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VOL. 43 | NO. 51 | Friday, December 20, 2019

The gift who keeps on giving

Injury can’t keep Huckeba, friends from supplying city’s homeless

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The phone rings about 15 minutes after Stacie Huckeba lets me out the door of her East Nashville home, her eyes slightly moist from cursing the health woes forcing her to give up her annual Christmas Day treks into homeless encampments to deliver backpacks filled with good tidings of great joy and McDonald’s gift certificates, lip balm, socks and so much more.

Now, as I pull into the Farmers’ Market to take her call, I hear no tears in her voice. Just determination. Cheer even.

“I want to thank you for coming to my house,” says this 51-year-old photographer, videographer and advocate for the homeless, simple civility and, most of all, human kindness.

“Telling you that I wasn’t going to be able to do it this year made me realize how sad it made me not to do the backpacks,” she says, reflecting on the difficult words she cried over a quarter-hour before.

So in just those few minutes, she changed her mind.

Yes, the backpacks will be smaller this year, out of concern for her near-crippling health woes, but she’ll again be driving her car as close as she can get to homeless encampments and then delivering backpacks of joy and a few essentials.

“It’s not just for them, it’s for me,” says this woman who has worked with everyone from John Prine to 50 Cent to Toad the Wet Sprocket and Dolly Parton (especially Dolly Parton) during her photography career, and whose love for that profession is illustrated by the collection of cameras and artistic gifts from clients that line her living room.

“It’s my Christmas, too,” she says of her annual delivery of goods to homeless souls like Happy, the poet, Cheryl, who chose homelessness over living under the same roof with sexual assault, and Shorty, who suffers from PTSD and panic attacks.

“I don’t have any family nearby, so delivering these backpacks is how I celebrate, too,” Stacie says.

The Christmas Day backpacks that Stacie and her self-described “pack-mule,” the singer-songwriter and author Rod Picott, haul into the homeless camps around Nashville are much-anticipated and a hands-on gesture of giving.

They really are just a symbol, sort of a Whitman’s Sampler of joy, a small but great deed demonstrating the kindness that drives her, year-round – “but winter is the toughest time” – to come to the aid of Nashville’s homeless (and parakeets, dogs and delivery drivers).

“I am an ally. I am an advocate” for the homeless, she adds. She downplays her own generosity, saying she is really “just” the collector, the middle-woman and “all I do” is open this warm home and mighty heart to two organizations – Sacred Sparks Ministry and Southern Alliance for People and Animal Welfare.

She greatly underestimates her role, say those who depend on her for “reloads” of necessary items that can mean life or death for the mostly good souls who huddle around propane heaters before crawling into donated sleeping bags, praying they’ll make it through the night in hidden-in-plain-sight encampments of despair and self-reliance in a great American city.

“The biggest impact Stacie has on my ministry is that the ministry is founded on relationships,” says the Rev. Lisa Cook, an ordained street minister, founder and pretty much solo preacher and God-filled emissary of compassion to those in the homeless community.

“My job is to build and maintain relationships with the men and women in Nashville who are experiencing homelessness,” she says. “And it looks a lot of different ways. There is a pastoral part of it, a community aspect, a fellowship aspect and an outreach aspect.”

That outreach, generally providing necessities to those in need in the camps or in other states of homelessness, is a time-consuming, begging-and-bargaining, oft-disappointing and bone-wearying endeavor.

“The thing that taxes a ministry like this the most is the outreach part,” says the Rev. Lisa. “If I don’t have enough of what’s needed donated, I have to go out and buy it and find the funds.

“That pulls me away from the other parts of the ministry.”

Stacie pretty much has taken over that begging part of Lisa’s ministry. She tirelessly solicits donations on just about all social media platforms and in person. The results of her quest for supplies needed for street and camp survival fill her only guest bedroom. And those stacks have gotten bigger every day.

