EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a monthly feature focused on “gems” in the Sea Coast Echo reading area. We all have interesting and sometimes riveting stories from certain times in our lives that should be shared to inform, entertain and inspire. This feature appears the first Saturday of each month.
This month’s “Gems” took different paths in life to become “momma” and “son” to each other.
Strangers to each other six years ago, they’re now a dedicated team helping the homeless. They met on the beach at Washington Street – her recovering from a stroke and him sleeping burrowed in the sand.
She had previously worked with the homeless in Wiggins. He had been homeless for several years after his marriage ended in a bitter divorce. Her enjoyment of sunrises led to a relationship that likely will never set.
“I had a stroke and the doctor said to go to a quiet place, and he suggested the beach,” said Connie Lyons, also affectionately known as “Momma Connie.” “I love sunrises and sunsets so I would get down there right before sunrise and take pictures. I noticed this guy every morning. He’d be sleeping on the beach and I’d see him pack up, and I began to just really ask God, ‘What’s going on?’ because I had never seen such a thing on our beaches.
“It was weeks that I had seen this and the Lord put it on my heart one morning to go get two biscuits and a cup of coffee,” Lyons continued. “I didn’t know why. I didn’t drink coffee.
“That morning, the guy got up from sleeping in the sand and came up to me wanting to know why I was taking pictures of him, so he thought. I told him the Lord had told me to give him that breakfast, and I did that several days. Later, he told me we could get a meal at the King’s Kitchen, and I gave him a ride not knowing him or his background, just trusting in God. I took him to the King’s Kitchen and our relationship began there.”
The man – Todd Wimbish – is today referred to by many as the “Mayor of the Homeless” for his work in various camps around Hancock County.
When they first met, Wimbish had been abusing drugs and alcohol and was suspicious of strangers.
“It was her persistence and the way she just loved me, regardless of my condition,” he said. “There were times I came to the King’s Kitchen so wasted I couldn’t have told you who was sitting in front of me. But she didn’t judge me, she didn’t write me off. She sat there and talked to me until I’d come down and then I’d go to bed, get up in the morning and try again. She just stayed with that.”
Most people don’t have the patience to devote time to help someone without seeing results quickly, but most people aren’t a “Gem” such as Lyons.
“It took over a year to get him to open up,” she said. “No one had really reached out to him so I think he was thinking maybe this is some type of ploy to get him to say something and he’d get arrested. After he began to trust me he started sharing stories about the homeless and where the camps were around here. We began taking plates to areas around the camps and he would get them to come get the plates.
“Once they got comfortable with that, we would pick them up and give them rides to the King’s Kitchen,” Lyons continued. “And now we have a great rapport with them and they come on their own. So we work hand in hand. I couldn’t have done what God told me to do without him having the experience, being a man, and protecting me.”
God was also telling Wimbish what to do, but it was a tough message to unravel.
“I woke up one morning and I felt God calling me,” he said. “He had showed me everything I had ever done wrong and I was so remorseful that I laid there for hours crying. He told me if I’d just get up and go and help this person – and I didn’t know who – but if I’d just go help him, He would make everything right in my life.
“So, I put my clothes in a bag, I put all my hygiene in a bag and anything that was still new or still good because I was going to give it to somebody. I didn’t think I had anything to give personally but I knew I had materials that I could give. And I walked around for about nine hours that day and couldn’t find a soul. It was the first time I’ve ever not run into anybody.”
He then called a friend for a ride. Instead of returning to his homeless camp, their travels took them to Old Spanish Trail Baptist Church – home of the Celebrated Recovery program.
“We pulled in and it was 20 minutes before it started,” Wimbish said. “I went inside, and at first, I’m still looking for the person I’m supposed to help. I hadn’t caught on yet, you know. At the end of the meeting I jumped up and said, ‘What can I do? Can I clean something? Can I give something? Can I cook something?’ And everybody said, ‘Well, go check on the dishes,’ or ‘Go check on the trash.’ I checked the trash, but as I got to it, somebody was doing it. I showed up every Tuesday and Thursday and it took about two and a half weeks before I finally figured out to get up five minutes before the meeting was over and go do it.
“So, I did that and when I got done I was in the bathroom washing my hands and I remember feeling happy inside. I looked up in the mirror and it hit me. There’s the person you are supposed to help.”
Prior to Lyons’ stroke, Connie had a good job at Stennis Space Center, but she said didn’t answer her true calling. She can now be found working at King’s Kitchen, ensuring the homeless and financially stressed who come for a meal get that and more.
Meanwhile, as Wimbish explains, “It’s the love that we show them. It’s the sincere caring they receive. We’re all human, we all want to be accepted and it’s that acceptance that brings them here. And just like in any type of recovery program, the person chairing that program is not somebody who’s never been in addiction.
“As far as helping me, a homeless person, you can’t tell me nothing unless you’ve been there already. So, I bring that experience and that’s something that God walked me through and allowed me to suffer and endure those things because I could come out of it gracefully. And I pray nobody else ever suffers like that but if they do, just as beautiful of an outcome comes out of it.”
That beautiful outcome includes a return to construction work and having many friends who provide him shelter.
“I have people who love and care for me so much now that it tears them up to see me in a homeless situation,” he said. “I graciously accept accommodations and, for probably better than a year and a half now, I haven’t had but a few opportunities to get back to my camp.”
Although this journey has brought him a safer and more comfortable shelter, his heart and his mission remain devoted to the people still living out in the elements.
“I will always go to the cold weather shelter at Old Spanish Trail Baptist Church anytime it’s opened because the people I truly love go there and I just want to see better for them.”
So much has changed in the lives of these two Bay St Louis natives since their lives intersected on the beach. They pulled each other into better places, but the challenge continues.
Two years ago, Wimbish had a relapse with drugs that doctors say should have killed him; Lyons has endured serious medical challenges. What makes these hardships different is that they’re now blessed to have each other for support. Two strangers who met on the beach now have bonds as strong as family.
“As our relationship got closer I said, ‘That’s my son,’ ” Lyons said. “I was so ill at that time and I needed help to do what I was called to do in this county. Todd is still my go-to man, my son.”
If you would like to share a story or stories from your life or you would like to nominate someone to be a Gem, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.