- Associated Press - Sunday, November 22, 2015

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) - With pleading eyes and a solemn face, Michael Douglas Durham implored: “Life’s short and I don’t want to die without ever seeing you again.”

The homeless man’s message was created 26 years after he last saw his mother and brother. It was video recorded under a street lamp as dusk set in during the beach feeding that homeless advocate Arnold Abbott, 91, organizes weekly.

Durham’s messenger: Kevin Adler, a San Francisco techie and sociologist who founded Miracle Messages. He stopped in Fort Lauderdale this week to connect homeless persons with relatives they’ve lost touch with.

As Durham waited in line for his meal, he asked for help finding his mother, Johnnie Sue Durham, and his younger brother, Gregory Allen Durham. He believes they live in the Tampa Bay area.

Adler, 30, recorded Durham’s plea on his cellphone: “I’ve been through a lot. I went to prison for eight years. I took a lot of classes to make myself better. I don’t know what to do sometimes cause I miss you guys so bad. I’d love to see you again.”

Florida Department of Law Enforcement records show Durham is a registered sex offender. Yet his past hasn’t dimmed his desire to reconnect with relatives.

At the beach feeding, Adler led the homeless crowd in prayer before offering to record their Miracle Messages. He related how his uncle Mark had been homeless for 30 years while suffering from schizophrenia.

“I can’t promise that we’ll find (your relatives), and I can’t promise that they’ll respond, but what I can promise is that we’ll try,” he said.

After often emotional video messages are recorded, volunteer “detectives” sleuth around in hopes of tracking down relatives to share them with. They use social media to search for potential family members and to spread the videos, while also combing through online phone listings.

“This is an opportunity to hand someone a relationship that would be as important to them as the relationships you have are to you, and to help restore that is an incredible gift that we each can play a part in giving,” Adler said.

To gain access to the homeless, Adler partners with groups like Abbott’s and churches and organizations already working with the homeless community. His goal: making 100 reunions happen nationwide. So far, he’s had fewer than 10.

“The church has to be visionary with open arms to embrace entrepreneurs like this,” the Rev. Christopher J. Benek, of First Presbyterian Church of Fort Lauderdale, said. “This is the tip of the iceberg.”

“There’s such a need and desire in the homeless community to make these connections,” he said.

Volunteer Stephanie Jansen, 25, appreciates the impact of her work as she searches for relatives online and sets into motion possible life-altering reunions.

“You could have changed the course of someone’s life and it wasn’t hard, and it wasn’t long,” she said. “Anyone could do this.”

Adler has recorded close to 40 Miracle Messages, including at least 10 in Broward County. Often they come from people living on the street who have been incarcerated, or struggled with addictions and become estranged as they battle inner demons.

Sometimes relatives are reached and do not want to restore relationships. But even if the outcome is not ideal, Adler hopes it’s still a positive experience for the homeless persons he helps. It’s therapeutic, he said, and he encourages them through the recordings when they lack self-esteem or feel defeated.

“We never say that this is going to be easy for anyone,” Adler said. “These individuals are seen as homeless Joe or Jane. They were invisible in broad daylight and now they’re back in the fold.

“We’re not trying to fix families, we’re not trying to overly interfere,” he said. “Everyone has their own story.”

Howard W. Taylor last saw his friend Bob Case while serving in Vietnam in September 1966. They made plans to travel the United States on motorcycles upon their return, but never met again. Taylor later lost his left leg in a crash and now gets around in a wheelchair.

“If you and I were to get a hold of a motorcycle right now I would still want to travel these United States with you on a bike,” Taylor, 69, told Bob in his Miracle Message.

“In all these 50 years, not a day has gone by when I haven’t thought about him,” he said.

Dwayne Brown, 25, who grew up in the foster care system, relishes a relationship with his father. “It would have been best to know you,” he told him in a Miracle Message.

Juanita Haugbook, 48, has desperately been searching for her sisters Patricia and Annette Haugbook and found the chance to record a Miracle Message a blessing. She cried as she spoke to her sisters.

“You all know I love you all. Tell all my nieces and nephews that I love them,” she said. “I’m alive.”

When she was done, her boyfriend wiped away her tears. She said she felt encouraged.

“I think something’s going to happen,” Haugbook said. “I think something’s going to happen.”


Information from: Sun Sentinel , https://www.sun-sentinel.com/

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