While proudly showing me that room filled with propane stoves, heaters, sleeping bags, tents and piles of personal items, Stacie deflects praise and compliments, saying the real heroes are Lisa and Laurie Ashton-Green, whose Southern Alliance for People and Animal Welfare is a nonprofit with its goal to help the homeless community and their pets. SAFPAW was founded to help those pets, but Laurie has directed the expansion into overall homeless outreach.

“The first time I got a dog from a camp neutered, I took the dog back and said ‘Here he is,’ then I realized that if I really wanted to help the animal, I had to help the person, too. I realized you can’t just help the pet and then walk away.”

So, Laurie began delivering not only food and love to the animals but tending to their beloved human companions, as well. And her involvement has spread from there.

“I’m just in charge of shipping and receiving,” says Stacie, as she surveys her bulging stockroom of supplies that she’s collected through tireless hours of working her international online network of supporters and other friends.

Lisa disagrees with Stacie’s disclaimer of heroism. The preacher at least twice a week visits Stacie’s house, a list in hand of the needs and pre-orders of her congregation members, whether they are in camps, sleeping in their cars or fighting the elements near steam grates or beneath overpasses of highways transporting It City pilgrims to tall-skinnies, mini-mansions and glistening condos.

Some of her congregants are “couch-surfers” who depend on the temporary kindness of friends and strangers for warm nights in living rooms.

“I find out someone needs something, and I text Stacie and I say: ‘Do you have this in your room?’ And nine out of 10 times she does,” says the street minister who followed a successful corporate career by throwing herself full-time into ministry for the homeless.

Lisa, who I’ve known for many years (my son, Joe, long-ago was her dog-sitter) and whose ordination I attended at Brenthaven Cumberland Presbyterian Church, says she’s worked with Stacie for about three years. And she sees no shrinking in the need for her friend’s aid.

“She helps with a constant influx of supplies.”

Stacie does most of her solicitation on the internet, via an Amazon wish list that is reached by visiting Facebook.com/eastsidestacie or Instagram.com/eastsidestacie. You can use the full Amazon link: https://www.amazon.com/hz/wishlist/ls/1G7QW9GLP752H.

Or would-be donors can simply contact her at stacie@staciehuckeba.com. Because of the kindness of her international network of friends and supporters, FedEx and UPS trucks pull up to her house with box-loads of donated items at least twice a day.

And these folks aren’t just “delivery people” to the photographer, videographer and symbol of humanity tucked in a pleasant cottage on a dead-end East Nashville street.

“What cracks me up about Stacie is she is so kind, and she even leaves a box of snacks out for the delivery people. That is just so awesome,” Lisa adds.

“Stacie is wonderful,” Ashton-Green says. “And I unabashedly adore her and admire her and respect her because of her attitude toward life. … She is just wide-open for new things, new approaches, new ways of looking at things. … Her morals and principles are firm.

“She has such enthusiasm. And she has common sense. That’s what you need.”

Ashton-Green says Stacie’s degree of help to her SAFPAW mission is beyond estimation. “Oh gosh, it’s unbelievable. It’s to the moon and back, because people need these items.

“The tents, the sleeping bags, the heaters, the propane. When it gets down to 4 degrees, it’s cold out there. People need the socks, gloves and hats.”

As in the case of her cohort and friend, the Rev. Lisa, in the battle to make sure those suffering from homelessness are tended to and don’t freeze to death, Laurie is overwhelmed by how much Stacie’s mission of acquisition affects the animals and people served by SAFPAW.

“There’s no way of putting a dollar value on it,” Laurie acknowledges. “It’s so we don’t have to spend our own money.”

She praises Stacie’s social media awareness-raising and digital panhandling as important in making other people aware of the issue … and offering those people ways to become involved.

“Stacie is creating a whole circle of people who are informed and aware. … These people that are sending her the propane and the buddy heaters and the sleeping bags and the tents, I’ll bet these people never even thought about it before Stacie.

“It’s awareness as much as it is donations.”

Stacie’s motivations are pure, driven by a simple recognition of need in Nashville and her deep belief in the humanity of the folks she is trying to help as well as those whose aid she enlists.

