“Smile, it’s not that bad.”
This is the sign that John holds outside on the corner of West Laburnum Avenue and Brook Road for about nine hours every day, smiling at drivers as they pass him.
John, who did not give his last name, does not currently have an income, but he tries to make do with the money he receives from donations.
“I’m homeless, but I’m not helpless,” he said.
He does not remember how long he has been standing at “his” corner, but he is there whether it is raining or snowing because it’s what he needs to do to survive, he said.
John arrives at his corner before lunch every day and leaves when it gets dark, so he can figure out where he will sleep for the night. He proudly wears the clothes that he got for free at Ginter Park United Methodist Church on Oct. 31 — an event he looks forward to every year, he said.
In the late '70s, John got into some trouble with the law. Since then, he has been stigmatized by others and trying to get out of his current situation, he said. Despite this, he has been spreading positivity and helping others.
A couple once approached John after church. They had recently gone through tough times, including the husband losing his job. There was a burden on him to do better and keep moving forward, but it was difficult, John said he remembered the man saying. It was John who had motivated them to not give up. The couple told John he had changed their outlook on life, he said.
Everyone has their own perspective on life, John said. “Mine is that I believe everything has a brighter side,” he said
This is why even when his legs would hurt so much he couldn’t walk and when the donations would come like the wind — unpredictably -- John would still wait in faith. Sometimes he would wait for four hours before making any money. "I would wait hoping that maybe the next car, or the next wave of cars at the red light would bring a blessing," John said.
Three years ago, senior Heather Gardiner first saw John when she started volunteering with Youth Life Foundation of Richmond as a first-year at the University of Richmond.
Youth Life is a mentoring organization in Richmond, where students get the opportunity to help and mentor young children struggling with family or financial problems, Gardiner said.
One of Gardiner’s favorite parts about Mondays, besides going to Youth Life, is that she gets the opportunity to see John. Even though life moves quickly around her, John has consistently been at his corner, brightening her day, she said.
The idea that no one can take someone’s right or ability to smile makes every situation a little bit better, no matter how hard or complicated it gets, Gardiner said.
John’s situation has taught him a lot throughout the years. He has learned to always travel with two hats, two gloves and multiple pairs of socks. He has also learned that there are no do-overs in life, but there are alternative ways to recover.
One of John’s favorite quotes is “problems have excuses, but situations have solutions,” he said. This is something that he keeps in the back of his mind. He doesn’t look at his homelessness as a problem, but as a temporary situation, he said.
He is getting old and tired, but John is still working to improve his life, he said. He does this by brightening other people’s lives.
Everyone has their own story and different possessions, but one thing everyone has is a smile, John said.
Contact contributor Kaori Tachibana at firstname.lastname@example.org.