Help On Wheels

by | May 1, 2013 | Features

There’s nothing special about the van. It’s a 1993 Chevy with faded blue paint. There are a few marks of distinction. It’s blue hide is emblazoned with the moniker “Russ Bus” written in bright crimson, and on this muggy April evening the tangy smell of tomato sauce permeates it’s interior. White Styrofoam containers filled with spaghetti and stacked neatly in a boxare the source of the smells. Next to the box of spaghetti containers rides a box full of rolls and eating utensils zipped up in plastic baggies.
Toward the back of the van are plastic tubs filled with a selection of toiletries: Toothbrushes, toothpaste, shampoo, soap – the basics of hygiene that most take for granted. A bag of diapers sits next to the tubs. The van is full to overflowing with food, necessities, and compassion.
Ashley Francis is behind the steering wheel of the van. She flicks the blinker switch and turns onto busy East Main Street in the middle of Russellville.
“And of course we have toilet paper on here too,” giggles Ashley. “That’s just something else that’s so important, but that we all take for granted. Most of us don’t give a second thought about these things unless we run out at home.”

Ashley is one of five individuals that drive a van, and a program called the Russ Bus. Fred Teague, Victor Whicher, Shelby Davis, Mellanie Sorrels round out the crew.
The Russ Bus is what you could call “help on wheels” and its help is focused on a group of people that are often overlooked, ostracized, or ignored.
The word Homeless conjures negative images and opinionated speculation. It’s a sad fact that those on the margins of society often stay on those margins for various reasons. But, the Russ Bus crew is injecting hope into the lives of many homeless people in the River Valley. That last sentence may have been a bit jarring. Yes, homeless people live in the small town communities of the River Valley. Most are in Russellville, and while there is no official count, the numbers receiving help from the Russ Bus keep the crew busy. And, the number grows every week.

“We don’t know where all the homeless people are, and we probably never will, and new people come every day,” said Fred Teague. “There are different situations and different degrees of homelessness. Some are actually on the street, some are about to be evicted, some live in cars.”

“And a lot of the people we help don’t look homeless,” added Ashley.
Misconceptions about the people they help are a constant battle for the Russ Bus crew.
“A business owner that hired one of the people we help asked me where the homeless are,” said Fred. “I said, they walk in front of your building every day.”
Many wake up in the morning and go to work.
“We have people that live in tents and then get up and go to work every day,” said Fred. “We have a few people that do look homeless, and they will probably remain homeless because they don’t want to change their way of doing things.”
Bad luck and bad decisions, working either separately or in concert, can lead to homelessness.
“One thing that blows me away is how some of these people have just burned every bridge,” said Fred. “They don’t have anyone to call. We helped a guy from Springdale with a bus ticket so he could get back there. I mean, who doesn’t know someone that can take them to Springdale from Russellville? I can’t imagine that, and I don’t know all the circumstances involved in every situation, but the bottom line is that they are completely isolated. They don’t have anywhere to go and no one to call.”
Ashley adds that sometimes misfortune is the culprit.
“We helped this family of six; mom, dad and four kids. Dad was the maintenance man for an apartment complex and the complex sold to another owner. Well, the new owner decided her husband would do the maintenance. That’s how the family was paying for their apartment. The guy lost his job and the family lost their home all in one day. They moved into a car for a while and then we found them and were able to get them in an apartment. The dad is working, working good hours, and now they’re making it. And, aren’t most of us just one or two paychecks from being homeless? I know how things are with me and I’m in no position to judge anyone for their circumstances.”

Sometimes a life on the street is the only alternative to escape addictions or bad situations.
“Everybody always asks me how many drug addicts I deal with,” said Fred.” And, the truth is, we don’t deal with a ton of that kind of thing. Sure, there are some that have addiction problems, but we talk to a lot of people that are like, I’ve got a place I can stay with friends that are doing drugs, but I’m trying to get away from that. Or sometimes they just need to get out of a bad situation, they just don’t have any place to go, so they do the only thing they can do”
The Russ Bus is patterned after The Van, a similar program in Little Rock. Other mobile units include the Mission Machine in Searcy and VanLanta in Atlanta Georgia. The goal is the same for all: helping people get back on their feet. This includes delivering food, providing shelter (often just a tent), help with job placement, and sometimes just someone to talk to.
Ashley had been working with homeless folks for about 8 months prior to the creation of the Russ Bus.
“I was just doing what I could,” said Ashley. “I was delivering food and other things. Fred came to me after he saw pictures of a homeless camp on Facebook. He wanted to help, so, he helped me feed people on Christmas, do with this thing. I told him I wanted to branch off of The Van in Little Rock. So, that’s what we did.”

The Russ Bus operates under the non- profit tax umbrella of The One Inc, along with The Van, The Mission Machine, and VanLanta, but all donations and all people helped are here in the River Valley. It’s a volunteer activity, no one is paid, and long hours every week are the norm.
The Russ Bus runs a food route at least twice a week, and sometimes more often, depending on the availability of food and help with food preparation. Various day-to-day living products are on the van and available to anyone that needs them. “Diapers are a big thing too,” said Ashley. “Families with babies always need diapers and diapers are expensive.” If someone literally has no place to go they can stay in a tent provided by the Russ Bus. They also get a shower once a week, laundry done, help with finding housing, and help with securing employment.

Every person in need has a backstory; actually, every person on Earth has a backstory. But, sometimes those who need help are wary of being judged.
“Once we do know their story, we still don’t judge them,” said Ashley. “Who are we to judge you? We don’t care that you were a drug addict, we don’t care that you were a prostitute, we don’t care if you’re gay.”
Shelby agrees, “Sometimes people are like why? Why do you help them? And I’m like, that’s what we’re supposed to do.”
“The longest recorded conversation Jesus had was with the woman at the well that nobody would have anything to do with,” said Ashley. “Those are the people that we are reaching out to and those people are the ones I’m going to be associated with, people like the woman at the well.”

Working with people that have nothing makes a person grateful for even the simple things that most take for granted.
“When you hear a little boy get excited about getting a toothbrush, because he doesn’t have to share with his sister anymore,” said Shelby. “It’s things like that really make you see what needs to be done”.
Shelby gazes out the van window at a teenage girl walking outside of the hotel office. It’s a homeless girl and one the crew knows. Shelby is 19, only a few years older than the girl. One girl is giving from abundance and one is receiving with gratitude. The only difference in their lives to this point has been the stroke of luck. To the casual observer, they both look like typical River Valley Kids. Poverty doesn’t have a distinctive look.
The Blue van finishes it’s run in about an hour and a half. Most of the meals are gone, and those remaining will find their way to others in need. But, full bellies are only a small part of the Russ Bus mission. It’s a mission of love and it’s a mission of compassion. It’s a mission that requires full hearts, and the hearts of the Russ Bus crew are clearly overflowing. You can contact the Russ Bus on Facebook or at their website



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