Connie McEldowney lives in a rural part of southwestern Ohio she calls “the middle of nowhere,” but is more commonly known as the “heroin belt” in today’s news cycle. The past few years there’s only been one story coming out of her neck of the woods. It’s graced the pages of TIME magazine and the New York Times with images of bedraggled heroin addicts shooting up, or overdosed on stretchers.
But Connie has a different story to tell about this region, a place where she claims to be “God’s middle man” between, on one hand, her community’s “tremendous need,” and on the other, their “tremendous generosity.” In the throes of a seemingly insurmountable epidemic she’s started a tiny revolution she calls Rustic Hope, in a region the world would tell you doesn’t have much to be hopeful about.
McEldowney’s life changed from the quintessential midwestern life to the “crazy” one she now has after she was praying at an abortion clinic. She saw the girls who were receiving abortions and realized, “They weren’t what I pictured. They were normal, they were scared. They were just like me.”
The whole drive home she prayed to God a different prayer, “I wasn’t praying for the babies, I was praying for the women. I kept saying, ‘Help me to become a better option for these women.’” And the prayer to be a “better option,” became a crazy notion. It became an idea to take a constant rotation of four pregnant homeless teens and their children into her family’s home (a home where she already has her own eight children). It became an adoption of one of the young woman’s little girls. It became the small shop she had built down the road from their home where the area’s homeless and impoverished mothers can come to receive groceries, diapers, clothing and furniture for free.
“Doing nothing” in the throes of the devastation surrounding her community was not an option for McEldowney. She spent her entire life in these farming communities outside of Dayton, Ohio and has seen the transition from a bedrock of family values to a place where prostitution has skyrocketed, infants are born addicted, and Child Services is swamped with neglected children.
“It’s gotten much worse in ‘Small Town, USA.’ It’s good kids that are trying it and getting hooked immediately.” she explains. “I once met a young woman who told me she would sell her own children to get more heroin.”
Rustic Hope ends up protecting those McEldowney believes are the most vulnerable targets of the heroin epidemic: young pregnant women and their children. She is tackling what she believes are the epidemic’s more unexamined roots: the loss of interpersonal bonds, both familial and communal, by rebuilding those roots right in her own family room.
And she’s the perfect person for the job. She’s got the self-effacing humor to handle being the butt of the joke when members of the town called her crazy, and the stubborn will-power to persist in the face of all the doubts they would throw at her. She manages everything from the predictable outbursts that happen when four pregnant teenagers share bedrooms to the fastidious organization of her store.
She has a gentle no-nonsense attitude that you can see in practice while managing her rambunctious 5-year-old daughter running around the store, but also use when a pregnant teen girl in her home would talk to her about returning to an abusive boyfriend (which has happened). She’s sharp, funny, refreshingly down to earth with the word “hope” tattooed on her forearm.
When she started hanging up clothes from a new batch of donations she admitted, “I’ve got to be honest, I hate this part.” Meeting her is like meeting Noah while he was building the Ark – one with the grace of someone on what looks like an impossible mission.
“I remember when I told my husband what I wanted to do and he thought I was crazy.” She recalls, “‘We live in rural America,’ he said, ‘how will people find out about us?’ and I said, ‘I don’t know, God will take care of that.’ I think he realized soon enough that was my answer to everything I had no clue about,” she laughs, “But God did!”
God’s answer came in the form of a collective response, a united effort against the destruction within the community. “Everybody has something that they can do,” Connie explains. There is not a square foot of the Rustic Hope shop that is not the result of someone’s generosity.
There are the local farmers who keep the freezer stocked with meat, the high school senior who built bookshelves for a “reading nook” for the kids. One farmer donated a brand new 16-foot trailer at Christmas so Connie and her husband could start delivering furniture to the moms throughout the community. Some others showed up with a furnace. “They just called up and said, ‘Hey I heard it’s cold in that building,’” Connie remembers. Donations built the shop itself. And they keep it stocked each day. Each morning Connie shows up to the shop and there are bags of donations outside the door.
“You know, those same people who called me crazy a few years ago, thought this was an insane idea, they’re now my volunteers,” she laughs. “I never even have to ask. People just show up and offer help.”
There are detractors who raise eyebrows at Connie’s decision to “put her children at risk.” There are people who ask her, “Why are you bringing ‘those’ kind of people into your home?” But Connie explains, “I’ve always raised my kids to know that we are ‘those’ kind of people, we are all God’s children, and the day you start thinking you’re better than somebody else is a very sad day.” For each naysayer in the community there are dozens more willing to join Connie’s task force.
Connie remembers a time she was spending hours driving an underage teen woman back and forth to a hospital in town to visit with her preemie baby because she wasn’t allowed to stay at the hospital. Her parents were both drug addicts on the street and hadn’t signed parental consent. Connie and her husband were having a nervous discussion about how to afford the gas money when the doorbell rang. A woman handed Connie an envelope explaining that she had heard about Rustic Hope and wanted to help. Inside the envelope was a stack of gas cards.
It’s these moments of unexpected fraternity that help Connie face the emotional demands of her typical day. A day that might include a pregnant 12-year-old with parents who are heroin addicts showing up at her doorstep. Or she might drive around Dayton looking for a woman who left the hospital hours after a C-section to get more heroin. Or wake up to a break-in at her store by someone looking to sell diapers for drug money.
It might be a day like the one she had recently when a hardened young woman came in who clearly didn’t want to talk to Connie. At the end of the visit after bringing up the items to the counter she asked Connie, “How much?” Connie explained they were free. The woman broke down crying, “Jesus is real,” she said. “All my life I’ve been asking people for help and they told me they would pray for me but never anything else. Jesus is real.”
And maybe that’s the biggest thing Connie is doing, she’s a small reminder in a city of chaos and destruction that Jesus is real, and he’s in southwestern Ohio.
Casey McCorry is a documentary filmmaker, wife and mother.
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