Posted Feb 22, 2012 by 12 Comments

I surveyed the room of the home I had just stepped into, taking in the holes in the walls and wrapping my arms around myself against the chill. Betty, standing less than five feet tall, welcomed Cliff (Mustard Seed Development volunteer) and me into her home warmly, but she fidgeted and bit her lip enough to reveal that something was troubling her.

“Can you do anything to help?” Betty asked, holding out a letter from the code enforcement officer, her eyebrows pushed together in concern. The list contained no less than 17 items to be fixed within one month under threat of fine and eviction.

All 17 of Betty’s citations.

My jaw dropped as I read the letter. Judging by the state of the place, it was clear that Betty couldn’t afford hiring people to fix all of these things. She was seriously close to entering the never-ending land of fines and legal action. I handed the letter to Cliff with the same pleading feeling that Betty expressed.

“Sure!” Cliff said, without thinking, “We’ll start working on this.”

We Can Help

Cliff, Mustard Seed volunteer in charge of the senior home repair projects.

Relief relaxed Betty’s frame immediately. Since receiving the letter, she’d been sick with worry about what to do. She lives on a modest social security check that covers the bare minimum of monthly costs, nothing extra like a vehicle or money for repairs like the ones needed on her home. Her son lives with her, but he’s incarcerated right now.

Unfortunately for Betty, her house is slowly degenerating—holes in the siding, broken door frames and a collapsing garage, to name a few things. Betty has received few citations in the past, but the area just hired a new code enforcement officer who hit Betty with all of these citations to be corrected now.

“I’ve been just prayin’ and prayin’ these past couple of days. I didn’t know what I was gonna do!” Betty told us. Without the means to fix up her place, the letter held the weight of an eviction notice, threatening to throw Betty back onto the streets for the second time in her life.

I’m not necessarily against the code. In fact, Mustard Seed encourages neighbors to report code violations in order to improve the neighborhood. Plus, some things like, “need roof repair,” or, “secure door,” are in the best interest of the residents.

But how do sweet little ladies like Betty end up in these situations?

In the Past

Betty and I have shared many conversations in her dimly-lit living room in front of daily soap operas and talk shows. Betty, like many of the neighborhood residents, has grown used to living with very little, so she saves everything she can. The floor holds piles of trinkets, furniture and clothes. Several years ago her pipes broke, so now she brings water in with buckets and bottles from the outdoor hose.

Betty keeps the windows covered (typical for this area) for security, but she sits under the light of a lamp with her hands against an electric heater as we visit. Having grown up in southern California, Betty isn’t too keen on the cold.

Betty’s dog, Sierra, stands guard at the broken front door.

For many years, Betty lived in California with her boyfriend and father of her two grown sons, surrounded by extended family. But after her boyfriend—a man with money and connections—threatened to take the boys and move, Betty ran away with her sons and took on the daunting task of living as a single mom.

An Unhappy Marriage

Several years later, Betty was working as a bar tender and fell for a man who promised to love her and her boys. She married him and moved her family to Oklahoma City.

“I really think he was my soul mate,” Betty told me, “I mean, when things were good, they were real good. He took the boys fishing. We ate dinner together.”

“What happened?” I asked hesitantly.

“He started drinking a lot. Then he started hittin’ on me.”

“I’m so sorry to hear that, Betty.”

A view of Betty’s house.

“No, no—that was alright. I was young. I could take it. But I couldn’t take him cheatin’ on me. That’s when I said no more,” she asserted.

As she spoke, Betty tipped her coffee cup towards one of her four dogs to share a little. My heart ached for her. How can a person so caring and full of good think it’s okay to be beaten? Doesn’t she know how valuable she is?

Since leaving her husband, Betty has mostly stayed here in this house with little opportunity for work, partly because of her age and partly because she’s blind in one eye from an accident. Some neighbors help her out from time to time, but projects like repairing her house require a little more attention.

In Plain Sight

Over the next several months, Mustard Seed will work with volunteers to rehabilitate Betty’s home. They will also advocate for her and prove that since the house is a work “in progress,” she deserves an extension. As Betty put it, the help she’s receiving is truly an answered prayer.

Betty is being taken care of by the wonderful people at Mustard Seed.

“Even if nothin’ got done, that’d be okay…I just needed [Cliff] to come by and look and say he’d try. He’s so kind to do that,” Betty told me.

I couldn’t believe what she was saying to me: as worried as she is about getting her house repaired, she’s most grateful that somebody acknowledged her situation. Through the simple gesture of stepping through her doorway to listen, Cliff showed Betty that she is valued, loved and worth helping.

