Says Joe Maddon: “The volunteers are the unsung heroes. Without them, none of our efforts occur.” Every month, the Respect 90 Foundation will salute a distinguished volunteer from the communities of Tampa Bay, Chicago, Mesa, Arizona or Hazleton, Pennsylvania. Respect 90 will present a $1,000 grant to that volunteer’s charity. Should you have someone who is deserving, please let us know.
Faith Carmichael – St. Petersburg Free Clinic
When residents of the women’s shelter at the St. Petersburg Free Clinic come by to check out the latest clothing donations at the shelter’s boutique, they get more than fashion, they get Faith.
Faith comes in the form of a smiling, kind matriarch figure who without fail emits an infectious laugh and helpful tips on accessorizing.
“I try to find just the right thing for them to wear,” says Faith Carmichael proudly.
The residents also get something else.
“I’m here if they want to talk and hug if they want to hug. These girls can’t tell me a story I can’t tell them. I’ve been in every one of their shoes,” says the 61-year-old who first visited the shelter nearly 20 years ago.
“She is part our dream team,” says Baldwin Women’s Shelter Director Cynthia Burnham referring to the quartet of volunteers who manage every aspect of the boutique.
A dream team led by an inspiring woman whose life has been anything but.
“She had a horrible, horrible childhood that continued on to her adult life,” said Burnham.
It began with sexual abuse from more than one member of the family in their Clearwater home. Pregnancy came at the age 15. The father was an acquaintance she never saw again.
Faith’s mother, who regularly beat her only daughter with an extension cord, saw to it that Faith’s baby was given up for adoption. “I saw her for 20 minutes before they took her away,” Faith says sadly.
Eventually Faith was sent to a home for unwed mothers.
“I always ran from my family,” she says now badly scarred. “To this day, she says, she will not let a man live with her. “I’ve been living by myself for a long time.”
Drug use followed, specifically crack cocaine.
Over time, one of her brothers reached out and brought her to Virginia where he was stationed as a member of the United States Navy. Plenty of military traveling ensued before she settled back in the Tampa Bay area.
Along the way, she learned a trade: dry cleaning. It probably helped save her life.
John Hensley, owner of Sanitary Cleaning in Clearwater taught her the business. It was a career that lasted 35 years.
“The thing that has stayed with me about Faith is her work ethic,” says Burnham. “To watch her come home from working ten-hour days in 90-degree conditions with little or no air conditioning, six days a week and standing on concrete floors the whole time just blew me away. Some people given that situation would give up. She never did.”
The drug addiction, however, persisted.
Faith had four more children, but made it clear she didn’t want them following her footsteps. One day she took them to a park and sat them down a picnic table.
“I dropped all of my drug paraphernalia on the table and said Don’t let me ever see you what I am doing. You will always be better than me. Don’t do this to yourself.”
As a plate of dope was passed around one night at a crack house in St. Petersburg, she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror.
“I said to myself, that’s not me,” she remembers. “I need to finally find out what makes me tick. I said to the others in the house, if you let me sleep here tonight, I will go to a shelter tomorrow. I’m gonna get cleaned up.”
She did, checking herself in at Turning Point, a shelter with a substance treatment program and then to Operation PAR, Inc./COSA Developmental Center Treatment Center. There was also a stay at CASA the result of another physically abusive relationship.
But sobriety came and with it the realization that as hard as it might be, if she wanted to get ahead in life, she would have to let certain things from the past go.
She soon reconciled with her mother.
“I told her I needed my mama back. She said, ‘You got me.’”
With no apologies and a focus on the present, the two formed a new relationship that lasted 11 years until her mom passed in 2010.
Today, Carmichael lives directly across the street from the Baldwin Women’s Shelter in a house where she has rented a room for most of the past two decades. There, she dotes on Jaylah, one of 11 grandchildren. She has retired from the dry cleaning business, her knees worn out.
And most importantly, she is in her 18th year of clean living.
No one is happier than Burnham who welcomed Faith with open arms when she asked if she could volunteer several years ago.
“She’s always willing to come to the shelter, to do anything we need and,” Burnham says. “she has never asked for anything.”
Mostly, Faith provides, well faith.
“Helping here makes her feel needed,” says Burnham, “but in the meantime she is there for the girls. She loves them. She gives them encouragement and confidence. She is a great example of what can happen for them. She says to them, ‘I used to live here, now I pay my own rent, I have my own place. I’m making it on my own.
“She’s experienced. She knows the street life. She watches out for the girls.”
“This is my safe haven,” she says of the shelter. “I love it that the girls look up to me. I am all in for them, heart, soul, mind. If I’m available, they got me. And, in return, I got them.
“One of the girls recently came to me and hugged me and thanked me for helping her here. I cried. That’s my reward. Another girl texts me every morning. I always am encouraging her letting her know I am here for her. Maybe if I had someone like that for me, I wouldn’t have been on the street so long.”
Her generous spirit isn’t limited to the residents.
“We had a woman who came to us one night and we didn’t have bed for her so she slept in her car out front,” recalls Burnham. “Faith went out during the night checking on her making sure she was OK.”
She bought pizza for the homeless man she encountered and gave a pair of her own shoes to a woman on the street without.
Dream team. Miracle team. Faith belongs.
– Rick Vaughn | Executive Director, Respect 90 Foundation