It started with the loneliest of pleas: “Large, 54 y.o. Christian, homeless male is looking for a person, family or couple to share Thanksgiving day with,” Neal Shytles wrote in an online ad.
Last year he spent the holiday at a shelter, and although probably 200 other men were there eating turkey, “you sit down, you eat, you get up and leave,” he said. “Every day of the year is pretty much lonely for me, but Thanksgiving, Christmas is the worst time to be alone.”
So when a stranger, Ashley McLemore, offered to take him to her family’s home in Newport News for the holiday, he burst into tears. She did, too.
But that was just the beginning. His story resonated with people in Norfolk, where he has been staying at Union Mission Ministries, across Virginia and as far away as Europe and the South Pacific.
On a holiday when home, family and grace are foremost in people’s minds, many other strangers were quick to share: They shared his story, they shared food and money and they shared ideas on how to help others.
“Something about him just grabbed my heart,” said Danyelle Bryant, a 33-year-old mom from a West Virginia hamlet who saw the story on the Web site of Norfolk’s WTKR-TV, where Shytles had posted his ad.
People offered jobs to Shytles, a former taxi driver. Long-lost cousins offered to visit. Cory McLemore, Ashley’s husband, and his colleagues at a Department of Defense contracting firm pooled $500 to give to Shytles, some of which he used for a new set of clothes to wear on Thanksgiving. But Shytles quickly deflected the attention to the 350 men, women and children in his shelter — and beyond. People have a stereotype of homeless people, he said, but many have just hit hard times. “There’s a lot of good guys. Even though they have nothing, they’ll give you the shirt off their back.”
Thanks to Shytles, families took in other men from Union Mission Ministries for Thanksgiving meals. When Shytles pointed out that some men were sleeping on the tile floor of the shelter with only sheets to keep warm, people donated blankets. Ashley McLemore, a 30-year-old English teacher getting her doctorate at George Washington University, walked into her classroom one morning to find her desk piled high with blankets. One of her seventh-graders brought in the comforter from his own bed.
And still it spread. Bryant and some friends created a Facebook page encouraging people to send Shytles cards. “He wanted that family atmosphere,” said Bryant, who didn’t mention her personal worries with money and family illnesses. “I just really wanted to do something for him that way, so he could know people care about him, even though we don’t know him.”
Within hours, the group had grown to more than 4,000 people. People said they had seen Shytles’s story and donated to their local shelter or started carrying packs of toiletries to hand out. Bryant’s friend Lynn Grove brought a plate from her turkey dinner to a homeless man in Beckley, W.Va. Shytles got messages from the United Kingdom, Fiji, Australia, Spain and Malaysia. A woman in Sweden told him he had inspired her to take a job helping homeless people. “I’ve never felt so loved in my life before,” Shytles said.
“I think people really want to give,” he said, overwhelmed, trying to explain the response, “and they don’t know how to give. They’re waiting for someone to ask.”
Ashley McLemore said: “I think it resonates with people to see people caring for one another. People need some good news.”
On Thursday morning when they arrived at the shelter, Cory McLemore went to shake Shytles’s hand and got wrapped in a bear hug. “We all connected right away,” Shytles said. “It’s just been awesome.”
Ashley McLemore said last Thanksgiving was spent far from family in Mississippi. It was just McLemore and her husband; it felt lonely. This year, they were all talking and laughing and sharing the turkey she cooked. “It’s been a really wonderful day,” she said. “We’re so blessed. He’s part of our family now.”
Alice Crites contributed to this report.