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From Homeless to Hopeful

From Homeless to Hopeful

My slides along with the complete narrative of my presentation done at WordCamp Portland, 2015. I talk about the small decisions and events in the lives of the people in my family that led to us ultimately being able to utilize everything we've learned in order to help a homeless family with goals to help other children sibling groups in need. It's a different sort of WordCamp presentation. I hope it inspires you to focus on the little things to build great things!

Marc Benzakein

October 26, 2015

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  1. It was a sunny day in August. The 24th to

    be exact. In our home, routine is a must. With a boatload of kids and schedules to keep, even summers are pretty busy. As it WAS part of my daily routine, I went to take the dog for her morning walk. Her name is Barcelona and she’s a full-grown, fully trained Doberman. Living in the city in a neighborhood of row houses, it’s pretty common to have an alley that runs behind these homes and starting in the alley is typically how my walks with Barcelona go. When I got out back, I saw a car stalled to my left at the intersection of our North/South alley and the one that runs East/West. This is normally the direction I take but, knowing that our dog can be a bit intimidating, opted to walk in the opposite direction. As I was walking, I could hear the driver attempt to start the car over and over. To my untrained ear, it sounded as though the car was simply not getting enough gas. I would finish walking Barcelona and if the car was still there when I was done, I would go offer some help. Sure enough, as I expected, after my walk, I could see the car was still there. I went inside and let my wife, Jessica, know that I was going to go out in the alley to help someone who was stranded and asked her to feed Barcelona. Little did I know that our day was about to change and helping the driver it was a decision that was to change our lives. When I went outside, I could see that the driver was no longer attempting to start the vehicle. I approached slowly and upon peering into the window, I could see a young woman, perhaps in her early 20s, at the steering wheel with her head in her hands. In the front passenger seat was, quite probably, the smallest infant I had ever seen. And while he was buckled in a baby carrier, he was strapped into the seat sideways. I approached the woman, who rolled down the window and asked if there was anything I could do. “I cannot seem to start my car,” was her answer. “I think the battery is dead.” I asked her to crank the engine and could tell, once again, that the issue was not battery related. “I am homeless,” she said. “I spent the night in the alley behind the garage. It looked like a safe place for my four kids to sleep.” I had been so busy going through my mind, looking for a solution that I hadn’t even noticed that in the back seat, peering at me, were three sets of very frightened looking eyes.
  2. “I’ve called all the shelters,” she continued, “but no one

    has room for all five of us, so I’m on a waiting list.” “Do you have anyone you can call? Family? Friends? Anyone?”, I asked. “No. No one,” was the response. In that moment, I was taken aback. No one. No one. Being the problem solver that I am, (even when it’s not asked), I explained to her that I would help to push the car into the street so that it was not blocking the alley. We would then figure out a plan of action. I had resolved that, at least for that day, she and her kids would not have “no one.” Once we pushed the car to a safe spot, I left the mother and her kids and explained that I needed to talk to Jessica about a game plan. Jessica and I decided that she should come to the house where they could relax a bit, get some food and rest, if needed, while I worked on a solution to get her car running again. Once Jessica took care of their immediate needs, she got on the phone and started calling contacts she had to see if there was anything that could be done on a short-term basis. Meanwhile, I had determined that the issue was the fuel pump and that to repair the car it was going to be a bigger project than I could take on by myself, so I arranged to have the car towed down to a mechanic who used to live in our neighborhood and someone I trusted. With the car out of the way (at least temporarily), it was time to figure out what could be done for this woman and her kids. She was 24 and her kids were five, almost three, almost two and the baby was one month old. He weighed less than seven pounds and later, we found out that when he was born, he was about seven and a half pounds. That means that a month after he was born, he weighed less than his birth weight.
  3. The mother, Jessica had found out throughout her conversations, had

