The American Spirit is often described in terms of what individuals do to help others or how they themselves have overcome struggles or challenges in their own lives. Words such as grit, determination, perseverance, inspiration, compassion or generosity come to mind. All those words describe the 70-year-old, petite ball of energy stationed at the exit door of our local Sam’s Club. Her job is to check the contents of your shopping cart against your sales receipt, but her mission is so much more. Her name is Pecola Davis and she is a human magnet – attracting young and old with her sweet smile and her “how are you doing today, sweetie?” greetings. She is also generous with her hugs that leave the recipient with a faint smell of the fragrance she wears, a lingering reminder of the kindness she so generously distributes. Everyone gets a “God bless you” for good measure.
I experienced Davis’ kind spirit and generosity firsthand during the 2012 holiday season. It was the first Christmas since my mother’s passing from cancer. Her death had come more quickly than expected and had left all of my family feeling lost without her. It didn’t help that I was in California while my siblings were living back home in the Midwest. Pecola recognized me from my work as a local TV reporter and we struck up a conversation. It didn’t take long for her piercing brown eyes to see I was in pain, and soon, I was tearfully explaining what had happened and how much I missed my mom. Davis gave me a big hug and made me promise to come see her again the following week, even if I didn’t have any shopping to do. I returned the next week to find a delicious plate of baked goods from Pecola waiting for me at the customer service counter. The wonderful treats reminded me of my own mother’s Christmas baked goods, always made with a generous dose of love. This act of kindness from someone I barely knew was one of the best Christmas gifts I ever received, and now I count Pecola as my friend.
I’ve since learned that Pecola’s giving spirit extends
far beyond her day job at Sam’s Club. This native of Kansas City, Missouri credits her parents and grandparents for setting the bar high when it comes to putting God’s words into action. The bountiful harvest from her family’s garden was always shared with those in need, and Pecola and her sister have continued that tradition.
On a recent morning, long before sunrise, Pecola and her older sister loaded their car for their annual holiday trek to Skid Row in Los Angeles, some 65 miles away. Both women work throughout the year to collect warm clothing and basic necessities – soap, razors, toothbrushes, toothpaste, and non-perishable food for the homeless who populate one of the roughest parts of the city. Items are placed in plastic bags that often include a piece of fresh fruit and a Bible.
Life is tough on Skid Row; it’s the section of downtown Los Angeles that is home to thousands of the nation’s homeless. Every person living on the street has a story to tell. Some struggle with the long-term effects of drug or alcohol abuse, others are dealing with job loss or the demons of war, perhaps Vietnam or Iraq. On Skid Row, hundreds of tents line the streets. The homeless often sleep in cardboard boxes or sit huddled in a corner on the sidewalk. While there are many organizations and individuals who offer help, there has been no comprehensive solution and the daily suffering continues.
After nearly 25 years of visiting, Pecola is now a familiar face on Skid Row. People fist-bump her as she walks along, and she calls everyone “sweetie” or “honey” as she hands out the bags of toiletries from her car. She moves slowly and speaks to each person she approaches with respect and a genuine tone of care and concern. She talked
with one woman for nearly an hour about life and what led her to Skid Row. She left the smiling woman with fresh fruit, a gently used winter jacket and one of the small Bibles she brought along.
Sometimes the people she encounters are unkind, suffering from mental illness, and other health problems, and almost all are extremely dirty. None of this fazes Pecola or her desire to help those she considers less fortunate than herself. “Tough times never last, tough people do,” she says. Pecola Davis offers a glimmer of humanity with her generosity on Skid Row and in the community, showing us the world is still a beautiful place.
Pecola leaves a trail of kindness with people from across the country and not just during the holidays. Earlier this year, when wildfires burned in California, she was there to help pass out food and clothing to families staying in evacuation centers. She’s a prayer counselor at her church and does outreach in the City Parks of San Bernardino, talking with anyone who appears troubled. In 2005, she was awarded a certificate and plaque from the American Red Cross for her volunteer work with victims of hurricane Katrina. She worked long hours at southern California’s March Air Reserve Base, serving food while comforting the displaced and distraught Louisiana residents, so they could perhaps rest a little easier. On your way out the door at Sam’s, there is an opportunity to buy a candy bar from Pecola to benefit children’s organizations; last Christmas she sold $3,000 worth.
That is the American Spirit.
Mary Parks, Television Personality, Award-Winning Journalist