Hard-Luck Community Finds a Fairy Godfather

ASSOCIATED PRESS

He approaches the tired wooden shack, eyeing the grimy plastic windows and tar-paper roof held down by old tires. For a man who has come to share his wealth, there's a curious greeting: a snarling Rottweiler.

The dog's owner emerges and tugs at a thick metal leash. He shows Sal Dimiceli inside, where a single bare bulb glows in the living room like a flashlight in a cave.

Dimiceli knows the family's story: The man juggles two jobs. His wife has Hodgkin's disease. Their three young kids are good students--he has checked out their grades in school.

Clutching a legal pad, Dimiceli takes no notes, but everywhere he looks, he sees decay: Insulation hangs from the ceiling. A drum-like furnace whose rusty surface doubles as a stove bulges from a wall. Threadbare towels block out the sunlight.

"We're going to get you out of here," he promises the man, who doesn't want his name used, fearing authorities will remove his kids if they see this hovel.

"I tried my best," the husky man mumbles apologetically, stuffing his meaty hands in the pockets of his faded leather jacket. "This house is raggedy. It's a piece of garbage. I could use the help."

As Dimiceli leaves, he hands the man an envelope stuffed with a few hundred dollars.

Then he drives off in his red Dodge Ram, kicking up a cloud of dust in the gravel as he heads out to help someone else with another envelope, another pledge, another plan to improve life here.

For once, this hard-luck community, Pembroke Township, has crossed paths with good fortune.

For the last decade or so, Dimiceli has poured a couple of million dollars of his own money into a place he just came across by chance one day--and could not forget.

Dimiceli hadn't even heard of this community when he took a shortcut while heading to a nearby town to buy his son a dog. He was shocked to see so many dilapidated shacks, so many broken windows. He was even more shocked to learn people were inside.

He felt compelled to return. And he did. The next day. The next week. The next year. He brought clothes, mattresses and food. He began visiting people's homes. Then he began building them homes.

It may seem strange to others, but it makes perfect sense to Dimiceli to adopt a place he stumbled across.

He was once poor. He saw poor people. He decided to help. It's that simple, he says.

"It definitely gives me a sense of peace," he says. "A doctor operates on somebody to make them feel better. I'm doing my part to get these people to live better."

Pembroke Township is about 70 miles southwest of Chicago, but it has the feel of down-and-out parts of the rural South in the 1950s, with living conditions that, in some cases, are desperate, even shocking:

Dirt floors. No running water. No electricity. Holes in the ground that serve as bathrooms.

Pembroke Township doesn't even have a gas line--people cart bottled gas or use firewood to heat their homes.

"I don't want to say it's prejudice, but we're predominantly black. It's a rural area. Draw your own conclusion," says David Leggett, mayor of Hopkins Park, who used a government grant to buy gas line equipment but doesn't have money to install it.

This village, pop. 711, is the largest incorporated area in a township where more than half the people--many of them very young or old--live in poverty and where unemployment last year was 24%.

But statistics don't capture the frustration here, born of promises and plans that never materialized, years of little political clout and lots of neglect.

Pembroke Township does have one great new hope: It has been chosen as the site of an $80-million state women's prison, which will bring jobs and, just maybe, revive this depressed community.

Dimiceli knows it will take the money and power of government to transform the area, but his religious faith keeps him coming back, doing what he can--always aware that there are limits to his largess.

"The things that I do change lives in a small way--a blanket, shoes, food," he says. "In the long run, who's going to be here for the children so they can have jobs, get a good education, fend for themselves?"

He leaves those larger questions to others, tending to the matters of daily life. The winter coats some of the elderly wear to church, the boxes of Cheerios handed out in a food pantry, hundreds of books kids read at Smith school--all are courtesy of Dimiceli.

He also has donated thousands of toys, diapers and pairs of shoes, repaired 40 to 50 homes, built six new ones (with more planned) and paid utility bills; he is contributing about $65,000 to rehabilitate a community center.

And every month he tools down the two-lane blacktops shaded by savannah oaks looking for people to help. A slender man in corduroys and sweater, with a beard and a tight cap of curly black hair, Dimiceli looks more like a graduate student than a rags-to-riches 50-year-old businessman.

