Zach Southall was bound for the wrong direction. It was the 1980s, and he was growing up in an apartment in Southern California with family members who were criminals and drug addicts. Between stints in jail, they would crash there with him and his mother.
“That rubs off on you when you’re young,” he told The Epoch Times. “You learn bad lessons, like ‘You ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’.’”
His mother’s intentions were good, he said. She taught him the value of being there for family in need, going to great lengths to care for the children of these troubled family members. A single mother, she worked hard to support him and tried to keep him out of trouble. “Unfortunately I went out of my way to find trouble and that led me down dark paths,” Southall said.
But his father, a burly Vietnam War veteran, returned to his life when he was 15 and turned it around with some much-needed tough love.
He was a “scary dude,” Southall said. He had been “shot and stabbed and blown up—just a rough character. … Everybody on the streets had a healthy fear of my dad. When they saw him coming … all these really mean, scary dudes would kind of crumble.”
If Southall was somewhere doing something he shouldn’t be, his father wouldn’t hesitate to kick down the door and drag him out by the hair.
Looking back now, Southall can say, “Thank God he was just relentless. I finally just surrendered. I thought, ‘This guy’s crazy. He’s never gonna leave me alone.’”
The next saving grace in his life was the influence of a good woman.
He fell in love with Michelle, the valedictorian of her nursing school. He decided he had to be worthy of her—and succeeded in making himself so.
But it was her church that had the most impact on Southall—the selfless support and caring its members provided him in a time of need.
He learned the power of God and faith. He felt a clear and persistent calling to help others—particularly the kind of people he had grown up around.
Having to delve back into that world of drugs, crime, and struggle to help the people there was hard. But it wasn’t the only massive obstacle he surmounted along his path.
After working hard to build a life for his family, he lost it all in the Great Recession. He grappled with death when serious illness wracked his body.
Now, after all that, and at the age of 48, he can be found on a typical day walking the streets of Anaheim, California, with a smile on his face, handing out coffee and donuts to the homeless. He tells them about the help his Charity on Wheels can offer.
He also checks in on people he’s been helping already: “It’s the ongoing community of support that’s key. … It keeps them from falling back into homelessness.”
When The Epoch Times called on readers to nominate heroes in their local communities, Karen van Der Watt nominated Southall. “His heart for people is uncanny,” she said. “I’ve seen him go to endless lengths to help someone in need.”
Southall followed the calling he felt from God to help others. He turned his tough youth into an asset; it helps him relate to those in need and establish trust with them.
He became an altruistic person with the help of lessons in caring he learned from his father and mother, his wife, church members, and God.
Southall’s mother kept moving him around Riverside and Orange counties. She thought when he got kicked out of every school it was the “bad crowd” to blame. She didn’t realize “I was the bad crowd leader,” Southall said.
By the time he was 14, he was on the street for days at a time. He was 15 when his father took control and had Southall move in with him.
His father literally burned his punk-rock clothes. He made Southall cut his hair and wear “really square, lame outfits.” He gave him a strict schedule, including working a construction job after school buffing scratches out of aluminum parts—“back-breaking, frustrating work.”
“He would wake me up every morning, take me to school, and threaten my life,” Southall said. “He’d tell me if I’m not on that grassy knoll in front of Mission Viejo High School at three o’clock, he’d find me. And I knew that he would.”
It was horrible—so thought the young Southall.
“He really did save my life.”
Rocker to Banker
Southall’s interest in music remained, though his father had thwarted his punk style. He dreamed of being a rock star, and that dream seemed within his grasp.
In the 1990s, Southall’s band opened for No Doubt and Mighty Joe Young (later renamed Stone Temple Pilots) to name a few.
But then there was Michelle. “I saw her, it was love at first sight. I was like, I gotta get my you-know-what together,” he said. He knew the life of a rock star wouldn’t do for her.
It really was love at first sight—within a week of meeting her, he quit the band and dedicated himself to a stable day job as a loan officer at Lehman Brothers. They married in 1999 and Southall moved up the ladder.
He became president of a national finance company, Patriot Financial. But he soon became lost in a different way than in his youth.
He became a workaholic, not spending enough time with his children or wife. He was obsessed with money.
“I wanted to buy a jet, that was my focus,” he said. “I wasn’t thinking about my fellow man, that’s for sure. … I was lost.”
In 2006, Southall noticed the payoffs for loans were shrinking rapidly. While the shareholders panicked, he thought it was a temporary downturn and a good opportunity to buy out as many shareholders as possible.
“That was a big mistake,” he said. Things didn’t pick back up. They plummeted into the Great Recession and he lost everything.
His health collapsed, too. A tumor on his vocal cords made it nearly impossible to breathe. He couldn’t speak and was hooked up to an IV drip that left him doped, barely conscious.
His house was in foreclosure, his company was going under. And he either had to have a risky operation or likely die from the tumor.
He wasn’t much for praying. He’d said a few “foxhole” prayers in times of need before. But he prayed sincerely in that moment.
He vowed to God he would be a better father and husband, and that he’d do whatever God told him to do.
