GULFPORT, Miss. (AP) - From the couch of her home in the Quail Ridge subdivision, Gail Childers couldn’t stop the tears as she spoke of a time when she wasn’t surrounded by four walls and a roof.
When she was a child, Childers and her three sisters were often homeless.
The first time, authorities found the girls at a rest area in Panama City, Fla.
Childers remembers struggling to eat in Ft. Walton Beach, Fla. Sometimes, she would dig in supermarket Dumpsters to find fruit.
“I would go to the local grocery store and steal a quart of milk and a box of Fruit Loops, and that’s what we ate,” she said.
Growing into construction
Childers said she was in and out of foster care from the time she was 6 days old. As she grew, she knew she had to find jobs and stay afloat to be able to finish high school and attend college.
“We had to do what we had to do to live,” she said. “You had to learn to work in those foster homes . when you became a teenager, you were no more a ward of the state.”
She didn’t want to be on the streets again, so she started looking for work in a field she knew — construction.
She’d learned from her father how to use a hammer when she was 10. A few years later, she was getting hired to do repair work and construction.
The work allowed her to graduate high school and earn an associate’s degree with an emphasis in business.
She’s climbed on rooftops and helped repair walls, and has driven commercial trucks and tractor-trailers.
She remembers walking 52 blocks to work and hearing catcalls on the walk home. She said people would stop and ask if she were a prostitute, though she was often covered in dirt from head to toe.
The remarks never stopped her from making that walk. She said supporting herself and her children gave her much of her drive to succeed.
“If it meant digging a ditch, if it meant digging a sewer, I did it,” she said. “What I have today, I’ve earned. It was never given to me.”
Starting a business
Hurricane Katrina in 2005 left her home in shambles. Most of her interior was destroyed, but she was able to save many photos and a cross that hung above her front door. It sits in the same place today.
She hired a contractor to help repair her home right after the storm, but soon realized she had been ripped off.
“They came in, took the money, did a third of the job and left,” she said.
That motivated her to open a home-repair business so that wouldn’t happen to others.
Family Affordable Home Repair has been helping people save money and make necessary fixes to their homes for almost a decade. She has a small team of workers, and she’s able to keep prices low by comparison shopping and getting the best rates on materials.
The road to success wasn’t easy.
“This is a man’s world,” she said. “You were not gave any slack. You’re out there trying to do a man’s job and you did it.”
Childers subcontracted on building Gulfport’s Goodwill Training Center in 2010. Some thought she wouldn’t be able to do it.
“When I go and introduce myself to do a repair, they’ll ask to speak to the contractor,” she said.
She’s had people ask her employees in front of her which one is the boss. They’ll say she is.
“I have had a lot of women that love that,” she said.
She stays a hands-on boss, and has no problem climbing on a roof to pitch in.
“This is how I supported my two children who was left at home and put them through college,” she said. “I’m proud to say this great-grandma can still do it.”
Giving to others
Childers is planning a blanket and sock drive for the homeless, set for Oct. 17, hosted by Home Depot in Gulfport and set up in its parking lot.
She is seeking donations of new or used blankets and new packages of socks.
She won’t accept cash donations, but she will come and pick up donations herself.
She feels a connection to the homeless because she was there several times.
“If I see them, I go get food and bring it back to them,” she said.
People may see homeless men and women as alcoholics who don’t want to work, but she said that’s a generalization.
“I have employed some,” she said. “They’ve cut my yard, cleaned up work areas. . They genuinely want to work.”
Angel sent from God
In July, she met a man in the Home Depot parking lot while she was shopping for a lawn mower. He was wearing overalls and a T-shirt full of holes and chatted with her.
Childers later saw him sitting next to U.S. 49, watching cars go by. She went and brought him food, but he declined it, saying other homeless women, children and veterans needed it more.
Childers said he was afraid to shake her hand because he was dirty, but she grabbed it anyway.
She told him she loved him and cared about him.
“And I can’t find him anymore,” she said.
She’s asked and searched, but hasn’t been able to find the man she tried to feed.
She’s convinced the man was an angel sent from God.
“Our community is going to think I’m crazy,” she said. But he is her angel, and she thinks of him when she stops to get food for the less fortunate.
She is often reminded of one of her foster fathers, a Pentecostal preacher. He told her God puts angels in others’ lives to help them feel their faith.
And Childers is a believer.
“That’s always the way I’ve been,” she said.
Information from: The Sun Herald, https://www.sunherald.com
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