One day he saw Tamar Banks, a 67-year-old widow, sitting in the door of her dilapidated red trailer, eating sausage and spinach from a can.

"I just knew then that God had sent him," she says. "I just knew."

Her roof looked like it was about to blow away. She had no running water, electricity, bathroom or refrigerator.

"I didn't feel like I was in such a terrible way," she says. "I always knew someone was out there in worse shape than me."

Dimiceli offered her a new trailer, but she asked if her old one could be repaired instead. So he hired people to do that.

"Ooo-ooo," Banks says with a laugh, "everything looks different now. I have electricity and plumbing and all that."

But when a stranger rides into a small town with money and promises, there's bound to be suspicion.

And there certainly was here.

One of the wary ones was Billy Mitchell, superintendent of Pembroke Community Consolidated School District 259--where 98% of the students are eligible for free government lunches.

People "couldn't imagine a well-to-do white boy would be doing something like this," Mitchell confides, leaning over his cluttered desk. "They thought there was something in it for him. One dear friend of mine said, 'It doesn't make sense.' But he's convinced now."

Dimiceli's steady presence has assuaged some fears. And he has recruited pastors, township officials and others to be his eyes and ears--and make sure his money is well spent.

Some critics quietly say he is making people dependent.

But Jon Dyson, pastor of the Church of the Cross, says many people here cannot fend for themselves, and he believes Dimiceli wants to inspire others to help.

"He's saying, 'Can you believe people live like this in the United States?' " Dyson explains. "He's trying to call attention to this place."

In the billion-dollar world of philanthropy, Sal Dimiceli's generosity is barely a footnote--about $2 million. But in a township whose annual budget is about $225,000, his open wallet makes a big difference.

It has changed his life too.

He is now phasing out his business--he owns a company that is a manufacturer's representative of computer cabinet and circuit board makers--to devote full time to charity work. He says he can't continue the pace of donating half his salary.

Dennis Hannon, his lawyer, agrees.

"I told him you're going to have to start watching the amount you're giving away or you're going to end up in one of those houses you built," Hannon says.

Dimiceli's wife, Corinne, sometimes tells him he takes on more than he should.

"But if Sal sees somebody in need, he's going to go out and buy them shoes," she adds. "He's not going to try to find a job for the man. That's what he sees as the immediate need. He does what his heart tells him to do."

For Dimiceli, seeing poor people evokes personal memories.

His father, now dead, gambled away his earnings, moving his family from city to city, sometimes abandoning them in shame, then returning months later.

Dimiceli remembers days when the electricity was turned off, when the eviction notice came, when relatives had to bring over food.

"I definitely am reliving my childhood," he says. "I spent too many days wishing I had another shirt, a different pair of shoes where there wasn't a hole in the cardboard."

By age 12, Dimiceli had a job as a dishwasher. He did laundry, shoveled concrete and pumped gas to help support his family. He never finished college, and though he now has all of life's comforts, he never forgets his past.

"I have an outstanding drive that comes from . . . not wanting to return to poverty," he says.

And a determination to pull others out.

Take 91-year-old Eugene Thomas.

He and his wife, Hazel, were paying $65-a-month rent for a cinder block house with rooms as small as prison cells, filled with furniture most people would discard. Cabinets were chopped up for firewood.

Dimiceli promised to build them a home.

"I said, 'You must be joking,' " says Thomas, his smile widening as he recounts that day as vividly as he remembers being an orphan begging for food.

A few years ago, Thomas moved into a three-bedroom furnished house.

"He's a man of his word," Thomas says. "He's a man with a good heart."

Sitting in his kitchen, Thomas takes in the view from behind Coke-bottle-thick glasses: wooden cabinets, shiny tile floor, new appliances.

"I'm comfortable," he says in a booming voice. "I'm clean. And I'm happy."

On a spring day, Thomas, his arm tucked under Dimiceli's elbow, strolls across a weed-filled field to his former house.

The two men bend to peer inside as if it were a dollhouse, the floral curtains still fluttering in the wind.

They walk back, a journey of just a few hundred yards.

"I've come a long way," Thomas says. "I sure have."

Dimiceli leaves, driving down a short stretch of road called Trinity Lane.

The name of the road was his doing.

So was the road.

And all six houses on it.

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