When you see a homeless person in your community what do you do? Do you try to avoid eye contact and hope that the light turns green soon? Do you clutch your purse a little tighter?
A neighborhood in Memphis, Tennessee, could have reacted the same way to a homeless woman named Dorothy Jean Giles Stansburry, also known simply as Ms. Jean, who lived in their community. Instead they rallied around her, made sure she had what she needed and have grown closer together as they grieve her sudden death on May 19, 2019.
When a Community Works Together
Kelly Snodgras, a resident of the Colonial Acres neighborhood, told Liftable, a section of The Western Journal, that she first met Ms. Jean during a smoking relapse two years ago. As she walked into the gas station on the corner of Mt. Moriah and Park Avenue with her then-1-year-old son, she noticed Ms. Jean sitting on top of her belongings which were stuffed into large trash bags.
It was a hot day, so Snodgras offered her a water bottle, but she had no idea that it would spark the beginning of a sweet relationship. Snodgras and her son continued to check in on Ms. Jean, even after Snodgras stopped smoking and making cigarette runs.
Father Richard Cortese, a priest at Holy Rosary Catholic Church, has had many experiences with the homeless population in the city of Memphis. Many, he told Liftable, live a more migrant lifestyle than Ms. Jean did.
“But Dorothy Jean just, she stayed there all the time,” Fr. Cortese said. “People came to her.”
Elizabeth Ticer, another resident, thinks that might be why so many in the community got to know her.
“Ms. Jean lived on that corner for so long, that she become part of our community,” she told Liftable. “Any time it got too hot or cold, neighbors would come out and offer her anything they could or offer to take her to a shelter or warming center. She never would go, so we all just keep watch for her.”
While Snodgras said Ms. Jean would never call out and beg, she would occasionally ask for a hamburger from McDonald’s — with mayonnaise and onions.
“She had nothing but the bags she sat on and the clothes that she wore and when I would come back she would have lipstick on,” Snodgras remembered. “And it was the prettiest shade on her skin.”
Every so often, Ms. Jean would ask for something that Snodgras couldn’t afford on her own. Snodgras would post Ms. Jean’s need on Nextdoor, a social network for neighborhoods, and others in the community would donate so much that Ms. Jean would have to send back the excess.
“You kinda get a sense that a lot of people that noticed her there and somehow connected with her,” Fr. Cortese told Liftable. “She kind of epitomized, from a faith perspective, the person of the gospel who has nothing.”
While multiple people said that Ms. Jean struggled with some kind of mental illness, they also remember her friendly personality.
“We all have bad days, but even sometimes when we would walk up you could tell maybe she didn’t really feel like company,” Snodgras told Liftable. “But she would always have a smile; She would make herself smile even. But most of the time she was cheery and really happy to see us.”
An Accident Followed by Compassion
On the night of Saturday, May 18, 2019, a car accidentally struck Ms. Jean as she walked across the street. She was rushed to the Regional One hospital downtown to receive medical treatment for her critical injuries.
The following morning, in between masses at Holy Rosary Catholic Church, a man named James Levi came to the church extremely distraught and told Father Cortese the tragic news.
Fr. Cortese immediately called the hospital and, with the help of the chaplain there, was able to find her despite not knowing her last name. When he got there, Ms. Jean’s eyes were glazed over and the doctor asked him if he would be willing to be her guardian in order to make decisions regarding her treatment.
Knowing that Ms. Jean had been living on the streets for the past three years and that it was likely she didn’t have any family nearby, Fr. Cortese felt comfortable allowing the doctor to administer pain medication and to remove the breathing apparatus she was hooked up to.
The doctor also told Fr. Cortese that she was only expected to live for another few hours, so he anointed her with oil and gave her the Apostolic Blessing before having to return to his duties at the church.
“Before I left, I paused for a minute with her, just putting her in God’s hands and in His mercy and I felt it was okay to leave at that point,” Fr. Cortese told Liftable.
When he returned a few hours later, Ms. Jean had already passed away.
The following day, Fr. Cortese went to the E.H. Ford Mortuary to plan her funeral. “I wanted to give her something with dignity,” he said.
After getting into contact with a family member who gave away the rights to her body, Fr. Cortese finalized the plans for the service.
Many people have reached out to the church since Ms. Jean’s story was shared in the local news — a memorial has even been set up in the area that she was normally found.
“Amazingly, a lot of other people noticed her, connected with her, and they have felt grief, too, with this,” Fr. Cortese said.
The visitation for Dorothy Jean Giles Stansburry will be held from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. on Wednesday, June 12, 2019, at Holy Rosary Catholic Church. The funeral service will follow at noon.
She will then be buried at Calvary Cemetery.
Father Cortese has asked that in lieu of flowers, donations to a local homeless charity like Union Mission would be made in Ms. Jean’s name.
The Lesson Ms. Jean’s Story Taught the Community
Ms. Jean’s story isn’t unique because of her lifestyle. According to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, the state of Tennessee had an estimated 7,883 individuals who experienced homelessness; 1,663 of whom experienced “chronic homelessness.”
Those statistics are something that Memphis resident Jerry Bobbit wished the local news stressed more.
“So far all the media coverage has been about flowers and her having a funeral, which is great,” Jerry Bobbit told Liftable. “I think we have purposely overlooked the fact that we let someone die on the street corner.”
What makes Ms. Jean’s story unique, however, is how the community went out of their way to show her compassion.
“She seemed to remind us of our humanity in a time when kindness is hard to find. Her sweet smile will be missed,” Vicki Kinder said.
As Snodgras reflected on the relationship she built with Ms. Jean over the years, she remembered how Ms. Jean refused to leave the street despite extreme weather because she claimed she would “lose her job.”
“While she didn’t have a job in the traditional sense,” Snodgras wrote on a Facebook post. “Looking back at all of the suffering she went through physically in the extreme heat, cold, rain, mosquitoes, along with hunger and her mental state maybe her job was to teach us compassion.”
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