What it looks like when a society fails its vulnerable

leon jones

Count your blessings. Be grateful for what you have. Stop and smell the roses. It’s likely most of us have heard all of the above at various time throughout our lives.

Far too often, however, it’s easier to focus on that burr under the saddle, no matter how minute, and bellyache about our problems. That, despite the fact that many of us, in reality, have been dealt a pretty good hand overall.

Just how good is sometimes evident when one is shown how the “other half,” for lack of a better term, lives.

The New York Times earlier this month ran a story about Leon Jones, a 64-year-old poultry worker who lives and works just up the road from me in Newberry, SC.

If you’re looking for someone who has a good reason to be less than happy with his lot in life, Jones would seem to be a good candidate.

According to the Times’ story, Jones has “an intellectual disability and a swollen right hand that aches from 40 years of hanging live turkeys on shackles that swing them to their slaughter. His wallet contains no photos or identification, as if, officially, he does not exist.”

Born in Texas, Jones was recruited from the Abilene State School, an institution for people with developmental disabilities, “only to wind up living in virtual servitude, without many basic rights,” the publication added.

He is employed as a contract worker and hired out to the Kraft Foods plant in Newberry. He lives in a rundown bunkhouse, sharing space with itinerant workers, many of whom come and go with the seasons.

The Times described his “home” thus: “His small bed was in a corner, a few feet from a young man wearing a black-knit ‘Jesus’ cap and watching Spanish-language television at a loud volume, and not far from a bathroom with open stalls and a wet floor. Mr. Jones’s locker contained clothes, cowboy boots and a plastic envelope of old cards and letters, the last one from 1992.”

In short, Jones has few amenities and no connection to government services for people with disabilities. He does have a brother, Carl Wayne, but the two haven’t seen each other in at least 40 years because the people who hired them decades ago eventually decided to send Leon to South Carolina and Carl Wayne to the Midwest. The latter is currently in Iowa.

Leon Jones earns $8 an hour. His paychecks, which total about $800 a month, and his Social Security payments, are deposited directly into an “association” account, from which the costs of his room and board are deducted.

I found the story unsettling and heart-rending. Given that Newberry is just 30 minutes north of my own home, I decided to see if I could locate Leon Jones.

Finding the Kraft plant was relatively easy; from there I found an individual at a nearby food pantry and asked if he knew where I could find Jones. “Oh, you mean the guy who was in the newspaper article? Take this dirt road here and go down a bit. He’s in one of the buildings there.”

I pulled up to a neglected cinderblock structure with a Coke vending machine in front. There were several trailers nearby, but this seemed the likeliest place for a makeshift bunkhouse.

Map showing Newberry, SC, site of Kraft Foods plant where Leon Jones works and lives.

Map showing Newberry, SC, site of Kraft Foods plant where Leon Jones works and lives.

I knocked and asked for Leon. A Hispanic man told me in broken English to wait a moment. A few moments later, Jones came to the door. He greeted me with a smile and a handshake, ambling out the door and into the area in front of the building. I could immediately see the damage that decades of hanging live turkeys had done to his swollen right hand.

I introduced myself, told him I’d read about him in the paper and asked how he was doing. He said he was good and that was getting ready to watch the Army-Navy football game. He added that he was a big football fan and proceeded to talk about the Dallas Cowboys. Even though he’s been gone from Texas for a long time, he still keeps up with the Cowboys.

I asked him how work was going, and he replied excitedly that he would shortly be taking on a new role, helping fix up some of the trailers around his bunkhouse, pointing to one nearby that had no windows. It will be a step up from his present job: Working the evening shift sweeping up and disposing of turkeys that arrived at the plant already dead.

It’s quite possible the Times’ story provided some impetus for Leon’s employer to find a position more palatable to a 64-year-old disabled man.

I asked Leon if anyone else had stopped by to visit him as a result of the story in the newspaper and he said he had had two other visitors.

Leon’s intellectual disability was evident, as some of his words were difficult to understand, but he also had a cheerful spirit and a decided lack of anxiety. He seemed more content with his lot in life than many better-educated, better-paid people I know.

Leon smiled especially big when I asked about his brother.

Shortly before the Times’ story ran, an attorney for the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, in Newberry to investigate his case, had taken Leon to the local library and helped him make contact with Carl Wayne through Skype.

