ANNA, Ill. — You've got more homeless in L.A. than we've got people in our town.
--Pat Bridwell, wife of Phil Bridwell, who organized residents of Anna, Ill. (pop. 5,408), to collect more than 15 tons of clothing and blankets for the homeless in Los Angeles.
It's like a Little Leaguer suddenly pinch-hitting in the World Series. Or a pickup truck outrunning a Porsche at a grand prix.
The tiny southern Illinois town of Anna, about 120 miles southeast of St. Louis, has come to the rescue of the homeless in big, rich, relatively balmy Los Angeles. "We thought if we'd send our clothes to the homeless in L.A., they'd send us their weather," joked Kim Capel, a 29-year-old pharmacist who participated in the recent clothing/blankets drive sponsored by the Anna Heights Baptist Church here.
Seriously, Capel added, "We just had a burden on our hearts. Phil (Bridwell) had been led to start the project and he asked us to participate in it. The bottom line is we did it for the Lord. Anna, Ill., wasn't eyeballing Los Angeles. The Lord was."
It all began late last year when 58-year-old Phil Bridwell, a local inventor and entrepreneur, saw a television program about the homeless living in the streets and cardboard shantytowns of Los Angeles. "I saw Mrs. Jordan (of the Fred Jordan Mission in downtown L.A.) tell a story about this man who'd never received charity in his life," Bridwell explained. "He'd lost his home, everything he had. She said that after the years of working with homeless people she'd learned that only about 15% of them are alcoholics. One-third are mentally ill. And the rest are simply people who've lost their jobs. Well, Los Angeles was having a severe winter and we have a local trucker who makes trips to L.A. And he gave us a bargain price."
Once Bridwell was convinced his plan would work, he wasted no time implementing it. As Duane Hileman, principal of Anna Junior High School and a church member, recalled, "Phil asked the Brotherhood (a church organization) for permission to look into doing this. Two weeks later it was done."
During those two weeks, church members (including many from other local churches) asked everyone they knew for clothing and blankets. And they parked their church's bus and buses from other churches in shopping centers in their tri-state area, which included southwestern Illinois, southeastern Missouri and northwestern Kentucky.
Betty Plott, wife of Anna Mayor Ray Plott and member of another Baptist church in Frost Belt Anna, remembered going with her husband on one outing in search of donations at a shopping mall in Paducah, Ky.: "We went out there in a snowstorm and we stayed all that (first) day more or less as an advertisement. People stared and looked at the sign ("Clothing for the Homeless") on the bus. The next day they came and brought clothes. One man who was eating in the restaurant said, 'I don't have anything but you can have my coat.'
"He took off his coat and gave it to us and it was cold out too. Other people would go in the stores and buy new clothes and give them to us." Capel, the pharmacist, was especially touched by the donations of people in Anna who didn't have much to give but gave anyway.
"In a one-horse town, you know everybody just about," he said. "It was very meaningful to see people giving sacrificially. There was one family that had been helped by the church before. It almost broke my heart. These people gave when they didn't really have it to give."
On Jan. 17, truck owner Jim Linson left Anna with his 18-wheeler fully packed with clothes for L.A. (Only about two-thirds of the more than 15 tons gathered in the drive would fit into his 42-foot truck. The group hasn't decided what to do with the rest of the goods.)
Linson arrived at the mission in downtown Los Angeles on Jan. 21. "By about 7:30 or 8 o'clock, a lot of people had started congregating around the truck," he recalled. "The word had already gotten out among the street people. They were right there, ready to grab anything they could get."
But the mission, which daily houses up to 250 men and provides an average of 1,000 meals, does these things in a more orderly fashion. The next morning at 9 a.m., mission workers began unloading the truck and sorting its contents. During a three-day period (Jan. 24 through 26) all the donated blankets and clothing were distributed.
As the residents will gladly tell you, Anna is a town with 10 churches and one movie theater (open three days a week with $1 admission). There is one bowling alley and one McDonald's restaurant. And "one 27-hole golf course--if you play it three times," said retired jeweler Pete North, 73.
The largest department store here is the Wal-Mart discount store, but those in search of fancier fashions might be better off at the Mode O'Day dress shop.