At 7:30 a.m. on Christmas Eve, Yvonne White got a call from an unknown number.
Joey White, 64, is mentally disabled, his sister said. She called him just before the storm hit, sternly instructing him not to leave the group home where he lives. He promised her he would stay put.
But as Buffalo’s worst blizzard in 50 years pummeled the city, Joey White — who also goes by Joe — ventured outside.
It’s unclear what time Joey White left home or for what purpose, Yvonne White said, but she suspects he walked about nine miles to the North Park Theatre — a single-screen cinema where he has worked as a janitor since 1980. She believes he got scared and spent the night there inside, and eventually decided to walk back home.
Joey White’s employer, Ray Barker — the program director at North Park Theatre — also called him on Dec. 22 before the blizzard began, telling him not to come to work.
“For someone who’s used to being in a pattern, I think it’s hard not to engage that pattern,” said Barker, explaining that during the pandemic, when the theater was closed, Joey White still showed up for work. “Joe is used to his pattern.”
Around 6:30 a.m. on Dec. 24, Joey White ended up in a snowbank, directly outside Aughtry’s home, which is about a seven-minute drive from the theater, in normal conditions. He was wailing and crying out in agony, Aughtry told Yvonne White.
Aughtry — who did not respond to a request for comment from The Washington Post — heard the stranger screaming, and found him outside, completely disoriented. She went into the storm with her boyfriend, and they carried Joey White into their home, Yvonne White said.
Joey White had visible signs of severe frostbite. Aughtry told Yvonne White she used a hairdryer to peel off his clothing, which clung tightly to his shivering body. She also cut off his frozen socks and removed the remnants of a grocery store bag that were cemented to Joey White’s hands. Aughtry sent Yvonne White photos of her brother’s skin, which look severely swollen and covered in multicolored blisters and sores.
After about an hour of trying to warm him up, Aughtry — a mother of three boys, ages 5, 6 and 13 — called Yvonne White. Joey White had memorized his sister’s phone number.
“The simple fact that he remembered my phone number is miracle number one,” said Yvonne White, 60, adding that she and Aughtry stayed in constant communication from then on.
Hearing about her brother’s state was “just heartbreaking,” Yvonne White said, especially because she had no way of getting there to help, as she lived about 20 miles away and roads were glazed in ice and snow.
“Sha’Kyra was telling me that he was literally frozen,” Yvonne White said. “She covered him up, she did everything for this man. She washed his clothes, she bathed him, she fed him.”
Still, despite all Aughtry had done to treat his wounds, he urgently needed medical attention. Getting help, though, was seemingly impossible.
“We called 911 easily 100 times,” Yvonne White said. “We tried everything.”
“With the blizzard, all of the emergency services have been affected,” said Barker, adding that Aughtry also contacted the theater to let staff know about Joey White’s condition. “We’ve been worried sick about him.”
“We were flipping out and crying,” Yvonne White said. “It was just getting worse and worse.”
In a desperate cry for help on Dec. 25 — one full day after Joey White showed up outside her house — Aughtry posted a live video on Facebook, which was widely watched.
“I’ve been very private and sensitive about this situation,” said Aughtry, who explained the crisis, adding that she had exhausted all options for getting medical help. “I have literally called everybody under the sun.”
“I’m asking for help from whoever,” she continued. “This man needs serious help.”
Yvonne White also posted a plea in a local Facebook group, and within half an hour, countless neighbors offered to help, and several showed up to plow around Aughtry’s home. They wrapped Joey White in a warm blanket, and carefully transported him to the Erie County Medical Center. Aughtry accompanied him for the ride.
“I’m so glad that y’all came,” Aughtry said in a video recording.
“I’m right here. You okay?” she reassured Joey White on the way to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with fourth-degree frostbite. “Nothing’s going to happen. Just breathe.”
The story was first shared by Sweet Buffalo, a local news organization, and then took off on social media. North Park Theatre staff set up GoFundMe pages for both Joey White and Aughtry.
He is being treated in the trauma unit, and “the physician who is seeing him won’t know how he’ll come through this until time goes by,” Barker said. “We are very much hoping that they will not have to amputate any of his fingers.”
Above all, though, Barker is grateful that Joey White — who he described as a “gentle soul” with a strong work ethic and a love of sports (especially baseball) — is alive. That is all owed, he said, to Aughtry.
“This kind woman came out and heard a human being in deep distress and did something about it, which most people in this day and age wouldn’t necessarily do,” he said, adding that the theater is planning to do something to honor Aughtry. “She saved his life.”
“Her act was an act of goodness, it was an act of charity, it was an act of empathy, it was an act of care,” Barker continued. “Joe won’t be able to express his gratitude fully, but he will feel it emotionally.”
Yvonne White, too, is overwhelmed with relief and appreciation that her big brother is safe.
“This stranger opened up her heart and opened up her home,” said Yvonne White, who is asking for people to send get-well cards to her brother to comfort him during his hospital stay. “I cannot wait to hug her.”
For more reasons than one, this was far from the holiday she hoped for, but amid the suffering and misfortune, Yvonne White found a silver lining.
“I feel that Joey and I now have a sister and a brother and three nephews,” she said. “This was such a Christmas miracle.”