Lean on me: Neighbors who benefitted from the love of community when they needed it most

We hear it on the local news and see it on our social media feeds every day — people, all around us, are in pain. But members of our community refuse to sit idly by and allow a neighbor to suffer. No material gift or dollar amount can make up for the loss of life, health or security, but those on the receiving end of a collaborative gift say the kindness behind the offering was elemental to the healing process — that the thought really did mean everything.

Trial by fire

Firefighter Jeff Patterson was lucky to be alive when his crew dragged him half-conscious from a burning house.


Patterson, a firefighter for Dallas Station 44, had become trapped inside the house after the roof collapsed, but someone caught a glimpse of him through a window and pried it open to pull him out.

“I knew I was hurt, but I didn’t know how bad it was,” he says. “I thought I was going to die at one point in the house, but once I was out, I thought if I could keep breathing, I was alive.”

He barely remembers being loaded into the ambulance in May last year, and taken to the burn unit at Parkland, where he was in a coma for the first 42 days. Doctors determined he had third-degree burns across 45 percent of his body. He spent 107 days in intensive care, the majority of the 140 days he was hospitalized, during which his wife, Tina, rarely left his side.

Tina was at a party when men from Station 44 showed up to tell her Jeff had been injured. “My husband always told me, ‘If the suburban comes and the man with the white shirts come to you, it’s not going to be good,’” she says. “So I started to panic.” She left her two children, Bryce and Georgia, then 5 and 2, with her friends at the party, and headed straight to Parkland.

“The doctor told me, ‘It’s not the burns that will kill him; it will be the fungus [on the skin grafts], the bacteria or pneumonia,’” Tina recalls.

Throughout his time in Parkland’s ICU, Jeff had all those things. “He had the trifecta,” she says. “He had everything that could possibly go wrong. He kind of teetered, and then he would normalize.”

For months Tina lived in constant fear of knowing her husband could die any day.

Word of Jeff’s accident spread quickly throughout Dallas, and the Lakewood community came out to help the family however possible.

The first thing Tina did was go to her son’s school at St. Thomas Aquinas to tell the principal, Lauren Roberts, about the accident. Roberts sent out a school-wide letter, explaining Jeff’s condition and urging parents to be careful about what they said around their children.

“I was really afraid that Bryce might get information [about his dad] from other children,” Tina explains. “I wanted to create as normal a situation as possible for my kids.”

Roberts then created a volunteer babysitting schedule for the Pattersons, so that each day a different family was scheduled and available to care for Bryce and Georgia. If Tina wanted help, all she had to do was call the scheduled volunteer.

“St. Thomas was insanely awesome,” she says. “Our deacon would come to Parkland to pray with us, and the families created a meal train that lasted for nine months. Their help was huge.”

Jeff underwent several skin grafts. When the original skin grafts became infected after a couple weeks, Parkland staff had to scrape them off and start over.

To make matters worse, Tina was diagnosed with colon cancer in the middle of everything. Without telling anyone, her family included, she started radiation and chemo.

“I didn’t even know,” Jeff says.

“I thought he was more sick than I was,” she explains. “When people found out [about the cancer], it brought a whole new wave of support.”

“One day my sister was crying, asking, ‘Where do you live? Who are these people coming to your house everyday giving you money and food?’ She was so touched by it.”
That support took many forms, but the financial outpouring kept the family out of debt. The insurance provided by the City of Dallas didn’t cover all of their medical expenses, but money was coming in from everywhere.

A family friend set up a GoFundMe page that raised more than $58,000. Families at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church and school offered financial support, as did families at the First Presbyterian Church, where Georgia attended daycare.

Several businesses hosted fundraisers, including The Truck Yard, Studio Movie Grill, Fit Body Boot Camp and Angry Dog, to name a few. The Dallas Fire Department hosted a firefighter’s ball at the harbor in Rockwall. Casa Linda Estates in East Dallas hosted an event in December called Casa Linda Lights, during which they lit thousands of luminaries throughout the neighborhood to raise funds for the Patterson family. The Exchange Club of Lake Highlands also took up a collection.

On top of that, neighbors would leave money at the Patterson’s house or slip bills in Tina’s pockets when they saw her.

“People couldn’t help enough,” Tina remembers. “Eventually I had to start telling people, ‘We’re OK. We’re covered.’”

She used the money to help pay for medical bills and living expenses, and to purchase necessary additional expenses like airplane tickets so her family could travel from New York. They’d come to Dallas for weeks at a time to help her navigate the chaos, and were blown away by the generosity of the East Dallas community.

