Robert had lost nearly everything long before a group of men attacked him in the woods and stole what little he had left.
Robert, a homeless man in Brunswick suffering from drug addiction, long ago lost his marriage, his business and his family. The night he was beaten up and robbed, he lost a tent, a sleeping bag and some food.
Still with him, though, was his dog Buddy. Robert crouched over the frightened animal until his attackers left. The next morning, the pair trudged on, just as they’d done together for many years.
Maria Gamble, a co-founder of Saved By Grace, a nonprofit aiding the homeless in Southeast Georgia, saw Robert that morning at a gas station in Brunswick. She noticed the bruises on his face and listened to his story about the attack. By the end of the day, she had arranged for him to stay in a motel for a few days to recover.
The motel didn’t allow pets, though, so Robert had to decide whether he’d be willing to temporarily leave his only family.
Three years strong
Saved By Grace celebrated its third anniversary on Nov. 16. The group was founded in 2016 by three women — Honey Sparre, Maria Gamble and Donna Howard.
Howard and Gamble have since become the group’s two leaders, and they recently looked back on their first days as a trio on a mission to offer aid.
Three years ago, the women drove around Glynn County in Howard’s car, which they’d filled with supplies like blankets, pillows, food and clothes. They’d find homeless individuals on the street, introduce themselves and offer assistance.
The nonprofit did not have an office until last year, and this year they expanded into a larger space next door, at 6543 New Jesup Hwy.
The group this year changed its name to Saved by Grace Southeast Georgia, and its work has expanded into Wayne and Camden counties.
With this growth, though, the core mission hasn’t changed.
Saved By Grace has helped hundreds of local homeless individuals and families since its founding. The nonprofit has in the past three years narrowed its focus to the area’s homeless and to those living in motels.
Howard, Gamble and their team of volunteers continue to help families on a case-by-case basis. They help homeless individuals find housing, furnish new homes, seek jobs and keep their families fed and clothed.
Saved By Grace first came in contact with Robert while bringing food to a local trailer park. About a year later, they learned he’d lost a housing opportunity in a motel and had begun sleeping with Buddy under an overpass. Howard and Gamble gave him a tent and a sleeping bag, and Robert began sleeping in a wooded area in Glynn County.
Less than a week later, men attacked him.
“Two guys had jumped him in his tent, beat him really bad, took everything he owned — all his clothes, all his food, left him with nothing,” Gamble said. “And he just kind of hovered over Buddy to protect Buddy, because Buddy was scared.”
Gamble called Howard that morning and suggested they pay for Robert to stay in a motel over the weekend. But because he would not be able to bring Buddy, the women made a post on Facebook asking for a community member to temporarily take in the dog. They quickly found a family who’d heard about the nonprofit’s work during a recent church presentation.
That same afternoon, after work, Gamble found Robert again and explained that he could stay in a motel over the weekend, if he’d be willing to let Buddy stay with another family for a couple of days.
And as Robert walked back to the woods to gather up what was left of his possessions, Gamble overhead him talking to Buddy.
“It’s going to be OK,” Robert said to Buddy. “Daddy’s going to be OK.”
A happy holiday
Saved By Grace relies on support from the community, through local partnerships and the generosity of individuals, to provide this assistance to the homeless.
Saved By Grace will soon begin a partnership called “Love Thy Neighbor” with Rhema Community Church in Brunswick. They will offer a transitional living space for groups in need of a short-term, temporary place to stay.
“We’ll be able to put them there at least for a week or two until we can kind of figure out what’s going on, whether they need help looking for a job or getting their kids enrolled in school or just waiting until they can get that first pay check,” Gamble said.
The church will also provide meals for the families staying in the transitional living space.
“We’re grateful for that new partnership and hope that more will come out of that,” Gamble said.
Saved By Grace is currently seeking support for its Christmas gift drive, which will benefit families living in motels this holiday season.
Collections boxes have been placed around the community, and donations are being accepted until Dec. 13. The presents will be given to the nearly 100 children Saved By Grace serves whose families live in local motels.