    aged out from foster care. For those who may not know, aging out means that a child was put in foster homes but was never adopted. And most of her life, while she did manage to keep a roof over her head one way or another, she was a transient; never staying in any one place for long. She was a Milwaukee native and had never ventured far beyond Milwaukee her whole life. After much discussion and several phone calls, we offered to allow the children to stay with us for a few days while we put her up in a hotel room in hopes that the time alone she would come up with a game plan for her life. To our surprise, she took us up on the offer. She said that for some reason, she felt she could trust us. And just like that, in a day, between the looming auto repair bill and the hotel, we knew were in for a good $1,300 to $1,500 dollars. So, what started out as a normal Monday turned on a dime, all because I made a small decision. I opted to ask someone if they needed help rather than ignore it. I chose to do something rather than do nothing.
  4. At this point, you might be wondering what any of

    this has to do with WordPress. Then again, if you’ve been following my blog, maybe not. To explain that, I need to talk about another decision I made years ago, around 2009. I was running a different company. My partner and I were busy liquidating Harley Davidson parts online. I certainly did not start out as a Harley expert but I did know how to get things online and get them sold. Things were going well for a bit but I was always on the lookout for ways to supplement the company income. Since 95% of our liquidation took place on Ebay, I thought that maybe there was a way to leverage their affiliate program so that even if people didn’t buy things from us, we could still make money. Enter WordPress. I had been looking around for options when I discovered this thing called a plugin. The plugin I found was one developed specifically for Ebay and was to be used in WordPress. “But WordPress is for blogging,” I thought. None the less, I spent the $49.00 on this plugin and read the directions on how to do a WordPress install. Within an hour, I had WordPress up and running, along with the plugin. It only took me a little while longer to realize how robust WordPress was and that yes, this certainly WAS more than *just* blogging software. Within two days, I had an out of the box theme, and the configured plugin up and running on a live server with a domain I had registered. Within 30 days, I was starting to see affiliate income from Ebay. I was making money from my competitors on Ebay. It was pretty sweet. I had gotten my first taste of what WordPress could really do. Before you know it, I was setting up affiliate sites left and right. About a year later, we shut down the parts business. But I had walked away with something far more significant than a “failed” business. I walked away with a taste for WordPress and, come to find out, had just gotten started. Because, as it turned out, not only was WordPress more than blogging software. It was more than software. It was something bigger. So, once again, a small decision, a $49.00 leap of faith for a premium plugin set me on a path I would have never conceived of otherwise.
  5. After the Harley business closed down, money was tight. Within

    the span of about a month, Jessica had found out she was pregnant with our second child and the company she had poured her heart and soul into for the past several years shut its doors, literally overnight. Between trying to start a new business up and Jessica losing her income, we were going through our savings quickly. Times were really tough. We even found ourselves looking at the potential for homelessness ourselves, but unlike the mother at the beginning of the story, we DID have people we were able to turn to. During this time, I found myself trying to make a go of being a WordPress developer. There I was, doing $500 out of the box websites just to make ends meet when my old friend, Gregg called me up and explained to me that he was making far better money as a WordPress developer and sure could use my help. He and I got together and started pushing out higher end, customized WordPress sites. It was 2012 when Gregg suggested to me that I should go to a WordCamp in San Diego. Neither he nor I had been and his offer, which I thought generous at the time, was that he would pay for my ticket if I would pay my way out there. Knowing how much tech conferences usually were, but also knowing how much I loathed tech conferences, I was on the fence. I talked it over with Jessica who encouraged me to go and I bought the plane ticket. It was only then that I looked up the price of a WordCamp ticket. That WordCamp was where I saw the true potential with WordPress. And it had little to do with the actual software and more to do with the actual community surrounding it. It was because of that WordCamp that I got truly connected and it was because of that WordCamp that I became a proud member of the ServerPress team. It was that WordCamp where I saw, possibly for the first time in action, my long-held belief that a community of people could lift each other up - that when everyone does well for others, they do well for themselves. It was a small decision to go, but it’s one I might not have made had I known the price of the WordCamp ahead of time. Some might argue that my decision was made out of ignorance. I prefer to think that it was a little bit of luck.
  6. So how does this play into current day? And how

