From Heartbreak to Hope: How a Mother’s Grief Led Her to Help the Homeless

September 15, 2017 Updated: September 15, 2017

An ear-piercing blast rang through the silent, still air, causing Sandy Nelson’s body to jolt to attention. Another person may have assumed it was a car backfiring or a neighbor testing a stray firework, but somewhere deep in Sandy’s gut, she knew this horrific noise was much more menacing.

Sandy sprang to her feet and bolted towards the driveway to check on her grown daughter, Jenny, but it was too late. Sandy had just lost her second child to suicide. In 1993, her teenage son, Sean, died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, and now (in April 2016), Jenny, who had long been battling clinical depression, perished in the same tragic manner.

With a heart crippled by grief, Sandy was left to pick up the pieces. Sandy chose to focus not on Jenny’s death but rather on her life yet still unlived.

“Jenny had great empathy for people who were hurting, and she used to say that she’d like to hand out bags of essential items to the homeless,” recalls Sandy, an Avon resident. Due to financial limitations, Jenny, a single mother of three, was never able to bring this desire to fruition.

Therefore, Sandy determined to do something that would both honor her daughter’s memory and serve those in need. Originally, Sandy envisioned spending $200-$250 to make up 10 or 15 bags that she and her grandchildren could distribute together.

(Courtesy of Christy Heitger-Ewing)
(Courtesy of Christy Heitger-Ewing)

“I wanted the kids to interact with the homeless so that they could really feel the impact of their mother’s gifts,” says Sandy.

As Sandy shared plans for the outreach project she affectionately termed “Love from Heaven,” she was flooded with donations, receiving items such as towels, blankets, snacks, socks, lotions, shampoo, conditioner, deodorant, McDonalds gift cards, flashlights, and first aid kits. Sandy also teamed up with Warren Burns, pastor of Grace Fellowship Church in Avon. The 80-member congregation, who works regularly with various inner-city missions, contributed additional items, including soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, combs, hats, scarves, and gloves.

In addition, Sandy had a friend whose cousin, Kathy, works with the homeless in Indianapolis. Kathy guided Sandy, Sandy’s fiancé, Jenny’s children, and a couple of other volunteers into the homeless camps tucked in the back of the woods. Not only did the team distribute the donated items, but they also gave out firewood, hot homemade soup, and fresh coffee to those in the homeless camps.

Sandy’s initial vision of 15 bags grew to 150, each of which contained a hand-written note that read, “Hoping our gifts of love and light bring you comfort, warmth, and a renewed faith in a brighter tomorrow. May you know that through our humble gifts, we see you and we care. Love from Heaven, Jenny.”

Though it’s impossible following a suicide not to ask, “Why?” a thousand times over, Sandy said this project—and the perspective that it provided—kept her from drowning in self-pity.

“When you’re out in freezing weather, delivering bags to people who have no home, your perspective shifts,” says Sandy, who was eager to open her arms and her heart to a population of people who are often shunned, shamed, and slandered. “They seemed to appreciate the hugs and care just as much as the food and gifts.”

Considering the dire circumstances that these men and women face daily, one might expect them to exercise the “every man for himself” mentality. Sandy witnessed the exact opposite.

“They went around, checking to be sure that everyone got a bag,” says Sandy. “And if any of them had physical limitations due to illness or injury, someone in the camp made sure to bring them a bag.”

One man, whose body shivered as fierce winds howled, didn’t express concern for his own welfare but rather for that of his beloved dog. He said his greatest hope was to find his canine companion a home so that she wouldn’t have to endure the winter’s bitter air.

This dog lover wasn’t the only one who put others’ needs before his own. When Sandy offered a man a thicker coat than the one he was wearing, he shook his head, insistent that someone else was in greater need of the warmth.

Before they left, a veteran, in his strong military tone, barked out a heartfelt prayer. Sandy says she couldn’t help wondering if she would be shouting praises to God if she were in his cold, wet shoes.

It’s hard to know how we’ll respond to a situation until we are in it, but one thing is certain: pain breeds empathy.

“Heartbreak makes us more sensitive to others’ losses,” says Sandy. “Maybe that’s part of God’s plan, in making us better human beings.”

Sidebar: Local Organizations That Help the Homeless
Dayspring Center: http://dayspringindy.org/
Family Promise: http://familypromisehendrickscounty.org/
Good News Ministries: http://goodnewsministries.com/
Horizon House: http://www.horizonhouse.cc/
Wheeler Mission: http://wheelermission.org/