Our homes, streets and neighborhoods are designed to ensure privacy, but privacy does not grant us permission to be neglectful. Sometimes we need to seek those who need support. Because of the work of the people at Mustard Seed, Betty’s suffering is no longer hidden behind a broken door.

“I really think they’re going to get the job done,” I told Betty, trying to reassure her.

She just smiled contently and tried to reassure me, “But even if they don’t, that’d be alright.”

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Next Steps
    • Learn more about the work of Mustard Seed and their ideas about community development from their website.
    • Interested in taking part in home repair projects in your neighborhood? Try finding what Habitat for Humanity is doing near you.
    • Do any elderly people live around you? Try stopping in for a visit. Sometimes people need company more than anything else. Or maybe they have a need that nobody’s ever asked them about!
    • Pray for the neighbors of Mustard Seed and all of those involved in their ministry.
    Next Steps

About the Author: Laura is a journalism fellow with World Next Door. She graduated from the University of Arizona, Tucson with a degree in Animal Sciences and a minor in Spanish. She is constantly learning, making friends, dancing, and trying to understand her role in alleviating the suffering of others. Laura also attracts a lot of awkward situations.

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  1. douglas cripe said... 


    February 22nd, 2012 at 8:18 am  

    In what stage is this situation now? wish I were closer (indiana)…I would help as I’m an underused handyman..good luck…I feel for this lady…she needs a break

    • Barry Rodriguez said... 


      February 22nd, 2012 at 12:31 pm  

      Douglas, you’re in Indy? If you are interested in putting your skills to work, I’m sure I could find a local organization that would be thrilled to have you. Just shoot me an email and I’ll see what I can do!

    • Laura Stump said... 


      February 23rd, 2012 at 7:35 am  

      Hey Douglas! It’s great to hear that. But as Barry said, there are probably some similar situations wherever you are–let us hook you up :)

  2. Chuck Gross said... 


    February 22nd, 2012 at 9:15 am  

    Laura Stump – you are AWSOME! Safe Families for Children Central Indiana loves you. You are the eyes and ears to the world for many of us.

    Whenever you can do more SFFCCI writing, let me know.

    I am assuming Betty is still in Oklahoma. Yes?

    Chuck Gross
    President – Advisory Board SFFCCI

    • Laura Stump said... 


      February 23rd, 2012 at 7:37 am  

      Hey Chuck! Yes, Betty is still in Oklahoma, and Mustard Seed is working on her home and getting her an extension of the deadline for repairing things.

      I hope all is well at Safe Families! I still hear things now and then about your incredible work.

  3. Jane VanOsdol said... 


    February 22nd, 2012 at 2:01 pm  

    We live in a society where we almost feel like we’re prying if we ask someone how they are doing. Betty’s story reminds us to keep asking.

    • Laura Stump said... 


      February 23rd, 2012 at 7:39 am  

      I know, Jane! Even harder than asking is actually saying, “I’m not doing very well.” I respect that Betty is so willing to share her situation with others to get help–and with me to write about!

  4. Amy Sorrells said... 


    February 22nd, 2012 at 4:04 pm  

    Wow, Laura, so grateful you brought Betty into my home this afternoon. If you visit with her again, tell her Amy in Indy things she’s beautiful, and I’m praying for the repairs to her home.

    • Laura Stump said... 


      February 23rd, 2012 at 7:40 am  

      Hey Amy :) I’m sending her the article and a letter soon–I’ll let her know. Thanks for your support of Betty.

  5. Breanna Sipple said... 


    February 23rd, 2012 at 3:23 am  

    This is amazing. Thanks for sharing Betty’s story. It makes you think about who is in your own community that could use a little help and how that opens up the door (literally) to get to know a bit more about them in the meantime, too.

    • Laura Stump said... 


      February 23rd, 2012 at 7:41 am  

      No problem, Breanna! I know–Betty is such a great reminder that everyone has a story. There are so many factors that land a person in her situation.

  6. Carol McCain said... 


    March 17th, 2012 at 12:06 am  

    Laura, I am trying to type through tears that welled up as I read your story…you really have a way with words. I just told Dan that I would be the perfect person to be able to stay home(i.e. not work) and be here in the hood doing the kind of work you did while you stayed with us…with my own job loss and the feeling of insecurity that I have been battling, I can certainly see how there is a point where life could be teetering on the edge, facing an ill-repaired home, broken front doors and broken relationships. With just the minimal amount of loss setting a person reeling into the unknown-ness of what will happen next, it is easy to see how this can snowball into a looming set of problems. Hopefully with God’s help and the knowledge you have given by telling Betty’s story, people who have the means will come forward and begin to “right” some of the wrongs in our world: the “world ‘right’ next door”…love to you, Carol

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