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.
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.)