- Associated Press - Sunday, November 29, 2020

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) - Recently, Tracey and Keith Millbrook returned to the scene of a crime that, for years, kept them trapped in a physical and spiritual prison.

Their crime was crack cocaine use. The crumbling, brick duplex across the street from South Side Park was where they once spent days smoking the drug, where they were robbed, and where they endured all the dangers and indignities that accompany that habit.

“There were seven of us in that two-bedroom duplex,” Tracey recalled, glancing at the place that, at one time, gave Keith and their children shelter but no security.

“I remember waking in the night, and the robbers had come in, and they had me and Mr. Millbrook at gunpoint … we had locked the children in the bathroom (away from the robbers).”

They survived that encounter, Tracey said, but it, among other moments of clarity and help from mentors, pushed her and Keith to overcome their drug habit.



They earned degrees from LeMoyne-Owen College, and ultimately began their community development corporation, We Are Family, to mentor and help people who are struggling with poverty, addiction and other demons that the Millbrooks’ battled more than two decades ago.

Tracy and Keith Millbrook started their own nonprofit, We Are Family. This year, in spite of obstacles posed by COVID-19, the couple is giving away food for the 10th straight year in front of the duplex where they once raised their seven children, seen in the background.

That’s why this year, while the COVID-19 pandemic forced them to cancel their annual indoor Thanksgiving potluck dinner - complete with vendors to connect people with jobs and resources face-to-face, it couldn’t force them to cancel out the call of that duplex.

And the Millbrooks heeded its call by refusing to let the pandemic crush their plans to mark their 10th year of giving Thanksgiving food boxes to people there; near the place where they triumphed over crack use, isolation and abandonment.

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“Coming back here helps me to remember what bondage looks like, and it helps me to appreciate being liberated and to have the freedom to help others,” Tracey said. “It helps me to come back and to give hope to other people here…”

Except recently, many of the people who came to collect food boxes from the Millbrooks weren’t isolated by neighborhood poverty or addiction as much as they were isolated by the economic toll of COVID-19.

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Cars filled the block surrounding the South Memphis park, with Memphis police on duty to manage their movement and to stave off congestion. The people didn’t just come from South Memphis, but from throughout the Mid-South, as people were trying to fight the pandemic and feed themselves.

“I lost my job (during the pandemic),” said Linda Jones, who worked as a cook for a local restaurant. “Then my daughter lost her whole school year, and everything compounded from there…she went off to college, but we had to figure out how to get her everything she needed for college, and get her set up, and still live…

“My son is a senior in high school, but he’s learning from home and missing out, and it’s draining to him. He played football, he’s been playing for six years, but he can no longer play…it’s all so draining.”

Volunteers gather and package food supplies for families at Southside Park on Monday, Nov. 23, 2020. The free food giveaway program was started by Tracy and Keith Millbrook as the nonprofit, We Are Family. This year, in spite of obstacles posed by COVID-19, the couple is giving away food for the 10th straight year in front of the duplex where they once raised their seven children.

Keith said that a number of people who sought food boxes said they were jobless.

“No trabajo, no trabajo – that’s what some of them told us as they drove up,” Keith said, referring to some of the Latino people they served.

In Spanish, that means “no work.”

“They’re coming from everywhere.”

Jones said that was the first time she had ever lined up to get free food. And Tracey said the need was so great that people had driven for miles to get in line as early as 2 a.m.

“They came from different counties because when we posted it on Facebook, it got 2,500 views,” Tracey said.

Because some people drove long distances to get their food boxes, which contained chicken nuggets, thighs and leg quarters, crackers, snacks, egg products, blueberries, apples and produce, Tracey bent one of her rules.

“Some people, I’ve given them two (boxes) instead of one, because when they make this long trip, they really need two,” she said.

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“My family is going to need this. I have three kids and my husband has been laid off too, so weâ€ve really had it rough all the way around,” said Crystal Coble as she was thanking volunteers for her free food supply at Southside Park on Monday, Nov. 23, 2020. Tracy and Keith Millbrook started their own nonprofit, We Are Family. This year, in spite of obstacles posed by COVID-19, the couple is giving away food for the 10th straight year in front of the duplex where they once raised their seven children.

Yet while the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t force the Millbrooks to suppress their desire to return to their old community to help people who are still isolated by poverty, drugs and crime, it does add another level of despair in a place that desperately needs hope.

That despair is compounded by people who are on the verge of being evicted from their homes because Congress hasn’t passed a coronavirus relief bill, and who work in hotels, restaurants and other service industries that have been hit particularly hard by pandemic layoffs.

This is a time when many people may be tempted to use drugs to deal with the hopelessness wrought by the pandemic. It has not only stolen jobs, lives and health, but people’s ability to seek hugs and comfort that comes from human contact.

That’s why the Millbrooks’ return to the place where they once almost destroyed themselves with drugs to, once again, help lift people from the dark forces that once enveloped them, was especially significant this Thanksgiving; a time in which many people are struggling to see any light ahead.

“I use this (return to the duplex) as a reminder that good things can come from rough places and jagged edges,” Tracey said. “I love the people here…

“Me and Mr. Millbrook (they call each other Mr. and Mrs. Millbrook) were so unlovable in the way we behaved in our community…we felt unloved. We want the people here to feel loved.”

Delaney Gray, 43, who lives in that area and who has known Keith for many years, said he feels that love.

“It’s good that people like them are out here, who come back and show love,” said Gray, who said that expenses for electrical work at his house left him in need of a food box.

“There’s a lot of people who move out from here and never come back…they just forget about us.”

Not the Millbrooks. Not now. And not ever.

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