Sadly, during the conversation, the first the pair had had in many, many years, Carl Wayne told Leon that their mother had died “a long time ago.”

In the end, we spoke for about 10 minutes. I’m glad I took the time to meet Leon, but the visit left me dismayed, as well.

According to the Times’ article, all Leon has to show for approximately 40 years of hard labor is about $6,000, despite having no family to provide for, never traveling or taking vacations and living a decidedly Spartan lifestyle.

How do people like Leon Jones fall through the cracks? How is it that no one with the company that he works for thought that there was something amiss with a disabled man having no access to government services? How many other Leon Joneses are out there, disabled or unable to navigate bureaucratic red tape or unable to grasp English well enough to know their rights, all being taken advantage of?

And what of those that prey on individuals who, for whatever reason, aren’t able to look out for themselves? How exactly is it that they can sleep at night?

(Top: Leon Jones inside his “home,” a bunkhouse near the Kraft Foods plant in Newberry, SC. Photo credit: New York Times.)

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19 thoughts on “What it looks like when a society fails its vulnerable

  1. i’m so happy you went to meet leon. this story is both sad and sweet, mostly sad. it does pain me that we let some members of our society languish, barely scratching by, while others have so much and never stop to think about them, and that they are people of equal value.

    • I’m glad I went. He’s a nice man. I may take my girls up there and have them bring some sort of Christmas gifts that they pick out for Leon and the other men who live there. None of them have any family nearby. Certainly our society is better than it used to be at taking care of those who need care, but it saddens me as well when even one slips through the cracks. Thanks for your message, Beth.

      • that would be wonderful, and what a wonderful experience and lesson for your children, and a wonderful gift to these forgotten men –

  2. Kevin,

    I was so very touched when you shared this with me on Saturday evening, and I am again touched to the core by your kindness. I’m looking forward to working with you to help the girls learn a very valuable lesson through our Christmas project for Mr. Jones and his roommates.

    Fighting for the rights of others is my life’s work as an attorney, but people can make a difference, just as you have, by shining a light on inequity and injustice in our society. Certainly people with disabilities need advocates for their rights, perhaps even more so, just as those who can hire an attorney to fight for those rights. Thank you for being an advocate and giving Mr. Jones a voice through this beautifully written story and your visit with him.

    I hope others will seek out Mr. Jones this Christmas to extend some kindness, which it appears he has had very little of in his life. We can all learn a lesson by the positive attitude Mr. Jones keeps despite his circumstances.

    Love,
    Katie

    • Thank you, Katie. I always appreciate your sweet words.

      Indeed, I know I can certainly learn from how someone like Leon Jones handles adversity. “Blessed are the pure in heart: for they will see God.”

  3. Oh my gosh, that is heart-rending, Cotton. You have such a kind heart to go out of your way to visit him. It might be nice to publish his address so that your followers might send him a Christmas card at least. 🙂

  4. Thank you, Kevin, for taking the time and kind to Leon. Leon sounds happy and does not know any better. Bless his heart. Ignorance is truly bliss.

    As for employers (ER), unfortunately there are unscrupulous employers out there. Thank goodness the ER has given Leon a lighter job. I certainly hope that they will keep him for the remainder of his life as a retiree with benefits – free room, board and lodging. That’s the least they can do for Leon. Am I dreaming?

    Without outside interest, most of these situation go unnoticed and there are plenty of Leons out there, Canada included especially in the farming and poultry business.

    For the ER, they sleep just fine, they have no conscience.

    Thank you for sharing this news. Perpetua.

    • Thank you, Seeker. I do hope that Leon’s employer will look after him. Hopefully, having the New York Times shine a light on what’s going on in this situation will “motivate” this employer to do what’s right and make sure that Leon is taken care of. Unfortunately, though, you’re right: There are far too many others who are taken advantage and have no one to speak up for them.

    • It is indeed a sobering story. It showed me a side of life I don’t come into contact all that often, and it helped me be a little more appreciative of what I have.

      Thanks for stopping by and for your kind words, Amy.

    • Thank you, J.G. I was impressed with the effort by New York Times reporter Dan Barry, who obviously spent some serious time both investigating and writing up Leon’s story. I would never have known about Leon had it not been for Dan’s work.

  5. Pingback: Authorities take action; remove disabled from SC bunkhouse | The Cotton Boll Conspiracy

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