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Main Street U.S.A.’s Charity Drive for L.A.’s Skid Row

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Times Staff Writer

You’ve got more homeless in L.A. than we’ve got people in our town.

--Pat Bridwell, wife of Phil Bridwell, who organized residents of Anna, Ill. (pop. 5,408), to collect more than 15 tons of clothing and blankets for the homeless in Los Angeles.

It’s like a Little Leaguer suddenly pinch-hitting in the World Series. Or a pickup truck outrunning a Porsche at a grand prix.

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The tiny southern Illinois town of Anna, about 120 miles southeast of St. Louis, has come to the rescue of the homeless in big, rich, relatively balmy Los Angeles. “We thought if we’d send our clothes to the homeless in L.A., they’d send us their weather,” joked Kim Capel, a 29-year-old pharmacist who participated in the recent clothing/blankets drive sponsored by the Anna Heights Baptist Church here.

Seriously, Capel added, “We just had a burden on our hearts. Phil (Bridwell) had been led to start the project and he asked us to participate in it. The bottom line is we did it for the Lord. Anna, Ill., wasn’t eyeballing Los Angeles. The Lord was.”

Local Inventor

It all began late last year when 58-year-old Phil Bridwell, a local inventor and entrepreneur, saw a television program about the homeless living in the streets and cardboard shantytowns of Los Angeles. “I saw Mrs. Jordan (of the Fred Jordan Mission in downtown L.A.) tell a story about this man who’d never received charity in his life,” Bridwell explained. “He’d lost his home, everything he had. She said that after the years of working with homeless people she’d learned that only about 15% of them are alcoholics. One-third are mentally ill. And the rest are simply people who’ve lost their jobs. Well, Los Angeles was having a severe winter and we have a local trucker who makes trips to L.A. And he gave us a bargain price.”

Once Bridwell was convinced his plan would work, he wasted no time implementing it. As Duane Hileman, principal of Anna Junior High School and a church member, recalled, “Phil asked the Brotherhood (a church organization) for permission to look into doing this. Two weeks later it was done.”

During those two weeks, church members (including many from other local churches) asked everyone they knew for clothing and blankets. And they parked their church’s bus and buses from other churches in shopping centers in their tri-state area, which included southwestern Illinois, southeastern Missouri and northwestern Kentucky.

Betty Plott, wife of Anna Mayor Ray Plott and member of another Baptist church in Frost Belt Anna, remembered going with her husband on one outing in search of donations at a shopping mall in Paducah, Ky.: “We went out there in a snowstorm and we stayed all that (first) day more or less as an advertisement. People stared and looked at the sign (“Clothing for the Homeless”) on the bus. The next day they came and brought clothes. One man who was eating in the restaurant said, ‘I don’t have anything but you can have my coat.’

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“He took off his coat and gave it to us and it was cold out too. Other people would go in the stores and buy new clothes and give them to us.” Capel, the pharmacist, was especially touched by the donations of people in Anna who didn’t have much to give but gave anyway.

“In a one-horse town, you know everybody just about,” he said. “It was very meaningful to see people giving sacrificially. There was one family that had been helped by the church before. It almost broke my heart. These people gave when they didn’t really have it to give.”

On Jan. 17, truck owner Jim Linson left Anna with his 18-wheeler fully packed with clothes for L.A. (Only about two-thirds of the more than 15 tons gathered in the drive would fit into his 42-foot truck. The group hasn’t decided what to do with the rest of the goods.)

Linson arrived at the mission in downtown Los Angeles on Jan. 21. “By about 7:30 or 8 o’clock, a lot of people had started congregating around the truck,” he recalled. “The word had already gotten out among the street people. They were right there, ready to grab anything they could get.”

But the mission, which daily houses up to 250 men and provides an average of 1,000 meals, does these things in a more orderly fashion. The next morning at 9 a.m., mission workers began unloading the truck and sorting its contents. During a three-day period (Jan. 24 through 26) all the donated blankets and clothing were distributed.

As the residents will gladly tell you, Anna is a town with 10 churches and one movie theater (open three days a week with $1 admission). There is one bowling alley and one McDonald’s restaurant. And “one 27-hole golf course--if you play it three times,” said retired jeweler Pete North, 73.

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The largest department store here is the Wal-Mart discount store, but those in search of fancier fashions might be better off at the Mode O’Day dress shop.

Grocery stores in Anna bear signs on the doors that caution customers that a microwave oven may be in use inside the store. Another warning is indirectly posted at each cash register where there is a sign bearing the names of all customers who have bounced checks in recent months and haven’t yet made amends.

The chief industry in Anna is providing services to farmers in the area, farmers who’ve been hurt by the nation’s agricultural recession. Unemployment is nearly 20% in Anna. And according to Donnelley Demographics, Anna’s median household income in 1986 is estimated to have been $19,417 for an average household of 2.2 people. The same marketing service estimates Los Angeles’ 1986 median household income at $22,481 for an average household of 2.5 individuals.

