Terence & Cecilia Lester of Love Beyond Walls
Where are you from and how long have you lived in Atlanta?
Cecilia: I’m from Augusta, Georgia. I’ve been in Atlanta since 2006, so almost 10 years.
Terence: I’m from Atlanta. Born and raised, been here my whole life. So I know the city really well.
How did Love Beyond Walls get started?
Terence: I was on staff at a couple churches doing different things. I was a youth director at a church in College Park, and I also served on staff at a church in Douglasville. When I was on staff in Douglasville, I had gone to one of the leaders and told him I was thinking about starting this organization to serve the homeless and underserved communities in Atlanta. He thought it was a cool idea, so I started it while on staff there part-time.
But, believe it or not, we’ve been doing this for the last 12 years. We just never gave it a name or anything. We met. We married early. I was 22, and Cecilia was 20. We started serving together. We had always been serving the community, resourcing people, doing community organization, serving the homeless, mobilizing volunteers. So we had been doing that for 12 years, since we were young. We just decided to make it formal and create the organization of Love Beyond Walls.
When we were about to launch the first awareness campaign, I actually lived as a homeless person in the city with her permission for almost a week. It was around Christmas time, and I used social media to educate people about my personal experiences that I went through. That’s how the following started, and we started building an organization. It became official in 2013.
Cecilia: I know a pivotal point for me was a lady that we came into contact with. We packed up our car one day, and we were going to take our stuff downtown. That moment for me was important, because in Augusta you don’t really see homelessness like that. So, here in Atlanta, it broke my heart to see so many homeless people.
We were down this alley, and we came up to a lady. She asked what do you all have. We told her we have some stuff that we don’t really use anymore, and I had some Reebok Classics. The lady said, “Wow. The night before I prayed for shoes, and these are my size. This is all I need.” She didn’t even take anything else. She just wanted the shoes.
Terence: She was barefoot.
Cecilia: At that point, it created a passion in me. Love Beyond Walls is where I feel like I’m fulfilling that.
Terence: The preface to that story is that we were going through a hard time like young college kids trying to make ends meet. Instead of complaining about the struggles that we were facing, we agreed to go do something for somebody else. We packed up a few bags of stuff that we hadn’t been using but was still in good condition. We just wanted to go downtown on an adventure to find somebody to be a blessing to. That kind of started the whole concept of what Love Beyond Walls was going to grow into. The concept of taking love to people where it doesn’t exist.
You just won the Plywood Presents Idea Competition. Congrats! Share with us your plans for furthering your Mobile Makeovers initiative.
Terence: Last year around September a church in Madison, GA donated a bus to our organization. I met them through a mutual friend. I didn’t know the pastor, but he heard of what we were doing. He had a bus and had tried to give it to 20+ churches, and all of them denied. I get down there, and he shows me the bus. He asked if I wanted to go for a test drive, and I said yeah. We rode around, and we get back to the church. He said, “I think it’s going to serve you guys well up in Atlanta.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “We’re going to give you the bus.” I asked how much, and he says give me a $1. Literally, they donated the bus for $1.
A week later I was at a gas station on the outskirts of Atlanta. I saw this guy digging in the trash can, and his name was Leonard. I always engage people in conversations to hear their stories. I started talking to him and found out that he was 60+ years old and had lost his wife a few years ago. He turned to drugs and found himself losing everything. He ended up on the streets. He hadn’t taken a shower in 2 months. He hadn’t shaved and had this big beard. I said, “Let me ask you a question. If you had one wish, what would that wish be?” He looks at me and says, “I honestly wish I could be made over.”
So we’re on the outskirts of Atlanta, and we were not anywhere near a shelter. It’s amazing that we would have to pack him up, take him somewhere, go through all these processes and procedures just to get him a shower, a change of clothes and a haircut. With that story and us just receiving a bus, putting the two together — I thought it’d be cool if we could make people over on the spot. Then use it as a bridge to connect them to the services that they need. That’s where the concept of Mobile Makeovers was birthed.
Then around November of 2014, we were launching a soft campaign and weren’t getting any traction with it. My wife said I was going to have do some type of demonstrative campaign. I said, “What should I do? Sleep on top of the bus?” And she said, “Yeah. If you’re going to take a stand for it, you need to do something that’s going to make a statement.” We got our good friends, Dave and Jen, and drew up this idea of what it would look like for me to sleep in a tent on top of the bus for a month straight with my wife’s permission, of course.