“One day my sister was crying, asking, ‘Where do you live? Who are these people coming to your house everyday giving you money and food?’ She was so touched by it,” Tina explains.

After months of battling lung damage, multiple rounds of skin grafts, and two bouts of pneumonia, Jeff was finally allowed to go home on Sept. 19.

“I thought I was just going to sneak out and go home,” he says, but the fire department coordinated a more formal homecoming with St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church and First Presbyterian Church.

“They picked me up on the fire truck and took me by there,” he says, tearing up at the memory. “We drove right by the school, and all the kids were out there with signs. It was awesome. When we went by the house, we had a bunch of family and friends there.”

Of course, his homecoming wasn’t the end of his trips to Parkland for surgery and rehab.

“I could barely walk,” he says. “With the scaring, I couldn’t put a fork in my mouth.”

“I was wiping his nose, brushing his teeth and shaving him,” Tina says. “And I was having to do wound care. I’m the most squeamish person in the world, so that was tough for me.”

“So we still needed that continued support,” Jeff says.

It has been a slow process, but Jeff has come a long way in a year. Even still he has routine surgeries to release the scars on his body to give him better mobility.

“It’s getting better,” he says. “I’m getting stronger. I just recently started going back to work and doing some light duties.”

“Now it’s the, ‘OK, what now?’” Tina says. “Just figuring out what’s next for him.”

Life after loss

After Rusty Hendricks’ life was cut short in a freak accident, his wife and three children faced a grueling road back from despair. the Generosity of friends and strangers has helped fuel their journey.

Lake Highlands, TX 11/1/15 From left: Matthew, Teresa, Samuel and Sara Hendricks along with the family dog Snoozy pose for a photo in their Plano home November 1, 2015. The family are on the road to recovery after the father, Rusty, passed away from a car repair accident March 7, 2011. (Photo Credit: Rasy Ran)

Lake Highlands, TX 11/1/15
From left: Matthew, Teresa, Samuel and Sara Hendricks along with the family dog Snoozy pose for a photo in their Plano home November 1, 2015. The family are on the road to recovery after the father, Rusty, passed away from a car repair accident March 7, 2011. (Photo Credit: Rasy Ran)

Rusty Hendricks’ funeral drew a standing room only crowd. Guests filled the pews, lined the walls, herded in doorways and shed an ocean of tears. He wasn’t famous, just a kindhearted man who amassed friends during his 36 years.

Rusty died quickly when a jack collapsed while he was working under the family Ford. Rusty’s little girl heard the crash, called out to him and cried for help when he did not respond. His wife and sons came running, but there was nothing they could do to save him. The idea of their helplessness, both then and in the aftermath, accelerated the overwhelming public sadness.

Rusty’s widow Teresa says the day of the service was a blur. “I just remember feeling very scared.”

She and Rusty met as students at Bryan Adams High School, when she was growing up in Old Lake Highlands.

“We were just friends for a long time. We were very different,” she remembers with a smile. “He was a skater, and then a cowboy. I guess he was figuring out who he was. He was quiet, until you got to know him, but always sweet — the kindest person I ever met.”

They started dating after high school, at 19, and Teresa says she knew instantly that she wanted to marry him. It took him a little longer, she says. They broke up for a while, but then one night he left a note on her car. “Call me,” it said.

They married in 1999. Teresa looked forward to building the kind of family she had wanted since her own childhood.

“My mom was a single mom raising me, and I was so grateful to have someone to share my life and a family with,” Teresa says. “So sure he was always going to be there.”

Rusty and Teresa lived modestly. He worked fulltime as a roofing supply salesman. He sometimes offered the kids commission for delivering sales fliers to neighbors. They giggle today about it being a waste of time. He probably fretted about finances, Teresa says, but afterhours, he was always 100-percent present. Teresa was a stay-at-home mom, a role she relished. They saved for family vacations — Port Aransas, Galveston, Colorado. Rusty loved fishing, camping and the outdoors. Most Sundays, they went to church. They had a mortgage and one car, the broken-down one that would end Rusty’s life.

After the accident, Teresa’s overwhelming grief was intensified by the thought of supporting three children on her own. Two sleepless nights after the accident, Teresa finally succumbed to exhaustion on a guest bed at her mother’s house. Hours later, her mom roused her with relieving news.