Yes, she’s somewhat freed up the Rev. Lisa and Laurie to dispense more in-camp counsel and love.

But she’s hardly unknown down in the city’s muddy trenches of poverty, bad luck, occasional madness and, mostly, pride and gratefulness.

Stacie visits the camps – generally with one of her musical friends like Picott, Will Hoge or Aaron Lee Tasjan as her “support staff” – to converse with residents and find out if there’s something she can do to make their lives better.

“I’ve kinda done everything from helping her move stuff physically around to actually going out in the homeless camps with her in her car and finding out what specific people need, buying those items and delivering them,” is how self-described “psychedelic folk-rocker … with elements of the troubadour” Tasjan describes his work with Stacie.

“It’s pretty much hands-on what she does,” says the band leader touring behind “Karma for Cheap Reincarnated” (new musical reflections on last year’s “Karma for Cheap” album.) “That’s what sets her apart. She’s not just coming up with a clever way to make people donate some money.

“She goes out in the woods, and she knows these people and they know her. It’s kinda like Robin Hood or something. It has a fairy-tale scenario in a lot of ways.”

Stacie just figures she’s doing work that’s necessary and that also erases, at least slightly, the stigma of homelessness. “We as a society punish people living with poverty rather than lift them up,” she notes. “If you lift them up, they can accomplish great things.”

And the need for “lifting up” can be taken literally, as Stacie must physically be able to pick up and organize the packages that are delivered to her East Side cottage, as well as carry those goods where they are needed.

That includes her Christmas Day tradition. Her work continues year-round, but it is lifesaving and essential during the cold months.

When items arrive at her house, she carts them into the growing number of homeless settlements.

It was that physical need to lift stuff and tote it into the places where it is needed that brought Stacie to tears the other day. While she knew she no longer was capable – under strict doctor’s orders – of carrying 30-pound backpacks into the camps for the first time in six years, it was saying it out loud to a random journalist that cranked up her sorrow to the point it was visible on her cheeks.

The crisis for the homeless, and for Stacie, began Nov. 4, with the crunch of sheet-metal and vertebrae.

“This girl rear-ended me at 10th and Woodland (near the literal and figurative heart of East Nashville).”

It damaged the 2011 Hyundai Santa Fe “the only car I’ve ever loved and the first car I bought new,” which – other than by the kindness of friends with wheels – has turned her into a pedestrian until the insurance arm-wrestling ends and she gets a repaired car back. She’s hoping before Christmas.

More important, though, is the physical damage, not the blood-and-guts stuff generally associated with wrecks, but injuries she is told will take many months and patience to heal.

“My injuries consist of some minor injuries in my lower and middle back,” she says. “My main problem is my neck. I have moderate-to-severe disc protrusions in my C6 and C7 vertebrae that are impugning upon and exiting my C7 nerve roots.

“I can’t feel my right hand or foot,” she continues, running her hand along her affected calf. “It’s either numb or has a pins-and-needles sensation, and I have burning sensations down my spine into my tailbone.

“It’s also heavily affected my range of motion. I am on a 10-pound weight restriction (for lifting items), and now have traction twice a week.

Huckeba’s backpacks are filled with such items as propane tanks for camp heaters, McDonald’s gift certificates, lip balm, gloves, socks and a week’s worth of food.

-- Photo By Michelle Morrow

“All of that is complicated by the fact that the MRI revealed a moderate-to-severe hiatal hernia that I will need to address, and which will probably put me out of work another month or so. All told, I’ll probably be out of work three or four months.” (Always one to look on the bright side, she notes that she’s had digestion issues the last couple of months, so perhaps repairing this newly discovered hiatal hernia will cure that.)

The injuries and the rehab and likely surgery already have cut into Stacie’s work as a photographer and videographer who normally carries heavy equipment as part of her regular routine.

“My Canon 5D with a 70-300 (lens) weighs 14 pounds. That’s above the weight limit,” she explains.

