When a young, homeless man turned up at the Bluefield Union Mission near their home, a West Virginia couple offered help. But what happened, surprised everyone involved.
Andrea Brunais is a writer and editor at Virginia Tech, who works in Blacksburg during the week and commutes home to West Virginia, where her husband lives, on weekends– they have 4 grown children of their own.
“When we first met (the young man) I asked him about his life and it turned out he was a foster child, and he said a sentence that just kind of seared into my soul. He said, ‘This is the first time in 10 years that I haven’t had to worry about a roof over my head.’ And he was 19 years old. So, my husband and I, maybe a little bit naively, thought that, well, we have something to offer here in the way of guidance and counseling. We could connect him with social services and get him on food stamps, help him get enrolled in college, so, we thought just that little bit of help, that he’d never had –that adult guidance—we thought that if we offered it, it would turn him around.”
Jesse Ray Lewis was born to addicted parents and became a drug dealer himself. He had no experience of anything else.
“So, that’s what we provided, just kind of a reality check because he had no idea of what this world was like. He said, when he first walked in to the mission, he was homeless, cold, hungry and he looked in and saw people smiling and laughing and working and that seemed like such an alien world to him. So we were kind of trying to be the ushers to show him that he could be in that world as well.”
The couple soon discovered Jesse had a talent for something they never expected.
One day, Brunais’ husband, Hal Gibson, Hal saw a scrap of crumpled up paper on the floor. He picked it up and opened it and looked at there were words on it. And Jessie Ray says, “Oh, I scribble things down all the time. He showed some of it to me and I was blown away. I was astounded by what I was reading. So, I talked to Jessie ray and I said look, you’ve got some talent here and you’ve got something to write about. He couldn’t believe me. On some level I don’t think he ever believed that he had talent that he could write something that someone would want to read. I’ve had grown people who have been brought to tears by his poetry. He writes about violence and love and shame and trauma in a way that I don’t’ think anybody can write about unless they know about it first-hand.
The couple bought Jesse a computer. He would send emails to Brunais while she was in Virginia during the week. “And I would never know what Jesse would write until I opened up the email. He’d write late at night. He put on what he called ‘a beat’ and he would write to that beat and it would come out in rap -like cadences. Frankly, I was throwing away 60 percent of everything he wrote. Some of it was nonsense or incoherent or trite or clichéd, but when I through /what was left was just diamonds!”.
Brunais brought the poems to a publisher, “Write Life” in Christiansburg. “I showed her the poetry and like everyone else she was totally moved by it. But poetry doesn’t people al ot of money so I said if you want to publish this poetry, I would be willing to write the story of how this evolves as my husband and I attempt to be an influence on this young man’s life. And that was what sold her on the deal because she thought a 2-book series would be more marketable than simply a book of poetry. So ,I committed to her to writing this book to make sure that I could get Jesse Ray’s poetry into print.
Brunais’ book came out last month; so did Jessie Ray Lewis’s book of poetry. But at this point, no one is sure where he is. He’d mentioned something about heading to the west coast. But he’s more likely on the eastern shore, presumably back to his old ways of living, says Brunais.
“And I never got a chance to ask him” she says, “why he walked away from it all, because he left the area and the next thing we knew, he was in a homeless shelter in Beckley and had he gone to the community college ( they had helped him prepare for) he would have had a 5 -thousand dollar grant from the fed government. He could’ve gotten an apartment. He could have bought a car. But he never showed up for classes.”
When he finally called a few months later, it was to see if he’d gotten any royalties money from. His book of poetry.
And Brunais had some questions for him. “I said, you had your food, shelter, five thousand dollars! and he said, ‘Well, I never saw any of that money’. So, I said, well Jesse Ray, you have to show up, you have to go class if you’re going to get that money, and it opened my eyes to the fact that he just didn’t get that. It’s just so hard for someone who’s never had that little bit of support earlier in their lives.”
“The question for me from the beginning’ says Brunais, was ‘would he accept the help of strangers?’ I really hope there’s help for him and I hope people reading this series will understand where people like Jesse Ray are coming from when they’ve lived through childhood trauma. I know there are lots of other people trying to help people like and I hope the book will offer guidance and inspiration to help them do that.”
Brunais’ book is called, Hillbilly Drug Baby. She’s knows that’s a controversial term, but she chose to use the word Hillbilly to continue what become a new exploration of its meaning in literature, culture, the path of one young man, who, tried at least for a time to escape its negative connotation.
Here's one of Jesse Ray Lewis's poem, read by Daniel Eddie Williams:
The Author will talk about her book Saturday Jan 12 at the Christiansburg, VA Barnes & Nobel
Saturday Jan. 12 from 1-3pm
Reynolds Homestead in Critz Feb. 6 at 12 noon
Alexander Black House in Blacksburg March 21 at 5:30pm