The Kindness of Strangers

I met Matthew by accident.

Last Wednesday, I was sent to Cleveland to cover the grand opening of a new home built solely on a volunteer basis. The home had been destroyed by the April 27th tornados; the elderly couple living in the home survived, but had no place to go and no money to re-build after the tornado ripped apart their mobile home. After the grand opening, I went to check out some other places where construction was continuing with a few homes being built by volunteers for families in need. This particular area where I was shooting was really ravaged by the tornados, and seeing the damage now, almost a year later, is still mind-blowing.

After three failed attempts to located the address, I was just about to head back to the paper when I finally spotted the small gravel path leading to a skeleton of a house with dozens of people surrounding it.

After shooting for several minutes, I began talking to one of the volunteers when I hear, “WOW, that’s a big camera. Can I hold it?”

Enter Matthew.

Wearing an airbrushed T-shirt with his name sprayed across the front, Matthew is a BIG DUDE. The kind of dude that could crunch me with one hand. I immediately think he must be with the church building the home.

“Are you with the paper? Can I take some pictures?”

I hand over my lifesavings  my camera. I place the strap around his neck, explaining that it’s VERY IMPORTANT that he keep it around his neck the entire time. He impatiently watches as I teach him how to focus and use the shutter button, but he asks a lot of questions, making sure he’s got it just right. After a quick lesson, he’s off. Meanwhile, I continue shooting the men working. Ten or so minutes pass until Matthew runs up to me, saying he’s shot all the workers and everything going on, so I should have great photos for the paper. I look down at my camera.

He’s only taken 200 images.

Intrigued, I begin asking him why he decided to volunteer to travel to Tennessee to build a home for a complete stranger. It’s then that he tells me the home is for him.

Matthew has had a really hard time. He has a brain tumor. His doctors gave him strict instructions to make sure he had no impact to his head. That, he told me, was his only rule. When the tornados hit last April, he ran to a brick house to find shelter and unfortunately, got hit in the head by debris.

“You know what they say, go to a brick house when there’s a tornado comin’,” he says to me, shaking his head. “Don’t do that.”

His aunt died in the storm. He’s been living in a camper for almost a year now with his father and two sisters. I ask him how that’s been going, when his dad, Bryan, cuts in.

“Matthew snores.”

While I’m at the site, I also talk to Charles Hollifield, the man behind the new home.

Hollifield was riding by in his truck when he spotted Bryan Yarber walking around the field where his home used to stand. After hearing Yarber’s story, Charles said he had volunteers assembled, ready to build the next day.

And build, they did. Soon, Matthew and his family will have a 5-bedroom home instead of a camper parked in a field.

More times than not, this job shows me that people are inherently good. There are some really, really good people in this world. As I get older, my priorities change. I think if I’m remembered as being a kind person that cared more for people than I did myself, I think that will be enough for me. I’ve met some great role models so far.

Full story: here.

Staff Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Chattanooga Times Free Press – March 07, 2012. Charles Hollifield, right, talks with Matthew Yarber Wednesday afternoon at the construction site of Yarber’s new home on Leadmine Valley Rd. in Cleveland. Yarber’s family’s home was destroyed by the April 27 tornados last spring.



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