Unwrapped toys and other gift items, like clothes, are needed for all ages up to 17.
“We have ages, shoe sizes, shirts and pants size, and then we have a basic wishlist of things that they enjoy doing, things that they want,” Howard said.
The nonprofit is also seeking volunteers to help sort and wrap the gifts before Christmas.
“We will need people to help wrap toys, and we have someone that’s going to donate Christmas stockings for all the kids,” Gamble said.
Saved By Grace will also give families boxes of food to prepare holiday meals. The donation will make a major difference for families living in motels, Gamble said.
“Donna talked to a lady a couple weeks ago,” Gamble said. “You told her we were going to do Christmas for her, and she started crying on the phone because it was such a relief to not have to worry about, ‘Am I going to be able to pay for my motel room this week and get Christmas gifts and whatever else may come up in the meantime?’”
Ready for change
A little help can go a long way. After just a few days in the motel, Robert decided he wanted to change his lifestyle. He just needed a little more assistance.
Robert asked Howard and Gamble to help him find a rehab facility that could take him in.
“Robert was an addict,” Gamble said. “And he wanted to get help. He said, ‘I know if I go back to those woods I will die out there.’ … I think that he was just tired, emotionally and physically.”
Howard then began working feverishly to find a rehab that could take Robert.
“Robert did not have insurance,” Gamble said. “Robert had no money. Rehab facilities are not free. And a lot of them won’t take you if you don’t have insurance.”
Finally, they found a facility in Lakeland that could take Robert. During the application process, Robert had to complete a questionnaire, and Howard helped him type up his answers.
She learned a lot about Robert’s past through that process.
He first used drugs at the age of 10, and addiction struggles plagued many in his family.
One question asked if Robert had ever contemplated suicide.
“Yes,” Robert replied.
“When?” asked Howard.
“This morning,” he said.
When Howard asked what he’d lost in his life because of past drug use, Robert gave a heartbreaking answer.
“Everything,” he told Howard.
“He said he used to have a wife that adored him,” Howard said. “He had kids he hasn’t seen in years. Grandkids that he has not seen at all, ever. All because of what drugs had done to him. It’s created that distance between his family. He said he lost a business that he used to own — all the things that he had.”
Robert recalled his past losses to Howard, sitting in the Saved By Grace office and recovering from his recent attack.
“Look at me now,” he told Howard. “I’m sitting here with you, and I have nothing.”
Through their work with Saved By Grace, Gamble and Howard have a treasure trove of success stories to share. This year, Robert’s story is one of their favorites.
Today, Robert is thriving, Gamble said.
Robert entered the 10-month rehab program, and during a recent surprise visit to see him, Gamble and Howard met a transformed man.
“He’s a changed person,” Gamble said. “Before, when you would see Robert out here, he just kind of walked with his head down. He didn’t really have a whole lot to say and was very self conscious.”
He toured them around the facility and spoke with pride and confidence, Gamble said.
“Now he knows that he’s going to get three meals a day, and he’s got a place to lay his head at night and take a shower and have a cup of coffee,” she said. “And he doesn’t have those worries over his head of getting attacked or where’s my stuff or is my stuff going to get wet because it’s going to get rained on tonight.”
Saved By Grace shared Robert’s story in a recent Facebook post, and the post received numerous comments of encouragement.
“We copy-and-pasted all those comments and sent them to him, so he could see that people were behind him and people that he didn’t even know were supporting him,” Gamble said.
Robert grew emotional hearing about the community back home hoping for his success. But he’s also concerned about the loved one he left behind.
He’s counting down the days until he can return to Buddy.
“I think if we had not be able to find somebody to foster Buddy, he may not have gone,” Gamble said.
Those wishing to support Saved By Grace’s work can send donations to 6543 New Jesup Hwy. Anyone interested in supporting the Christmas gift drive, either by dropping off donations or volunteering to sort and wrap the gifts, can call 912-217-0256 or email email@example.com.