OAKHURST – When Jay and Lori Prentice moved their family from Los Angeles to Oakhurst seven years ago, they probably imagined that homelessness was just a problem in the big city they had left behind.
Something they could never have imagined was that a chance encounter on a mission to share a Thanksgiving dinner would lead them to open their home and their hearts to people they have never met.The Prentice family’s story begins with mom Lori setting about preparing a traditional holiday dinner.
“The smells were filling the house. I was cooking grandma’s recipe and doing up the whole shebang for Thanksgiving,” says Lori. “But for some reason, I just kept thinking, ‘I can’t eat this. I don’t want this.’”
Not understanding her feelings about the meal, Lori finally called her pastor and asked if he knew of anyone who would want this dinner.
There was a homeless family of four being temporary put up in a hotel by the church, so she loaded up the whole meal, complete with linen napkins, nice plates, dessert and wine, and went knocking on their door.
When she entered their hotel room, Lori recognized one of the children as someone who had played sports with her child.
“And it just hit me so hard,” said Lori. “It just hit too close to home. This family had no place to go.”
Lori headed straight for home, packed her three kids and husband Jay into the car, and the family headed for her parent’s house in Los Angeles. They left Ginger, 6, Tim, 8, and Melanie, 10, with their grandparents for a few days, drove the four-and-a-half hours back to Oakhurst and got to work.
They tore apart their guest room and turned it into a little apartment. Then they moved the family with whom they had shared their Thanksgiving dinner into their home, and drove the nine hour round trip back to L.A. to pick up the kids.
Their new guests were no longer homeless, and were able to stay long enough to get on their feet and gather enough for a deposit on a place of their own. It was the beginning of a new way of life for the Prentice family.
Lori is saddened by the stereotypic view so many have of people who have no place to live.
“When you talk to people about the homeless, they wonder if you aren’t worried that they’re on drugs, or that they’ll steal you blind,” says Lori. “They don’t think about the many different faces of homeless people. There are so many people who used to have a full time job. People who have lost their homes. And such an earth-shattering number of those out in the cold are children.”
Lori talks about her experiences with some of the homeless here in the mountain area on her Facebook page.
“A few days ago I ate dinner at a church’s weekly community dinner. The people there were very nice, and I sat at a table with a pastor and some homeless people. The pastor mentioned that no one ever sits with the homeless.
“While eating my tamale pie, I came across a man who had a life-threatening illness that was treatable, but he couldn’t have the treatment since he couldn’t recover from chemo while living on the streets.
“Another man was working, but didn’t make enough to afford more than a hotel once a week so he could have a shower.
“A third lady, when I asked where she slept, I was told she’s a ‘walker.’ What’s a walker? Someone who walks all night since they feel too vulnerable falling asleep somewhere in the nighttime.”
Lori knows first-hand just how quickly one’s life can turn into something one may not recognize. She and Jay lost their home, and her parent’s house burned down about eight years ago.
“Fortunately, they did not end up homeless,” says Lori, who says her parents lost their house just after Hurricane Katrina when so many claims were coming in, and their insurance company went bankrupt so they couldn’t collect.
“So now my 75-year-old father is still working to try and finish his house – at his age,” she says. “You just don’t know how quickly life can change. Many are people who, through no fault of their own, find themselves in dire circumstances, and subject to the judgment of others.”
So Lori has made it her mission to make sure that if they have room in their house, someone who is cold and hungry, living in a car or sleeping on the ground, will find a warm and welcoming place in the Prentice home.
She keeps in touch with local pastors and with the Manna House, she posts on Facebook and Mountain Swap when their room is available, and a few weeks ago she spent days searching the area for a little family with a 9-month-old baby that she had heard had no place to go. She never did find them.
“What a terrible shame that I had a warm room available for this little family, and they didn’t know I was looking for them,” she says. That’s when she began contacting various news media, and her story began to be told.
“I believe we have an obligation to protect the vulnerable, whether that’s elderly, homeless, children – whatever the case may be,” says Lori. “And that’s kind of what we’re trying to do.”
The family is not wealthy, says Lori. “It’s not like we’re in a position to just be giving things away, but this is something we can do, and it just feels right.”
The Prentices have provided food gift cards to some of their guests, and even purchased a gym membership so one person would have a place to shower on a regular basis.
The Prentice children are learning from their parents’ example about something that used to bother Lori a lot – the Christmas story. Lori says she used to get angry at the innkeeper in Bethlehem for telling Mary and Joseph there was no room for them.
“That innkeeper could have found room for them,” Lori says she would fume while reading the story to her kids. “There was NO reason for baby Jesus to be out in the cold! Year after year, I got mad at that innkeeper.”
When their current guest learned that Jay and Lori would be giving up their own bedroom and sleeping on the hide-a-bed so that she could have their room, she didn’t want to take the space they were offering. So Lori shared her own new insight on the Christmas story.
“When you stay here, you will be teaching our children the truth,” Lori told her. “Christmas is not just a time for presents and a few feel-good songs that ends abruptly December 26th. The whole story is there to move us and bring light into our souls. How can I tell my kids the innkeeper should have let Joseph and Mary inside if I’m not willing to do it myself?”
Lori is turning her journal entries about her experiences of the past three years into a book for children called “The Best Meal I Never Ate,” referring to the Thanksgiving dinner she passed on to her first family of guests, and the one she missed in L.A. in their hurry to get busy on their new project.
The family has put together a video for kickstarter.com, a crowd funding website, and hopes to launch some time next week (S|N|O will let readers know when the project is online). When one posts a project on the site, they have 30 days to raise the funding, donated by people from the local community or around the world. Lori hopes to raise enough money to publish her book, and use any proceeds to fund someone else’s kickstarter.com project and provide a deposit for a homeless family to get a home of their own. Her mission is to change the stereotypes about homeless people.
The Prentice kids are a bit awestruck by the attention they are getting from the media of late. Local affiliates from Fox and ABC have called to interview the family and tell their story, and the kids rather expected Rita Skeeter from “Harry Potter” to show up on their doorstep. They are definitely Harry Potter fans, and named their dog Hagrid.
When 6-year-old Ginger asked “Why are they calling, why are they talking to us?” Lori explained to her that what they were doing is “kinda not normal.”
“But it’s normal for us,” was Ginger’s response.
“That was pretty cool,” says Lori. “That made sense.”
When Ginger was asked what she had learned from this experience, she summed it up pretty well, in perfect kid language –
“Just because you aren’t someone’s friend doesn’t mean you can’t love them.”
“That’s what we’re doing,” says Lori. “Wow, she gets it.”
If you know of anyone who is in need of a place to stay while they get on their feet, Lori invites you to contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or like her Facebook page “The Best Dinner I Never Ate.”
Message from Lori – “For everyone who likes our facebook page in the next 48 hours, you will be entered in a raffle for a free hour long massage. I will be happy to send money to a massage therapist in your area if you are far away.”