So my friend Dave built a platform. Love Beyond Walls was turning one year old, and that night I went and stayed on top of the bus and used social media to raise awareness about it for a month. It was the most challenging thing I ever did in my life. The first week I didn’t come down. I was on the bus over 160 hours. But the outpouring of support was phenomenal. A lot of people came out. 11 Alive donated. Channel 2 supported. AJC picked it up. Just tons of people started supporting Love Beyond Walls. We mobilized over 500 people to come out and support.
When I came down on January 13, we immediately had people stripping the bus out and taking it apart. All of the work on the bus is volunteer-completed. We completed the bus, all but the shower, in 2 months. It was work around the clock, and we launched in May of 2015. We did what we call a love tour. We hit Clayton County, Cobb County, Fulton County and Dekalb County and served folks. To this day, we’ve done over 307 makeovers and gotten 12 people off the streets.
We hope to do Mobile Makeovers and employ the people that we reach. For example, if we started a lawn care service — it would be Mobile Makeovers. The guys that we reach would be empowered to make over people’s lawns. So not only are we reaching people, but we giving them responsibility and dignity through work as well. We also want to do a medical unit and a food truck.
One of your new programs is Dignity Art. Share with us how it began and what it is.
Terence: I met Bruce walking down the street. He was upset and frustrated. I stopped him and asked what’s going on. I knew him, because sometimes he comes to Love Feeds. He said, “The temp service doesn’t have any work for me today.” He told me that he only made $7.25/hour. An entire day of work would only produce forty bucks and change. I told him to come in.
One of my friends, Dave, made this art piece with pallet wood for our Love Beyond Walls one year anniversary. I pointed at it and asked him if he could do something like this. He said he could do stuff with his hands. We drove down the street and found a pallet. We came back, and I said I was going to test him today. I asked him how much he’d charge me to do a piece like this. He gave me a figure. I said, going forward we’ll give you that figure.
I put it up online to see if anybody would respond, and somebody bought it the same day. We used those funds to help employ him. He came back the next day, and we did it again and again and again. Then I thought, what would it be to teach guys how to take old wood and turn it into pieces of art? But even greater than that, we always had a vision for teaching those we reach how to do cell phone photography. You take a picture of what speaks to you in that moment — your pains, hurts, fears, dreams. You take that picture and put it on a canvas. That’s how Dignity Art started.
We piloted it with Bruce. Since then, we’ve been commissioned to do a coffee table at the Ethics Lounge at Mercer University. We’ve been asked to do a king size bed, end tables, children’s chairs and turned a crib into a desk. We also do a lot of canvases with inspirational sayings.
From that, the next vision is a house down the street. We want to secure that house. It costs about $22,000. We’re going to turn it into a live, work, play space, so guys that we work with can be in a healthy community instead of a transitional house. I call it community-living, so they’re growing together but also working and producing art pieces. They also get to have leisure there, because one you label something transitional housing you’re always labeling people as being in transition. Some people may never move past living among other people in a community. It’ll be called Dignity House. We’ll be able to grow and develop the guys. They’ll make pieces, and they’ll get a platform to express themselves.
What would you say breaks your heart about Atlanta?
Cecilia: For me, it’s seeing the mothers and children downtown walking. As a mother, you see them and you wonder where they’re going. Where are they sleeping? What are they telling their kids? That’s one of the things that breaks my heart when I see it. When we go downtown to serve the homeless or even when I’m driving downtown, I see it a lot. I know there’s more for them. It just breaks my heart.
Terence: I think the gap between people of affluence and people who struggle with generational poverty. You can drive down the street and be next to high rises and affluent businesses, and then it starts to turn into dilapidated neighborhoods and abandoned buildings. Then you finally get into an area of town where it almost feels like it’s forgotten about. Then you start to see families who are a byproduct of being forgotten. So that breaks my heart, because there are enough resources in this city and people of influence to really create systemic change that would also change the conditions of the community. That breaks my heart, but also just encountering the different stories that we see day-to-day here at the office.
Two days ago, a wife, husband and child came, because they had been displaced. They had a house fire. They literally were stripped of everything. The kid didn’t even have shoes on. What happens when you have a family in that situation, but their family members aren’t strong enough to support them? It’s almost like you have a family that is drowning, because it can’t support itself. Who sees that? Who knows about that? Who cares about that? Just hearing those stories becomes overwhelming at times.