“I feel really vulnerable,” she says. “I am a living example of how people get homeless. If I didn’t have friends who loan me cars … if I didn’t have this type of security, I’d be homeless.”

At the time of my first afternoon in her house, she already had missed six weeks of work, including passing up two jobs worth $3,000, so she’s been struggling with the necessities. “That means I have no income coming in for electric, water and rent.”

Stacie’s applying for artists’ grants to maybe fill the void.

But her injuries were one of the key reasons she had to call a halt (temporarily, it turns out) to her Christmas present to herself, the homeless and those who help her: She not only is literally unable to carry 30-pound backpacks, her injuries keep her from effectively mounting her one-woman assembly line in the guest room, where she fills those packs.

“We probably delivered 50 of them (on Christmases past),” she says, again noting Picott did the hauling from the Hyundai, but she had to help hand them out.

“Each of the old packs had two cans of propane – and those are heavy – and socks, shirts, gloves, hats, lip balm, enough groceries for the week,” she says, listing only a few of the items. “And then they used the backpacks to carry their things the rest of the year.”

And there’s been a change in the needs of the homeless population, which Stacie and Lisa Cook, the Sacred Sparks pastor, blame on the way the city treats these people now.

“At first there weren’t going to be any homeless shelters for the winter,” Stacie explains. “And now they made the homeless shelter in an old jail by the women’s prison.

“People don’t want to go out there, and the emergency pickups (to take those in need to the shelter) used to be at 32 degrees. Now it’s 28 degrees and below. So, the homeless organizations have been working tirelessly to set up camps in remote areas,” she adds.

The Reverend Lisa of Sacred Sparks is blunt about the problems caused by Metro’s treatment of homeless.

“It’s still a very complex and real problem for the city of Nashville that is not getting the attention it deserves,” Lisa says.

At first there was no plan, “and then when the plan did come out, it was full of problems. It (the location particularly) led me to make a decision that I would be out doing more boots-on-the-ground outreach this winter, because they aren’t going to make use of the facility, because of the problems with it: The location, it’s an old jail, it’s way out by the airport. … This has been a huge mess.

“There are more people staying out because of this situation with the shelter,” she says,

That problem means more people need propane heaters and stoves and sleeping bags and tents.

“It means we have people out in camps where it’s below freezing,” Stacie acknowledges. “The outreach (Lisa, Laurie and kindred spirits) works to create larger camps that have heaters, propane and tents so they can survive the night.”

Seeing those larger, bigger-ticket needs for the expanded camps, the injured Stacie redirected her mission, at least until after my first visit. Instead of backpack items, she had focused on using her various social media platforms and the Amazon wish list to procure donations of stoves, heaters, tents, sleeping bags and the like.

“We are a global mission,” she says of the squad of supporters, many of them East Nashville pals and musicians but many more folks from around the world who respond to her online call for help. Those donors pick from the shopping list (or to a personal request from Stacie). Once the trucks deliver the items to her home, “I get it all open, organized and in the database.”

Some, of course, send cash so she can buy supplies.

Stacie Huckeba, right, delivering backpacks at a homeless encampment last year. “It’s my Christmas, too,” she says of her holiday tradition.

-- Photo Provided By Stacie Huckeba

The tears of that Wednesday with me, and her own feeling of loss and melancholy because she could no longer tote backpacks into the camps, triggered her to bring back the Christmas Day tradition, in modified form, this year.

So, she went back to post those smaller camp needs on the wish list. Sure, the heaters and tents still are there, but so are the things bound for 50 Christmas Day backpacks: T-shirts, socks, gloves, scarves, a week’s worth of food and snacks and coffee, hygiene kit, camp-stove lighter, lip balm, powder, lotion, deodorant, handwipes, sanitary wipes and toilet paper.

As for the propane cans:

“We may just drive up by them and then walk into the camps and tell people to come to the car and get them,” she says. “We’ll also have some propane and water in the car if they need it.”

And the heavy tasks of filling up the packs and the car to make those deliveries is being handled by Stacie’s friends. She’s planning three pizza parties, inviting groups of pals to fill the backpacks on two nights and then on Christmas Eve load up the car.