Shortly thereafter, he was put under the care of a new specialist whose regimen of treating the tumor with antibiotics instead of surgery worked. He was released from the hospital, weak but on the road to recovery.
With the last of his money, he was able to rent a modest house for his family. But when moving day came, the family members who were supposed to help move didn’t show up. “It was the weirdest thing in the world,” he said. To this day, those family members don’t remember being aware of the moving day or missing it.
Southall was still too weak to do much, and Michelle did her best while caring for the children. Southall wrapped himself in a blanket and cried. He prayed again.
“No sooner do I finish the prayer when a bunch of people from my church just start driving down my street with trucks,” he said. It was out of the blue, “like they parachuted on my lawn.”
Southall’s family was part of Salem Lutheran church in Orange, but it was more his wife’s thing than his.
“I wasn’t very nice to these people, and I wasn’t interested in church at all. And they just show up, move my whole family, take my kids to school, and bring us dinners. It was really crazy.”
This strengthened Southall’s determination to carry out his vow to God.
When the church asked him to play music at services, even though he didn’t relish the idea of playing church music, he did it. “If I thought it was from God, I would say yes,” Southall said.
God’s next request wasn’t so easy.
‘Go Take Care of My Children’
Southall got a new job as director of SEO for Freedom Communications, and things were looking up.
Then he started suffering from insomnia. On his sleepless nights, a phrase kept repeating in his head, “Go out, take care of my children.”
“I know I sound crazy talking about like God’s talking to me,” Southall said. But that was the clear meaning of these experiences for him.
He decided after one sleepless night to just go and do it. His wife was making breakfast as he headed for the door.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
“I’m gonna, um, I’m gonna go to Walmart. I’m gonna buy some bicycles and maybe some food and stuff, and I’m gonna drive around and look for homeless people,” he said.
“You’re gonna what?” she said. “Have you lost your mind?”
“Yeah, I think I have,” Southall replied. “God’s talking to me; He won’t let me sleep.”
Making the rounds to the homeless became his weekend routine. He found many had been released from prison with a few bucks in their pockets and no family or friends to turn to. Many were addicts, some introduced to drugs behind bars.
“There was a time when I wanted to just forget about my past and act like it never happened,” he said. “I couldn’t stand being around anybody in that kind of criminal element.”
He tried to pass the endeavor along to his church, saying he would just support it financially without engaging the homeless people. But “they were like, ‘No, God’s put it on your heart. You go ahead and do it.’”
He ended up teaming up with Mickey Jordan, the head of Urban Ministries for Salvation Army Church in Anaheim. Jordan knew much about homeless outreach and programs to help with addiction, mental health, and reintegrating people into society.
He provided method to Southall’s slap-dash, go-out-and-look-for-people approach. Jordan is now a director and advisor for Southall’s Charity on Wheels, founded in 2012.
Charity on Wheels does outreach to invite the homeless to weekly gatherings (not happening amid the pandemic, though outreach and help continue), where Southall plays music and volunteers share meals with attendees to connect with them on an intimate level. His mother is out there every week with him helping serve the homeless as well.
While the charity provides shower passes and many necessities to all, volunteers also identify those who are really ready to make a change. They help them connect with all kinds of rehabilitation programs and continued support.
One of the many people Southall has helped, Danielle (a pseudonym), told The Epoch Times her story.
Homeless With 3 Kids
Danielle’s alcoholic husband had abused her and her three children emotionally and verbally for years. In 2019, he stopped taking medication that controlled his mental illness, and that’s when he threatened their 17-year-old son.
Danielle packed up the kids—the other two aged 13 and 14—and started a harrowing months-long period of working day and night seven days a week and living in hotels.
She worked at an eldercare facility and took on delivery jobs. She also collected recyclables to turn in for cash.
She was determined never to enter a shelter with her children, and to stay as connected with them as possible while working so much.
“When I came back, no matter how tired I was, [even] if it was three o’clock in the morning, we would talk. We’d find anything to laugh about,” Danielle told The Epoch Times. “I explained that this is not going to be easy. This is going to be uncomfortable. But we’re a team and we all have to work together. … My children were so understanding.”
Then her car broke down. She felt helpless, until she heard of Charity on Wheels.
Southall’s first priority was to fix her car. Then get her out of the hotel system. “It costs so much money,” Southall said. “You have to leave after X-amount of days … go to a different hotel and then come back—it’s a nightmare.”
He assessed her first, an important first step after outreach. Two people with Charity on Wheels will assess each person before deciding what help is appropriate.
Charity on Wheels co-signed for an apartment for Danielle, paid the first month’s rent, furnished the apartment, and enrolled her in its grocery delivery program.
“That is what got me back on my feet,” she said. “Zach has been totally understanding. … He was like, 300 percent into it. … I don’t know any other organization or person in Orange County [who] offers what he gave.”
Southall said Danielle and her family are no longer receiving assistance from his program. They’re doing fine on their own.
“She’s so tough,” he said. “This lady’s a winner. She just needed a hand up.”
This article has been updated to include more information about Southall’s story that Southall pointed out was important to his journey.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.