    did I use WordPress to change the world? To answer that, I need to briefly give you one more back story. It’s a short one. I promise. Once Jessica and I got back on our feet financially, we decided it was time for a big change. We had been living in a home in Northern Wisconsin, but our goals in life had always been to take in and adopt a sibling group of children of an age that no one would want to adopt. You see, after a certain age, kids are no longer “cute.” Kids develop their own personalities and if you’re lucky their own independent ways. Most prospective parents are not interested in that. Most parents want the cute and cuddly adorable babies. Most parents are unable to take in a group of kids or just don’t want to. When a child’s parent’s rights are taken away, the System places the kids wherever they can. This means that a sibling group, in most cases, gets split up. So the kids not only have to deal with the anguish of being ripped out of their homes, but the pain of being split up from their brothers or sisters. When a sibling group is split, their only connection to the people they love is being taken away. The pain literally drives them crazy. After looking at about 200 hundred houses, some online and some in person, we finally found a house in the city, in the neighborhood that we wanted and for the right price and made the move. We bought a house that was 115 years old and had plenty of space. It was going to take some renovating but we were old hats at working on older homes. In October of 2014, the mother of a friend of my son, Eli asked us if we could take care of her three boys, ages ten, three and three months. While the house was not ready, we took them in and literally, overnight, we went from having a home with two kids to a home with five. And while it was not at all according to plan, it was among the things we were wanting to do when we moved. Because it happened so fast, I knew that a big life adventure was about to ensue and I wanted to document it. While it was developed for my own purposes, my twotofive.us blog was created. It was a small decision and it was made on a whim.
  7. We needed space. We had three boys living with us

    and only the ten year old had a place to sleep. We set up a makeshift space for the three year old and the three month old slept in our room. We knew that they still had some time, but that they would soon outgrow that arrangement. When we bought the house, our goal was to build out the attic. This would, when completed, give us an additional four bedrooms and two baths, so that we could take in more children. However, due to other renovations going on, we knew that it would be a year or two down the road before we’d have the money to do the work. With the three new additions to our family, that timeline needed to be pushed up a bit. We needed to get the attic done so that when they were ready, the boys would have places they could call their own. One of the biggest things that kids need is stability and a sense of permanence. Foster kids, or kids who have been displaced need it even more. And try as we might, there was no getting them to stop growing while we got our acts together. So, in January of this year, we signed a contract to have the work done. The renovation was going to be around $140,000. The home where you plan to raise your family is far more than a financial investment. It is an investment of another kind. Since we had already put more money into the house than it was worth due to our other necessary renovations, we knew that getting a bank loan was not going to be an option. We simply needed to come up with cash. We had about half of it and that was more than enough to start the work. The rest we would figure out later. With some planning, a bit of sacrifice and determination, we were MOSTLY certain that we could pull it off. Our first thought was that we would crowd fund what we could. We knew that $70,000 was going to be a tough nut to crack but we also knew that anything would be of great help. Also having seen the generosity of the WordPress Community, and having made so many friends over the few short years in which I had been a member, I knew we could count on those who were in a position to give to do exactly that.
  8. My next thought was that I could find a plugin

    that would work within our already created WordPress site. I looked but there just was not anything that “tripped my trigger.” So I opted for a site that might support our cause. Ultimately, after doing some research and because they have a close relationship to the WordPress Community, I opted to utilize tilt.com to raise the money. I created a short video explaining what we were doing, created the campaign and launched it. There were things I didn’t like about it but it would suffice. And the folks at Tilt offered fantastic support of the cause. One of its members even donated a few bucks. When said and done, the Tilt campaign raised close to $10,000 with around 85% of it coming from members of the WordPress Community. There were a few big donors, but all of those small $10.00 to $20.00 donations added up.
  9. Now that I’ve taken you on the path which led