As an incentive, Stacie is sending donors – depending on the value given – what she calls “DollyWoods,” artwork she makes from photos of Dolly Parton she’s captured that she processes with a thick gel on donated furniture wood and creates fine-art-print-quality images of the Tennessee jewel.

She’s sending these out, with Dolly’s blessing, virtually every day. The larger the donation, the larger the DollyWood that supporters can hang on their walls. The degree of support from Dolly is showcased on Stacie’s wall, where a poster-sized print of the great singer and humanitarian – a photo Stacie shot at the Ryman – carries a large and bold “To Stacie. Love Dolly. Thank You” scrawl. The fact Parton has adopted this photo for some of her publicity packages thrills the photographer.

Stacie gets inspiration for her work and her mission from her friends – and that is a burgeoning list – and those who are strangers once.

Stacie came to Nashville 15 years ago, fresh from success in San Diego at a large event company “doing things like taking care of the Green Room at Rolling Stones’ concerts” and the like.

At the urging of her old friend, singer Todd Snider – “I’d known Todd since we were both in Texas (her hometown’s Odessa) and before he got his first record deal. He’s like a brother, a really annoying big brother” – she moved here.

Stacie came to Nashville, but the music PR career fell flat. She wasn’t sure what was next, so she talked with that annoying almost-sibling.

Her laughter makes it clear it is a treasured relationship, and that Snider encouraged her to use her photo and video skills and strike out on her own.

“He pushed me, and he makes me step outside my comfort zone,” she says.

Sometimes it is the goodness of strangers that has flavored her world view.

“I was walking Earl (her dog) out there,” she notes, pointing in the general direction of Straightway Avenue, a half-block or two away. “This kid turned off his lawnmower.

“I asked him ‘why?’ and he said: ‘So I didn’t scare him’ (Earl).

“And we talked a bit, and he said he was cutting lawns so he could help his mother buy school supplies for him and his brothers and sisters.”

The first thing Stacie did was hire the young man – Domonous – to cut her small yard for $20. And then she posted the tale on the internet.

“That led to the Domonous Effect,” she says. “That turned into a whole thing where people donated money and stuff. We got him a Toro self-propelled lawnmower and a Weed Eater.

“People from all over the world saw the story and donated, so we could give him $1,100 for school supplies.”

Domonous was dumbstruck by the generosity. “Praise the Lord!” howled his grandmother, Lois.

After she tells me about the incident with Domonous and Earl, I tell her I’m a dog lover and that I’m not worried by the animal barking at the back door. Stacie goes to the back patio of her house – site of many East Nashville guitar pulls, brag-fests and informal hullaballoos – and returns with Earl.

“He’s a Catahoula Leopard Dog,” she says, as I stroke the head of the 13-year-old black dog with prominent blotches of white fur.

In addition to this calm dog with the mighty bark – Earl has a bed right next to Stacie’s couch – she shares her home with three parakeets.

“They’re noisy,” she admits, almost with a chirp in her own voice, as she points toward the large cage that’s on the other side of the television on which arguments about impeaching the president remain on mute.

There’s nothing muted about the chatter of the three birds, who remain in the big cage during the day but are released to fly freely around the home once Stacie is locked in for the evening.

“It began with Snowflake,” she says. “That’s the white one. I rescued her two years ago on the deck. I didn’t really plan it (on becoming an avid bird lady), but I walked out on my deck one day and there was this white parakeet. She was just a baby. Two weeks old.” The bird could not fly nor care for itself.

The bird needed attention, so she took it in. And since parakeets aren’t common in the eclectic wilds of urban East Nashville, she figured she’d find the owner and return it.

When that didn’t work out, well “I sort of fell in love with her.”

Learning that parakeets do better in flocks, she went shopping.

“That blue one there is Bird Reynolds,” she says, directing my eyes toward the cage, the source of the happy soundtrack that fills the living room with joyful noise. “The yellow one is Ruth Bader Ginsbird.