“I woke up to my mom saying, ‘They are helping you. You are going to be OK!’ And we both just sat there and cried.”

They learned that church members were collecting enough to help Teresa continue house payments, which would buy her time to look for a job.

And classmates from Bryan Adams announced an auction to raise enough for a new car. The organizers petitioned auction items from local sports teams. When 2011 Dallas Cowboys teammates Terrence Newman and Bradie James heard the story, they bought a car, a new Chevrolet Aveo, and had it delivered.

Grinning, Teresa says she had no idea who the players were, but 15-year-old Samuel was a diehard fan. His dad knew and loved the players too.

“I was shocked and surprised, and really glad to have a car,” Samuel says.

“It was surreal,” Teresa says. “I couldn’t comprehend that someone was just buying us a car. I wanted nothing to do with that other car — in the end I donated it — but I certainly didn’t have the money for a new car. That Aveo, it meant everything. We love it. It will be in our family forever, as long as it’s puttering along.”

ESPN radio and TV personality Tim Cowlishaw publicized the fundraising efforts in his Dallas Morning News column.

“It was surreal. I couldn’t comprehend that someone was just buying us a car.”
“We write a lot about the dumb, and sometimes criminal things NFL players do. The good things deserve a mention too,” he wrote of the Cowboys’ gift.

Friends and strangers alike gave generously, Teresa says.

A local businessman, Kenny Johnson, purchased thousands of dollars worth of auction items — an autographed football, a Marc Jacobs purse, tickets to a Rangers game — and gave them to the Hendricks children.

Sara says she still has the purse. She remembers other kindnesses, too.

“I expected my family to help us, but I was really surprised by all the people we didn’t know helping us,” she says. “Like, someone went to the book fair at school and brought us a whole bunch of books.”

When they returned to their house, after two weeks with Teresa’s mom, the refrigerator and pantry was stocked, the children remember.

“Everyday, food would just show up,” Samuel says.

It’s been four years. Thanks in large part to those fundraising efforts, the Hendricks family kept their home, located just north of Lake Highlands.

They all chip-in to tackle the things Rusty used to handle. Samuel and Matthew mow the lawn, Teresa learned to make the pumpkin pancakes her husband had perfected (not quite as good as his, she admits) and, last December, she climbed a ladder to her roof and strung holiday lights.

“I am proud that we have learned to do things, but I am sad that we have to,” Teresa says.

Late on a Tuesday night — after a day of classes, band and sports — Sara, now 13, is still wearing her cheerleading uniform, and everyone is eating pizza while discussing Halloween plans.

When the conversation turns to Rusty, Teresa tears up, and soon they all are crying. Sara moves from her seat at the kitchen table to her mom’s lap.

They hired therapists, joined support groups and slowly began to accept and adapt to this new life.

“You don’t ever get over it,” says Matthew, 12, the quietest of the children. “You learn to live with what happened. You don’t have to get over it.”

The children are witty — frequently cracking jokes that leave Mom perplexed. “Right over my head,” Teresa will say. Overly mature for their ages, they speak of futures filled with college, careers, adventures and family.

“I am going to get a full ride to TCU, go to Baylor med school, become a dentist, hire Mom as a receptionist,” Sara says. They all laugh.

Teresa believes loss has made her children more sensitive to others’ struggles. Last summer Samuel went with the church on a mission trip to New York City, one of his many ventures in volunteerism.

Teresa works for a mortgage company and recently bought a new car.

Samuel is learning to drive in the Aveo.

“We already call it his car,” Teresa says.

The family Rusty left behind is, most of the time and all things considered, happy and healthy. Teresa is not sure how they got here. It’s a combination of help from others, faith and grit, she supposes.

“Rusty was my partner and friend. I have loved him for so many years, and it has taken me almost five years to simply accept the life I have been given,” she says.

Though she sometimes still feels slighted, she also is filled with gratitude — for her children, for everyone who has supported her and for the gifts her husband gave her.

“He made me a wife and mother and for that I will always be grateful for his life.” — Section by Christina Hughes Babb

Merry Christmas, Mr. Ken

His badge reads “Nathaniel Kendricks,” but the children at Lakewood Elementary School know the 78-year-old crossing guard as “Mr. Ken.”