Despite such statistics, the mayor and many residents here say there are no homeless people in Anna. A few years ago, before federal housing for migrant workers was erected, seasonal employees were known to live out of their cars.

But now, “everybody has shelter. They’re not sleeping in the streets here,” said Sue Patterson, a Baptist Church member who also runs an orchard and does volunteer work helping the downtrodden through a state agency.

“We have nobody living in the streets,” declared Mayor Ray Plott, a former garbage collector and garbage-collection superintendent. “We’re a small community and we all know each other. We all get along. It don’t make any difference what your religion is here. People help each other.”

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But why help Los Angeles when there are needy people in Anna? “This is over and above the other things we do,” Patterson explained. “I tell people here, ‘never throw anything away.’ We (Patterson and her volunteer friends) call ourselves ‘The Garbage Girls,’ because something somebody is finished with may be something somebody else could use. People are ashamed to ride through town with me because I always have all this stuff in the back of the pickup truck: mattresses, refrigerators, sofas.”

But that still doesn’t completely explain why the residents of Anna suddenly directed their charity work at a big city 1,700 miles away. After they thought about that a while, some of the women who worked on the clothing drive came up with a similar answer: “Phil asked us to do it.”

“People have confidence in Phil,” said Lela Casper, a retired billing clerk. “He’s not gonna lead you wrong.”

This is the part of the story that Phil Bridwell wishes would just self-destruct. When interviewed in Anna, the organizer of the clothing drive didn’t even want to admit it was his idea.

And he is reluctant to discuss the extent of his business success (largely through a junk and salvage operation). He is an inventor, a former city councilman (Paris, Ill.) and a man who’s been in dozens of businesses (everything from running a Dairy Queen franchise to owning a tractor dealership to publishing a national trade newspaper).

Though Bridwell’s inventions have never paid off--he invented a number of energy-saving devices, two of which have received patents--the entrepreneur has been extremely successful in virtually all of his businesses, according to his friends at the church.

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While he hates discussing his past successes, he doesn’t mind discussing church matters. Particularly how easy it would be for other churches around the country to do what churches in Anna did.

“My hope is to go nationwide with this,” he said. “Many churches already have buses. They already have bus drivers. The buses are already insured. The churches already have buildings (to store donations; in Anna, the collected blankets and clothing filled an empty three-bedroom home). The churches already have secretaries and retired people who are anxious to help.

“This could be done for pennies on the dollar. If this were handled properly we could supply the needs of every mission in the U.S. for a pittance.”

Relaxing in His Den

As he spoke, Bridwell was relaxing in the den of a home he and his wife designed and built just outside of Anna. It’s on a 60-acre property with two lakes and a pine-tree forest inhabited by deer. Like the Bridwells themselves, however, the land and the house appear more comfortable and natural than showy and pretentious.

“My hope is that we’ll be able to train other people from other churches in the most effective ways of doing this (volunteer work),” Bridwell continued. “People everywhere are anxious to get involved and help but they don’t know what to do. The reward of helping people is so fantastic.”

That last statement is a lesson Bridwell doesn’t mind revealing that he learned the hard way.

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Until 1985, he said, his life had largely been devoted to acquiring material possessions. “I wanted to own everything there was in the world. And we have owned a lot of things,” he said. “We’ve bought and sold a little bit of everything. I have tried every kind of enterprise there is. It’s all vanity.”

All that changed in ‘85, which Bridwell termed both the worst and the best year of his life.

The worst began when he repeatedly felt as if his heart were being stabbed with an ice pick. He soon was scheduled for open-heart surgery with five bypasses, an operation that had painful complications.

“I couldn’t stand it,” Bridwell said. “I was begging to die.”

Later in the year, his prostate was removed, as was a malignant kidney. While recuperating at home Bridwell was watching a television preacher (not Fred or Willie Jordan) who asked his listeners, “Where do you stand with God right now?”

A Total Change

“I bowed my head and just started weeping profusely,” Bridwell remembered. “It was like a streaming wave of electricity came right through me. It wasn’t painful. I’ve never felt anything so powerful and so cleansing. At that very instant my life did an absolute total change.” Since then, he added, he has only wanted “to work full time for the Lord.” And lately, he’s begun selling all his properties and possessions so he and his wife Pat can live more simply. The 60-acre property that includes their home was sold last weekend. They are moving to a smaller residence to be nearer their daughter and grandchildren.

Since Bridwell shifted his goals, he said, he has experienced more peace and contentment than ever before in his life. And nowhere was it more evident than during the hectic days of the clothing drive.

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“I was totally surrounded by love and giving,” Bridwell said quietly.

Then a grin slipped quickly back in place as Bridwell thought out loud about the future: “A little, golly-aw-shucks-cornfield-type town like this, this is what America is all about. People helping people.”

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