“I really love the parakeets,” she says. “They are little, shrunk parrots. It worked out. I had just turned 50, and because they are so sensitive, they make my life and my house better.”

Because of the birds, she has improved her shopping, eating and living habits.

“I stopped using candles, because of their toxic wicks and the smoke. And aerosol also is deadly (to her feathered family), so they were gone, as was any nonstick coating.

“Also, I’m real particular to what I feed them,” she adds, disappearing briefly into her kitchen and returning with a platter of chopped-and-diced (to bird-bite portions) broccoli, cauliflower, kale and quinoa that she mixes with seeds into the birds’ diets.

She shakes her head and laughs at herself when describing how her friends have picked on her because she goes to the Turnip Truck to get kale for the birds, “but you go through the McDonald’s drive-thru window for yourself.”

Oh, she’s seldom alone at that drive-thru. “I take Earl on McDonald’s drive-thru dates and get him a hamburger,” she says, adding that she asks the anonymous speaker-voice to leave off the condiments, lettuce and tomatoes and cheese.

“I just get him the meat and the bread. He hates vegetables,” she says. “I may get a hamburger, too, but I have cheese on it, as you can tell by my big butt.”

She turns slightly to display her backside, lovely and surely big only in the eyes of a woman who lost 250 pounds, not by any fad diet and not by living on her parakeets’ kale. But with a determination to become healthy. And an increasing knowledge of how large people are looked at, frowned upon, discriminated against. It was this knowledge that helps her relate to her homeless brethren.

“It started in 2012,” she says of her weight-loss. “It was one of those things where I wanted to be happy, but I was really depressed. I wanted to commit suicide, but my brother had been killed and I saw how difficult it was on my parents to bury my brother, so I didn’t want to do that.”

Her first step was to develop “a big relationship with fresh vegetables” from frequent trips across the river to the Farmers’ Market.

“After several months of that, I was piddling around with making bowls. I had two 25-pounds of clay. I really struggled getting that clay to the car. Fifty pounds was really tough.”

It was symbolic, in her mind, of carrying around so much extra weight on her frame. She continues her weight loss today.

“Now I’m at around 150, but the weight continues to come off. It’s not something I focus on. I came to grips with my body years ago.”

She swears she’s not on a diet. “I eat teeny-tiny things all day long. I don’t have a big meal. I graze.” If she is eating at a restaurant, the first thing she orders is a to-go box since she knows she’ll never finish an American-sized menu item.

She laughs when she describes an “after-the-loss” encounter with one of our greatest pickers, wordsmiths and philosophers, a man I value as a friend.

“I love Tom T. Hall, and when he saw me, he said ‘Let me hug what’s left of you.’”

She stretches her long, thin legs across the couch. “The thing that really chapped me was I didn’t love the attention or the compliments.

“It made me really aware of how we treat marginalized people. I was the same person I was when I was almost 400 pounds. I have the same compassion. I just wear different pants.

“It made me aware of other people’s attitudes,” she says. “It’s the stupidest thing to judge people based on what size pants they wear. It’s dumb.”

All the sudden men were treating her differently, trying to open the door for her, offering to buy her drinks.

“I would get mad: ‘You wouldn’t open that door for me two years ago, so back off, Bud.’”

The experience added fuel to her determination “to be the voice of the voiceless.”

And that voice, those words, have changed the hearts of people in her adopted hometown.

“People give me a lot of credit for doing stuff, but I am just the funnel,” she says.

Stacie pets Earl as the trio of parakeets serenade her and the cheered-up visitor.

“I have a different perspective on life,” she says. “I don’t have any children, because of the choices I made. So, I have no one to leave anything to.

“I leave behind a pile of pictures and my impact on the community,” she explains. “I want to be responsible in some way for teaching community and how to treat each other.

“I would like the world to be a kinder place. I don’t understand why some people are mean.

“I would rather lay down at night with a smile on my face because someone feels better for what I’ve done today.”

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