Cecilia: Another part that breaks my heart is hearing people say, “Are they homeless, because they won’t or can’t get a job?” People have lost compassion and empathy for the homeless population and people who are having a hard time. In those instances, you always have to put yourself in their shoes. Because it could be any of us. Just hearing people say, “They can get a job just like I can” breaks my heart.
Terence: Also prejudice and stereotypes about homelessness — not everybody has a mental illness. Not everyone is an addict. I don’t like it when people generalize everybody who’s struggling with poverty down to a few things that they’ve heard when they haven’t actually met the person.
Cecilia: One of the stories we’ve heard most is that most of the time it’s grief. They’ve lost someone or something.
Terence: We all lose things. The only difference is when there aren’t as many opportunities it’s hard for you to get out of that. Even with a lot of demonstrative acts that I’ve done, I can relate. Because I’ve walked in their shoes. Luckily, I have an option. But some people don’t have that option.
For people who may be hesitant to volunteer or help others, because they feel they can’t empathize or relate to that person’s situation — what advice or encouragement would you give them?
Terence: The relational component comes through pain. Pain is a universal language. I don’t care where you’ve been in life, you’ve experienced some form of pain, disappointment, failure. If you can start to view people through that lens of how you felt when that pain occurred, whatever it was, you can relate a little more and have a little more compassion. Because who wants to see others suffer?
One of the greatest ways to give a person dignity is to hear their story. To listen, not to judge. Not to stereotype. Not to make assumptions. But to listen. When you listen to a person’s story, not only do you empower them to have a voice but you show them that they matter and their story matters. If nobody has ever heard their story before, that gives them a sense of confidence. It says — you’re worthy. And it breaks down your own prejudices and stereotypes that you may assume about a person. Then you start to see from this person’s story what they’ve gone through but also assess what areas they lack in and where they need help. You can also begin to strategize about your own pool of resources about how you can move somebody along. It’s all about connections. It’s all about building bridges. Some people just don’t have the bridges or connections.
The quickest way to get involved is to get involved. That sounds very simplistic, but a large part of people not getting involved has to do with fear. The fear of the unknown. The fear of — what if I’m not accepted or how do I interact with people who may have lesser means. To debunk that fear you have to view people as humans. They’re human. You’re human. We all want the same things — healthy families, a career, to be secure, friendships, relationships and so on.
Once you’re able to move past that, you’ll be able to get yourself plugged in somewhere. Something special happens when you go and serve someone else. Your heart begins to change. You get to see into someone else’s world. I think sometimes we’re so distracted that we don’t get a chance to do that.
We’ll help play a part in Atlanta changing its heart toward the city.
What excites you most about Love Beyond Walls in relation to the future of Atlanta?
Terence: We have a really big vision.
Cecilia: We have a lot of things that we want to do. Even with Dignity House, that’s a large platform. Because not only will it be one house, but it can be multiple houses. It’ll turn into more communities. We won’t hear transitional housing as much. People will feel like they’re doing something productive. The vision is huge, and we’ll help play a part in Atlanta changing its heart toward the city.
What is your greatest need at Love Beyond Walls right now?
Cecilia: Resources are needed. We always look for volunteers to come and help serve when we go downtown or when we’re in the community. Not just financial resources, but people too.
If you had to sum up your Love Beyond Walls experience in a few words, what would you say?
Cecilia: A movement of doers. Not only do we draw things out and dream big, but we do it. A lot of people ask — how do I get started? And — you just do it. We’re a movement of doers.
Is there anything else that you’d like to share about how your Love Beyond Walls journey have impacted you so far?
Cecilia: I would definitely say being able to serve and have my family see it. Whenever they think about something related to service, they’ll call or ask me a question. I would definitely say having influence in that way has been great.
Terence: The whole deal. Living under a bridge or on top of a bus or walking 31 miles to make a statement for my friend who was homeless and walked 30–50 miles a week. Or wearing one outfit for 90 days for kids in Title 1 schools. It shows me the power of what can happen when you choose to wear somebody else’s shoes.
Cecilia: Our kids serve with us, so we are able to show them how to give back. They know about Love Beyond Walls. They know what serving is about. That’s something else that has impacted me.
As told to Kristen Green on September 11, 2015.