When Real Change vendor Brenda Williams was brutally beaten last month in a domestic assault that left her permanently blind, she could have become angry and bitter. Instead, she is grateful to be alive.
“They told me I was flatline when I was in the ambulance,” Brenda said the first time I visited her. “They said I wasn’t going to make it. Well, obviously it wasn’t my time.”
Brenda is accepting her new reality as a person without sight but she won’t let it stop her either. She misses her customers more than anything and is chomping at the bit to get out to her spot in front of Benaroya Hall and start selling Real Change again.
Her customers miss her too. In fact, many are among the 200 people who have donated to a GoFundMe campaign — Brenda’s Bridge Back — that we started after her attack.
Brenda was homeless at the time she was assaulted. She has nothing to her name and a long road ahead.
She’ll have access to some public benefits, but she also needs financial support to get settled before she can start selling the paper again.
In the six years I’ve worked here, I’ve never seen the magic of the Real Change community like I have in watching how people have rallied around Brenda. Almost immediately, word got out to her customers. Several visited her in the hospital. Dozens have written encouraging notes to go along with their donations to GoFundMe. One customer expressed the thoughts of many with this message: “Brenda — I run through life faster than I should. Stopping to buy a paper from you, and seeing your beautiful smile has made me slow down and be a little more present. What a gift you have given me. I am so sorry that this happened to you. I hope you can feel our love surrounding you as you work to heal your body and your spirit. You are not alone.”
When a long term vendor is not at their usual spot for a couple days, the community notices.
Earlier this week, a woman from the law firm Davis Wright Tremaine called Real Change after the staff learned what happened. Choking up, she told us that she had been wondering where Brenda had gone and that the news was too awful to bear. She had already donated to Brenda. She and a coworker started making Brenda a care package, which would include slippers and a soft blanket.
Support from her fellow vendors has been inspirational. One started the GoFundMe page. Another took Brenda clothes. Another donated $100 of her hard-earned income from selling the paper to Brenda.
Brenda has had visitors from vendors and staff nearly every day. Five other people visited on Christmas Day when I stopped in to see her and drop off a Russell Wilson jersey from staff, the item she most coveted.
On one level, Real Change’s response to Brenda’s situation is beyond our mission. We produce a paper, do advocacy and provide employment opportunities to low-income and homeless people. We tell people that we are not a social service, and we defer to case workers and social service providers when vendors need services. And yet, two of our core organizational values are compassion and community, and there was never any doubt that those values called us to show up in atypical ways and show up for Brenda.
Brenda was stunned to learn about the amount of support she received on GoFundMe. That’s not going to bring her eyesight back or create financial security, but it gives her a base of support to start rebuilding her life.
More than the money, the circle of support means the world to her. She couldn’t believe people cared that much about her.
So no, we don’t provide direct services at Real Change. Instead, through our paper, we create the conditions that allow unlikely relationships to form and blossom.
Those relationships are grounded in love and a heartfelt sense of shared humanity. When they take root, anything is possible.