UNION — A trip to get breakfast before heading to work and a pulling on her heartstrings lead to a local businesswoman launching an effort to a help a family discovered to be living in a tent.
Joni Wilson is the owner of the Tan Shop & Salon Boutique, and on Tuesday she decided to go get breakfast at the Bantam Chef before going to work. As she drove up Union Boulevard to get breakfast, Wilson said she noticed the top of a blue tent in an area off the right side of the street behind the old Robinson’s Liquor Store. She said she thought it was odd “since you don’t see that around Union in winter.”
Wilson got breakfast and then headed out to work, but instead of taking her usual route she went back down Union Boulevard. She said it was because her “heartstrings were pulling” and so she went back down Union Boulevard and made a discovery.
“That’s when I saw the gentleman coming out of the tent with a cammo jacket on,” Wilson said.
Wilson said that she thought the man was living in the tent alone, and so she went on to work. She could not, however, get the tent and what she thought was its sole occupant out of her mind.
“It kept working on my mind all day, so I posted it on Facebook and I asked if anybody else had noticed and knew any details,” Wilson said. “I asked everyone they saw that day if they knew about it. It just kind of proceeded from there.”
That procession included Wilson’s daughter, Jayci Wright, calling her Rev. David Berry with Welcome Baptist Church about what her mother had seen. Wilson said that Berry went to the tent off Union Boulevard to speak with the man Wilson had seen and who she thought was living there alone.
“It turned out to be a family of five,” Wilson said.
That family of five living in the tent was Jeremy Thomas, his wife. Angelica Crossman, their 6-year-old daughter, Abigail Crossman, their nine-month-old daughter, Giovanna Thomas, and Angelica’s father, Anthony Fasullo. The family also had their dog, Thor, with them.
The fact that there was a family with children living in a tent in weather that over the past month had dipped into the 20s, changed everything and spurred Wilson, her daughter, the church, and many others into action.
“Once we found out it was a family we began efforts to try to get them in a hotel,” Wilson said.
Those efforts, however, met a bit of a roadblock as the family, who moved to Union from Florida, weren’t used to complete strangers trying to help complete strangers.
“They were reluctant because they weren’t used to people trying to help them,” Wilson said. “We spent pretty much the whole day, I did, she (Jaci) did, Berry did, at least 10 people went down there to try to convince them to accept the help. They were reluctant because they are from Florida and they said people there don’t help each other like here with strangers trying to help them.”
The family is from Ocala, Florida, and moved to Union at the end of 2017 and Thomas said the difference in how people in Union treat those in need, especially strangers, from what he’d experienced in Florida, is stunning.
“People in this city are just so nice,” Thomas said. “I’m used to people walking across the street to avoid me and now I’ve got strangers helping me.”
Finally, Wilson said the family agreed to help accept the help being offered them and, following another Facebook posting, the help began to pour in from a variety of local residents, businesses and other organizations.
“The next morning we made another posting on Facebook explaining the situation and asking for help,” Wilson said. “It just kind of snowballed from there.”
Wilson said Union County EMS personnel brought pizza and drinks to the family and checked out the children, checking their vital signs to make sure they are all right. She said the children were very cold, however, and so Rita and Joey Northerner, owners of the Kar Connection, took them to their car lot and warmed them up. In addition, Wilson said the Northerners paid for a room for the family at the Quality Inn for one week. She said that another lady then paid for the family to stay there another four days.
More people have since paid for the family to stay at the Quality Inn to the point where Wilson said that as of Thursday they were paid up for over three weeks.
And the donations have kept coming.
“There have been all kinds of donations including clothes for the children, Walmart gift cards, and cash,” Wilson said. “We’ve set up a fund for them at Arthur State Bank and there have been donations to that.
Wilson said that the fund set up for the family at Arthur State Bank, which she said is being administered by her daughter, will be used to help the family get a home and help them as much as possible.
”Local churches have been helping too, (such as) Union Church of God, and Fairview Baptist Church of Joanna took up donations on Wednesday,” she said. “Bojangles, T&L Diner, and Bantam Chef have given food.”
Wilson said the reaction by the community has been “amazing” and “humbling” with many of those making donations being people who, like the family they are helping, live paycheck to paycheck, and so understand how things can change in a moment and people find themselves in need of help.
The family found itself in need of help when, after traveling to Union, they found themselves for all intents and purposes homeless, even though they were technically speaking property owners.
Thomas said that he was laid off from his job in Florida two weeks before Christmas, so the family decided to leave the state and relocate to a community somewhere between Ocala and where Crossman’s family lives in Zebulon, North Carolina. He said they did an online search and found a property in Union that, online at least, appeared nice, being in trees and with a cabin on it, and, at just over $3,000, affordable.
After making a down payment of just over $600, Thomas said the family left Florida and came to Union. Arriving at night on Dec. 30, Thomas said they really weren’t able to get a look at the property. Eventually they did, however, and discovered that it was nothing like they’d thought
“It’s full of sewer lines and there are eight or more manholes on it,” Thomas said. “Nobody can build on it.”
Wilson described the property as “a kudzu-covered hole with no home on it.”
Thomas said that as a result of there being no cabin on the property, he and his family went up to Spartanburg and were able to stay at Mission Hill for a week-and-a-half and then got a motel room for 10 days. During this time, he and Crossman were able to get jobs with Amazon and soon thereafter got their first paychecks. Those paychecks, however, were for only a week’s work, and the couple will not get their first two-week paychecks until Feb. 9.
In an attempt to make their money last as long as they could, Thomas said they purchased two tents, a large, all-weather one that all five members slept in, and a smaller one for the children to play in. They also got a tarp and draped it over a stick for Thor to stay in, but Crossman said the dog wouldn’t stay in it half the time.
They also purchased sleeping bags that are designed to be used for temperatures that fall as low as 20 degrees below zero. To make them even warmer, Crossman said they put blankets inside them, especially for the children. They also bought a Coleman heater which Fasullo would turn on if needed to keep him and the children keep warm.
(Thomas and Crossman work the third shift at Amazon Sunday-Wednesday and Fasullo keeps the children while they are at work.)
While they managed, it wasn’t easy, but now, thanks to the (continuing) generosity of the people of Union, they are no longer living in a tent and are hoping to soon find a home with the help of those who have been helping them since their plight was discovered.
“We have several people including David Berry looking for a rental property for us,” Crossman said. “Yvonne Lawson with House Dogs Social Club is looking for housing for us as well.”
Thomas said that the family will likely also soon need a car as the one they drove up from Florida in is on its last legs with the power steering shot and other problems.
“I don’t want to ride in it with my babies,” Crossman said of the vehicle.
Even with the challenges still ahead of them including whether or not they will still have to pay the balance of what they owe on the property they purchased, the family is hopeful and optimistic and deeply touched by the concern and generosity shown them by the people of Union County.
Crossman said the kindness the family has experienced has touched her and the rest of the family deeply and causes them to appreciate more and more everyday how wonderful the community they now call home is.
“The people here are just amazing,” Crossman said.