I can’t recall feeling sorry for myself as circumstances forced my wife, Denise, and me to move into income-restricted housing in Nashville—in other words, the projects. I wasn’t “Papa Joe” to hundreds of needy children in those days. I was just Joe Bradford, an ex-con in failing health.
Not that I didn’t have cause for self-pity. As a young man, fatherless and hating that fact, I adopted an “I’ll show them all” attitude. I was bright, a computer geek before that was cool. And on a dare, I put my skills to work to steal $200 from an ATM, one of the first bank hacking crimes. It landed me in a maximum security prison, a place for hard cases, and I became hard. In there, you were a wolf or a sheep . . . and I became a wolf. And that landed me in solitary confinement, and there I found faith.
Released, married, kidneys failing, Denise and I found ourselves among the under-resourced of Nashville . . . and among those who I believe deserved my pity far more than I did.
It was the kids. Not just fatherless, which so many of them were, but hungry, too. In America? Yes. Just outside my back door.
Denise offered a piece of candy to one of these precious youngsters one day. Just trying to make a connection. As you can imagine, two showed up the next day. Three after that. And before you knew it, we were in over our heads and deeply in love with these children. We formed a choir with them. We told their stories to help arrange donations of life’s basics, such as food. I became “Papa Joe” to many of them, and we founded Elijah’s Heart Ministries to do something about their needs.
My story was told in the film "Unconditional," which recently released on DVD. (I have to say, I was pleased to have a rising young star like Michael Ealy portray me. I looked good!) But this dramatization of my life points the way toward a real life drama in our country. Get your arms around this:
● More than 46 million Americans live in poverty, including 16 million children.
● More than 50 million Americans, including 16.7 million children, live in food-insecure homes, meaning they live in hunger or with concern for finding their next meal.
● This food insecurity affects every county in the country.
And I want to emphasize to you that many, many of these children and these families do not receive government help to buy food. Many are homeless. Many more don’t know how or where to get help. And they desperately need help.
I was unaware of this when Denise and I met these kids in Nashville, but I know now, and so do you. We must do something about this. We must ensure no child goes to bed hungry or wakes up wondering where her next meal comes from.
To be sure, some are trying to help. Walmart’s Feeding America program unites the backing of that giant retailer and many of its vendors with concerned individuals to support food pantries nationwide. They help 37 million people a year. Other businesses, religious organizations and individuals are helping as well.
How about you? I want to assure you, that just like me, this reality is right outside your back door. There are hungry children in your community, and they need people like you and me who can do something . . . to do something.
The hungry at your door don’t need your pity. They need your help. Won’t you join me and the many others like me? Open your door. Get involved.
"Papa Joe" Bradford is an inspirational speaker, teacher, writer, drama producer, musician and mentor to young and old. He and his wife, Denise, are co-founders and directors of Elijah's Heart Inc., a nonprofit organization that serves hundreds of inner-city children and parents. His story inspired the film "UNCONDITIONAL", now available on DVD. Learn more at ElijahsHeart.com and PapaJoe.org