to go to work … I come in there smiling and happy every day.” He will also gush about the newest addition to his family, a childhood friend who he only recently found the courage to approach, “We gonna get married – I’m talking ‘bout we gonna jump the mop, we ain’t gonna jump the broom! Right now, we feel like we 40 years married. She’s a beautiful woman and I love her to death.”
Hanging out with Ricky was my small part in helping to make sure depression wouldn’t keep him from doing what he loves – but, selfishly, it was also my way of basking in his good nature. He’s the kind of person who, when I vented about people who I thought were being nasty, reminded me, “You know what you do to people who make you feel that way? You pray for them.” If you ask him his secret, he will shrug, “I’m like the same person every day, try to uplift people, ask them how their child doing, how’s your day – that’s just me.” It is infectious. Each time we met – whether it was to open an affordable credit union account, sign-up for e-statements to reduce fees, budget for his new housing expenses, file back taxes to avoid garnishment, stow the cash he had from selling his van into his Safe Savings account, or connect to Legal Aid for help dealing with an exploitative landlord – he uplifted me with his spirit. He became somebody I could call if stressed or angry. He became somebody who, when I share with him that I’m scared to head to medical school but am trying to be brave, he tells me “I’m proud of you, Anne” and I choke up. Ricky is family.