For more than seven years, Szekely, 69, has slept in the back of his 2007 Toyota minivan — one of the few belongings he had left after a complicated divorce left him bankrupt and homeless, he said.
Since 2012, the Hungarian immigrant had kept his plight a secret, ashamed that his employer and friends would learn that he was sleeping in his van every night and showering at the YMCA after he was finished for the day with his job as a school bus driver for disabled students in Coatesville, Pa., about 35 miles from Philadelphia.
“I hid my situation because I was ashamed,” said Szekely, who couldn't afford an apartment on his $1,600 monthly salary and the occasional extra money he takes in as a freelance photographer.
One morning, though, “I woke up and decided, ‘I’m almost 70,’ ” he said. “Why should I care what people think? I am who I am.”
Earlier this month, Szekely caught the attention of Nancy Dougherty, a real estate agent from Malvern, Pa., who learned about his living situation several weeks after he agreed to be profiled online by the publication Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia.
Dougherty, 59, was touched to learn that Szekely, the son of Holocaust survivors and an Israel Defense Forces veteran who had immigrated to the United States in 1978, was sleeping in his van — but happy to be alive and using photography to appreciate the beauty around him.
After reaching out to Szekely through a website he’d set up to sell greeting cards featuring his photos, Dougherty called him with an offer: He could stay with her.
She lived alone with her dog in a four-bedroom house, and said she had plenty of room.
“I've always believed that given a different set of circumstances, any one of us could be homeless,” Dougherty said.
On a recent Monday night, Szekely agreed to give it a try and knocked on Dougherty's front door.
After chatting in the living room for an hour or so, Dougherty showed her guest a spare bedroom and told him he was welcome to stay as long as he liked.
As he took in the tidy blue room with modern art prints on the walls, a white desk with a reading lamp and a cozy bed piled with soft pillows, “I felt like Nancy had invited me into her castle,” he said.
“In my life, I have encountered my share of depression and darkness,” Szekely said. “To actually be welcomed and to sleep in a warm place, I felt speechless.”
Szekely was married for seven years and has two grown children and two grandchildren who live in California, he said. Not wanting to be a “burden,” he said he drives his van to visit them once a year and doesn’t share many details about his living situation.
Until he moved in with Dougherty, Szekely said he would park his van on a quiet street after dark and climb in the back to spend the night in his sleeping bag, covered with quilts in colder months. Waking before sunrise, he would then drive to the school bus depot in Malvern, where he’d bring a quick breakfast of tea and cereal to eat in the break room, then brush his teeth before picking up the children on his route and taking them to their school in Chester County, he said.
“Then in the afternoon, I pick them up again,” he said. “I enjoy the kids — I’m good with children. Some of them have faced a lot of challenges in their young lives.”
He said he hopes to eventually make a full-time living through his photography business.
Thanks to Dougherty’s kindness, he said, the past two weeks have been some of the most stress-free and relaxing of his life.
“Last night, Nancy made me a dinner of turkey meatloaf and an exquisite salad,” he said last week. “A home-cooked, hot meal. Such a delicious treat that was.”
Dougherty said there will be more to come. She invited Szekely to join her at her sister’s home for Thanksgiving dinner Thursday, and he gratefully said yes. She described him as an “interesting and intelligent man.”
“It took some courage for him to show up here after so long living in his van,” said Doughtery. “After all, he doesn’t know me either.”
Szekely said no matter where life takes him in the future, he will forever be grateful for a stranger’s kindness.
“I wake up in that lovely room and thank God I’m alive,” he said. “Every day is a blessing. That Nancy gave from her heart and took a chance on me means more than anyone will ever know.”