    to current day, let’s get back to the story of the homeless mother and her four children. As I mentioned earlier, Jessica and I had immediately concluded that, at minimum, we were into repairs and hotel for the mother for at least $1,500.00. This turned out to be a pretty big underestimation. And we had decided that no matter the cost, we were determined to make sure that we would contribute the time and money needed to help this family get back on their feet. I had written a blog post about my experience with finding this family, and through my various Slack channels, I had several people reach out to me and ask if they could help financially in anyway. I decided that, once again, I would look to the WordPress Community for anyone who might feel compelled to help. I had been hearing good things about the more recent versions of the GiveWP plugin and, knowing the guys behind it, Devon Walker and Matt Cromwell, I knew that I’d have a direct line for support should anything go wrong (although, they’re great guys and I know that they’d jump to support anyone whether then know them or not). I decided to give “GiveWP” a shot. I really liked that it was a plugin, would be hosted on my own site, and that there would be no money taken from a donation, leaving the full amount to go toward the cause. From the time I downloaded the plugin from the repository to the time I had an active campaign up and running on the site, it took about ten to fifteen minutes. It truly was easy-peazy, lemon squeezy. The only thing left to do was to make sure that payments would be received through the PayPal gateway and the only way to make sure that payments worked was to receive donations.
  10. I quickly crafted a new post on the twotofive.us site,

    simply entitled, “We Need Money.” Sometimes it helps to be direct. I then tweeted the link to the post out and within minutes, others within the Community had retweeted. Within an hour, we had already received over $1,000 in donations. Not only did the plugin JUST WORK, but the Community, as I had seen so often, did as well. When all was said and done, Jessica and I spent about $5,000 on this family, getting them paid up on back bills, car repairs, hotel, food and clothing. And when it was all said and done, through the GiveWP Campaign, we were able to raise about $4,800. $3,500 of that was donated by the WordPress Community, most of them donations of $20.00 or less. By making the small decision to keep it within the WordPress Family, we were able to raise a lot of money for a very worthy cause. By taking one small thing. By zigging when I normally zag, and through several small decisions and experiences throughout the past few years, I was able to take every aspect of what makes WordPress great and change the world.
  11. For her, growing up, nothing was ever for free… and

    that included kindness. If an adult was being kind to her, one could be certain that there was some sort of price attached to that kindness… something would be required, expected, demanded of her. She might not have known what or when, but she could be sure that it simply would be. If you asked her, she would tell you that she was not even sure how she came to know this little fact of life… It seemed like she was born with this knowledge and, as it turned out, that was a good thing because it was probably quite key to her survival. She was 5 years old or so the first time she could remember entering foster care. 5 years isn’t very old, and yet it was old enough for to know that she didn’t want to leave what she knew for the great unknown. Abuse is terrible, but at least it was a known abuse… but to go off to another place with unknown adults and unknown rules… well, the fear of the unknown was ten times worse than anything she had known up until that point. Because she and her younger brother were removed on an emergency basis, they didn’t immediately go to a “family.” Instead, they found themselves being left in the care of an elderly lady (remember, at 5 years old, anyone with grey hair was considered elderly). She lived in this wondrous house with this massively lush overgrown backyard – think of it as a cross between “Alice in Wonderland,” and “The Secret Garden.” The lady wore her hair in a large bun at the nape of her neck. There was wood everywhere, lots of dancing shadows as the result of sunbeams filtering through the trees and windows, food in the pantry AND the fridge, and a croquet set in the backyard. It was magical and yet, the little girl was on her guard at all times, ready and waiting for what must surely be lurking underneath all that magic. Each night, a train would pass nearby and toot its whistle rather loudly. Having grown up with little food, but with an instinct to survive, she and her brother, even at their young ages, were scavengers. As soon as they heard the train’s whistle, they would scurry out of their bed and head straight to the kitchen to gorge themselves (After all, the pantry AND the fridge had food in it! It was amazing and something they had never experienced before).
  12. Like mice, they were hesitant… darting around, eyes on the

