The Journal Gazette
Sunday, October 18, 2020 1:00 am

Couple helping homeless in area

State Farm's magazine details many good deeds

Lydia Braswell | For The Journal Gazette

Amid the summer's social unrest, Marcus Elam was working with Earl's Barber Shop and Big Apple Pizza to do good in the community.

Elam and his wife, Amanda, decided to give back to local homeless by providing gift cards to Big Apple Pizza. After one short trip around the Promenade Park area, the couple gave away 20 $10 gift cards to people they noticed were clearly in need.

The gift cards allowed people to have a beverage and a sausage roll from the restaurant – an order large enough for two meals.

Elam says he was moved to action after watching the viral footage of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin's brutality toward George Floyd, whose death sparked renewed interest in the Black Lives Matter movement.

“The disparity of race is not lost on me,” says Elam, a State Farm insurance agent whose office is in the 46802 area and mainly serves customers there. “Being Caucasian and serving a primarily African American (client list), most of my interactions on a day to day basis are with minorities.”

When Elam and his wife returned to Big Apple Pizza later on the same day they distributed the first gift cards, they recognized two customers. One turned to Elam's wife and thanked her, calling her an angel for giving him a warm lunch.

The agent's community efforts were one reason he was featured in State Farm's monthly publication Reflector in August. Elam's insurance company has a Neighborhood of Good initiative, which gives agents money for charitable deeds. Elam's team had used the money before late May, when he decided to give to strangers he saw near Promenade Park, so he financed those gift cards out of his pocket.

Elam said he was heartbroken to find out the two men at Big Apple Pizza waited outside for their orders rather than making themselves comfortable in the shop.

“Sometimes people in need are so used to being marginalized, they marginalize themselves,” he said.

In that moment, Elam turned to Patrick O'Sullivan, co-owner of Big Apple Pizza, and began planning a full-fledged event.

Elam already had the help of Earl Folks, a State Farm customer who readily offered his haircutting skills for community service.

The agent had everything he needed except a venue and an extension cord for the hair clippers.

O'Sullivan, who had just witnessed the interaction between Elam and the local in his own shop, was immediately on board. It was not the first act of community service he initiated.

The team at Big Apple Pizza has a history of handing out slices of pizza at closing time to locals experiencing homelessness; some of them frequent the alley behind the restaurant.

To kick off the first free haircut event the Monday after George Floyd's death, O'Sullivan dished out what Elam estimates to be 20 whole pizzas. Folks cut hair for between 20 and 25 people that day.

Another unexpected act of kindness came from a woman who arrived at the event with five dozen donuts from Tom's Donuts. The Fort Wayne native was home to make arrangements for her brother's funeral; he was killed in Los Angeles during a protest.

The second event about a month later was supported by Earl's Barber Shop and Executive Barber Shop, along with a few other local hairdressers. Folks was able to double the number of haircuts given with more barbers at his side.

Impromptu community service was now becoming the standard for Elam's events. Tiffany Crawford brought 80 backpacks stuffed with hygiene products for the homeless, along with 10 cases of Gatorade.

“I don't think a single water got drunk that day,” Elam says, recounting the struggle of the summer heat. “The people in need that we were helping were so grateful for the Gatorade.”

Crawford said she's “always had a big heart of wanting to give back to the community.”

An anonymous donor contributed packs of dental picks – a small gesture that was also well received. Elam said popular foods often donated to people in need are protein-filled meats that can easily get stuck between teeth. The agent discovered other foods that were a hit included peanut butter – fulfilling and easy to store – and microwaveable ramen bowls.

“There is a disconnect, oftentimes, from the person who wants to do the charitable giving versus the person who is receiving,” Elam said.

Crawford called it an “amazing experience to be able to connect with different people and learn their different stories.” She is in the process of starting a nonprofit. Graceful Beginnings LLC advocates for the future of homeless and displaced individuals, teaching them how to live in a healthy and positive environment.

Elam is working with Crawford and Folks to set up the next free pizza and haircut event.

Big Apple Pizza has recently relocated to 120 W. Wayne St. after several years on Wells. With the pizza shop still adjusting, Elam is considering hosting the next event on the city's south side.

Giving to others remains a passion.

“I want to serve the people who are responsible for supporting me and my family and my team,” Elam said.

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