DALLAS, TX 11/03/2015 Nathaniel Ken poses with Chris Prestridge and Russ McMillan outside Lakewood Elementary School in Dallas, TX on Nov. 3, 2015. Better known as “Mr. Ken,” Nathaniel Ken, a crossing guard, fell on hard times in 2014 when his wife fell ill and the couple were unable to manage their medical bills. Ken’s car was subsequently repossessed. Members of Lakewood Dads then raised funds to purchase a car for Mr. Ken. Credit: Danny Fulgencio

DALLAS, TX 11/03/2015
Nathaniel Ken poses with Chris Prestridge and Russ McMillan outside Lakewood Elementary School in Dallas, TX on Nov. 3, 2015. Better known as “Mr. Ken,” Nathaniel Ken, a crossing guard, fell on hard times in 2014 when his wife fell ill and the couple were unable to manage their medical bills. Ken’s car was subsequently repossessed. Members of Lakewood Dads then raised funds to purchase a car for Mr. Ken.
Credit: Danny Fulgencio

Every school day, hundreds of students and their parents greet “Mr. Ken” warmly as he helps them safely cross the street.

His job isn’t complicated, but Kendricks says he “just enjoys being here and helping everyone across the street and back” — and Lakewood Elementary returns the sentiment. After 14 years as a crossing guard, Kendricks has become a fixture at the school.

During the holidays, the students usually give Kendricks cards, candy and other small tokens of appreciation, he says. But last year something different happened.

Kendricks’ car was repossessed last November, so his wife had to drive him to work from Lancaster every morning and pick him up every night. His wife, Patricia, was healing from a knee replacement and other health ailments, which financially kept the couple from being able to retrieve their much-needed vehicle.

When the dads of Friends of Lakewood (FOL), the “fathers’ organization” at Lakewood Elementary, learned Kendricks had been without a car for more than a month, they decided to scrounge up the funds to give him a holiday surprise.

Originally the plan was to buy Kendricks’ car back, says FOL vice president Chris Prestridge, but they soon learned that wasn’t an option. Instead, they elected to internally collect enough funds to buy him a new car, which they quickly did.

“We started a GoFundMe and only sent it to the dads,” he explains. “We weren’t sure if it was a sensitive subject, so we didn’t want to spread the word around.”

They found a friend who worked in the car industry and told him what they were looking for: a car that was completely ready for daily use and didn’t need any immediate maintenance. They found a good option and bought it, and from there they figured the handoff would be as low-key as the purchase.

“The intent was to keep this completely under the radar,” Prestridge says. “We didn’t want to make a whole production out of it. We planned to basically just go up and hand him the keys, although we did want to have a little fun.”

Kendricks takes his job very seriously and doesn’t let anyone park on the crosswalk.

“He flips out,” Prestridge explains, which made for a perfect set-up.

They planned to park the car on the crosswalk, and when Kendricks inevitably told them to move the car, they’d tell him it was all his. It was sweet, simple and to the point, but when the time came for the handoff to happen, others at the school had heard about the upcoming exchange.

“We drive it around the corner and there’s … I don’t even know how many people. There had to be 30 or 40 people out front with camera-phones,” Prestridge says.

People in the crowd filmed as FOL dad Russell McMillan stopped the car on the crosswalk, and Kendricks played his part perfectly by instructing McMillan to move it.

“Do you want to move it?” McMillan asks, holding out the keys.

“No,” Kendricks said.

“It’s your car,” McMillan told him.

“My car?” Kendricks questioned, clearly confused.

“It’s your car,” McMillan repeated, and the crowd began to cheer.

Kendricks doubled over when he realized what was happening, and the FOL dads patted him on the back and hugged him as he smiled through happy tears.

It didn’t take long before the videos hit the internet and the gesture went viral. From California to New York, people heard about the gift and started sending notes of encouragement and even checks for Kendricks.

“In the end, I’m kind of glad it happened that way,” Prestridge says, explaining that the reaction to the act of kindness was truly inspiring.

“Of course it’s nice to be able to hand someone the keys to a car when they need it. That part was a given,” he says.

“But when you do something you think is small and it resonates with so many people, it puts it in a different perspective. The outpouring of thanks and support from across the country was overwhelming and amazing. I was a changed person for being part of this.”

The feeling is mutual. Kendricks says it’s comforting to know he’s part of a community that treats him like family.

“Everyone is so good,” he says, and smiles when he adds that he has thoroughly enjoyed the car.

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By |2015-12-03T11:17:15-05:00November 19th, 2015|All Cover Stories, All Magazine Articles|0 Comments

About the Author:

Brittany Nunn
BRITTANY NUNN is the Lakewood/East Dallas editor. Email bnunn@advocatemag.com