    lookout for signs that “Mrs. Elderly Bun” had heard them. The first night, they turned on the lights and there on the table were 2 slices of chocolate cake with this awesome chocolate icing and two glasses of milk. It was as if they’d died and gone to heaven. They wasted no time and downed the cake and milk, running back to their beds faster than you could even SAY “died and gone to heaven.” That night they both laid in their beds with silly, sugar induced smiles, still trying to lick any leftover chocolate from their lips until they drifted off to sleep. Of course, the little girl, being the wiser and older one, knew that nothing came for free… come morning, there’d be a price to pay, and she was prepared to pay the price for both of them. That is, after all, what big sisters do. Yet another piece of knowledge she had but didn’t know how. But, the next day, as they quietly made their way out to breakfast, nothing was said… no evidence even existed of the night’s indulgence. It was as if it had been a wonderful dream that they had both shared. Trying not to push their luck, they spent the day hiding in the backyard. But eventually, night came and so did another train whistle… She can’t tell you how many nights they were there, how many trains passed by, or how many slices of cake and glasses of milk “magically” appeared. But what she will tell you is that at no time did “Mrs. Elderly Bun” demand payment for her kindness. For the first time in her young, not-so-innocent little life, she had experienced kindness being offered “just because.” There were no strings attached to those slices of cake or those glasses of milk… nothing lurking underneath the kindness. The woman in the bun knew how scary it was for them to be there. She knew that even though they came from a seriously abusive environment, that they still preferred that known environment over the unknown one they suddenly found themselves thrust into. She knew that they were starving for more than just food. And she did what she could in a way that these children could understand and relate… even if they were too young to fully grasp the greatness she was sharing with them – that real kindness isn’t something you have to pay a price for… it just is.
  13. I wish that, standing here today, I could tell you

    that immediately after that experience, life for my wife and her brother changed. I wish I could tell you that they found more trustworthy people during their childhoods than untrustworthy ones; that kindness without strings attached was the constant instead of the exception. I wish I could tell you those things, but I can’t. The rest of Jessica’s childhood was spent in and out of foster homes, in and out of abusive relationships with both family and otherwise until, ultimately, she aged out. But through it all, this woman’s no-strings-attached-kindness stuck with my wife. Jessica had been given a taste of kindness. She knew it existed, and after leaving, she never gave up hope of finding it again. This knowledge she had acquired from something as simple as a piece of chocolate cake is what made everything I’ve told you today possible. Because if Jessica had not experienced that one, simple act of kindness, I probably would have never met her. And if I did, it’s likely that I wouldn’t have liked her. It’s certainly likely that I would have never fallen in love with her. Because it was her desire to not only survive but to thrive that I fell in love with. It was her drive to pass kindness on to others with no strings attached that changed my outlook on life. One little piece of chocolate cake set things in motion that no one could have foreseen. One little piece of chocolate cake turned me from someone who would have likely walked in the other direction when he saw a mother in distress to a person who walked toward the distress and simply asked, “can I help?” If it had not been for that one little piece of chocolate cake, it’s very likely that I would not be here, in Portland, Oregon, giving a presentation on how WordPress, or better yet, YOU can change lives. So, today, I’d like to challenge all of you to start looking at the little things. Look at what you can do, even if it’s the smallest of things; something as simple as a smile or wave. Because while the saying goes that we all have the power to change the world, I would argue that it’s a power that cannot be shut off; it’s innate. Every minute of every day, every one of us is changing the world, whether we want to or not. So be deliberate? Focus on the small things. You never know. That piece of chocolate cake might just change the world.
  14. The power to change the world does not come with

    an on/ off switch. The power to be deliberate, does.
  15. About the Author Marc lives in Milwaukee Wisconsin where he

    works with ServerPress, LLC, a company obsessed with saving time and improving the quality of life for their customers. He likes to spend as much free time as possible hanging out with his family and being a general goof-off. Twitter: @MarcBenzak Professional: http://www.serverpress.com Personal blog: http://twotofive.us Email: [email protected] WordPress: http://profiles.wordpress.org/marcbenzak