Lecompton Richard Olson isn't sure where he'd be had he not met that nice older couple at a campground in Minnesota.
At the time, Olson and his family were living in a tent in the woods, sneaking into the showers at the park in Cloquet, Minn. That's what he was doing one day in June when he met Barbara Mozingo, who was hosting the grounds for the summer with her husband, George. The couple let the family stay at their campsite, drove them to appointments and, eventually, helped them get cellphones, jobs and a place to live.
"They're just wonderful people," Olson, 47, said of Mozingo and Bowen. "If it wasn't for them, we'd probably be in a very bad situation right now."
The Olsons aren't alone. For about the past five years, Mozingo and Bowen, both 74 and retired, have traveled the country in an RV, helping homeless campers. They estimate they've assisted about two dozen people with getting back on their feet, often giving them nothing more than emotional support, without asking for anything in return.
"We get hugs a lot," said Mozingo, as she sat in a recliner in the back of her RV on a recent day in Lecompton, where she and Bowen stay every year for the holidays with her daughter, Laura Pate. "They cry often and say, 'We wouldn't be here if not for you.' But they're the ones who did the work."
Meeting about 'storehouse'
To learn more about how the "storehouse" concept could be used to help the homeless in Lawrence, attend an informational meeting Dec. 5 at 7 p.m. at Trinity Lutheran Church, 1245 New Hampshire St.
For more information, contact meeting organizers Laura Pate at 812-219-6440 or firstname.lastname@example.org and Barbara Mozingo at 218-340-4890 or email@example.com.
Now they hope to assist the downtrodden closer to home. They are trying to build interest locally in opening a "storehouse," which would provide furnishings to homeless people transitioning into new digs. The concept would be modeled after the Ecumenical Storehouse in Oak Ridge, Tenn., where volunteers from various churches accept donations of household goods and distribute them to needy families on a referral basis.
Mozingo wasn't that familiar with the issue of homelessness in America until her church started sponsoring refugees, whom she calls the "ultimate homeless." She and her family went on to work at soup kitchens, to volunteer for Health Care for the Homeless and to adopt two foster children from Vietnam.
As a person who's had 28 permanent addresses — her late husband, Gil, was in the Navy and later worked in construction — Mozingo says she became well aware of the different "pockets of homelessness" that exist: Americans living under bridges, in tent camps and in campgrounds. That's where she said she and Bowen started finding people living in squalid conditions, "right on the edge" of homelessness.
Mozingo and Bowen were actually childhood sweethearts — "I met him in Spanish class. He would carry my books to class," she recalled — until she moved from their hometown as a teenager. They reunited about a decade ago in northeast Minnesota, where she was attending a memorial service for her husband.
Besides two years spent living in Berlin, Bowen had never left his hometown. So after marrying Mozingo, he decided to see the rest of the country, giving up his four-bedroom house with the three-car garage to travel from campsite to campsite in an RV.
About five years ago, the couple met a former orthopedic surgeon and podiatrist who was living at a campground in southern Texas. They found out that after becoming stricken with chronic fatigue syndrome she had lost it all. They helped her find work, activities to keep her busy, the proper support.
The experience opened their eyes to issues of homelessness at campgrounds. They learned that people in these situations often just need encouragement, as well as the smallest of helping hands — a ride to a job interview, a phone to use.
"We have a lot of people who say they're taking advantage of us," Mozingo said. "We're not being taken advantage of. If we can't do these little things to help people get from absolute poverty, what can we do?"
And, as Bowen noted, "We don't go looking for these people. But when we find them, we can't throw them away."
"Where are they going to go?" Mozingo wondered.
Olson, for instance, grew up on an American Indian reservation in northeast Minnesota before moving to Kentucky, where he installed flooring for a living. But when his dad came down with cancer earlier this year, he and his family sold their belongings and hopped on a bus to Minnesota.
They were staying near the Cloquet campground when they met Mozingo and Bowen, who put them on their cellphone plans, drove them to job interviews and helped them find housing, furniture and clothing.
Olson was asked why he believes Mozingo and Bowen are so giving.
"It's just in their nature, I reckon," he said in a phone interview. "They just love people, even if they don't know them or nothing. And they never make you feel like you owe them."
Olson eventually got a job as a janitor at the reservation, while his wife now works at Arby's and his son found employment at McDonald's. And they seemed to have learned a thing or two from their guardian angels: The no-longer-homeless family has already donated some of its furniture to those even needier.
"They're trying to help other people," remarked Mozingo, glowing like a proud parent. "They're passing it forward."