The pandemic makes her service to the homeless more difficult. Her own health challenges make it almost impossible. But none of that can stop Debra “Beebs” Winters from giving to those who need it most.
Longtime helper of the homeless Debra Winters – or Beebs, as she is more commonly known – is many things: selfless, thoughtful, tireless, and kind. And there are a few things she’s not: shy, subtle, or a quitter.
Beebs, a Longwood resident, is the longtime operator of Beeb’s Mobile Pantry, a food truck that, pre-COVID, hosted food and fellowship events for the area’s homeless.
“It will be 15 years in June since I started my homeless ministry,” Beebs says proudly. Having once lived on the streets of New York City, she has never forgotten what it’s like to be homeless. “I remember being outside restaurants, asking people for leftovers.”
She has a fierce dedication to serve those in need.
Her monthly events at a local church, for example, would welcome up to 100 clients at a time before the pandemic made such gatherings unsafe. Local homeless residents could depend on Beebs for not only a warm meal and prayer, but Bingo games, gift-card giveaways, spiritual songs, and access to donations such as shoes, hygiene kits, and blankets – all available at no charge.
“We would feed them, body and soul,” says Beebs.
The pandemic has halted those gatherings for now, and Beebs is facing another major challenge that is forcing her to find new ways to serve.
Beebs was recently diagnosed with a rare disease that is even rarer in women in this part of the world – Buerger’s disease – which has resulted in the partial amputation of several of her fingers.
There is no real treatment or cure, says Beebs.
The Centers for Disease Control reports there isn’t a definite known cause of Buerger’s disease, but it is linked to tobacco use, which may cause blood vessels to become irritated and swell. Some researchers believe it is an autoimmune disorder that sees the body attack its own healthy tissue. The National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD) reports the United States incidence rate at less than 20 cases per 100,000 people in the general population. The condition is more common in young or middle-aged men in places like Asia, according to NORD – not 60-something women in Longwood, Florida.
“There isn’t enough research on this as there just aren’t enough of us around,” says Beebs. A former certified nursing assistant, herself, she adds that many Buerger’s patients end up dying of infection.
Because of the rare nature of the disease, Beebs must consult the only specialist around, at UF Health Shands Cancer Hospital in Gainesville. It’s a four-hour round trip, but Beebs’s friends, who she calls her “spiritual cheerleaders,” drive her whenever possible.
Her Buerger’s disease is in addition to three other chronic conditions Beebs is managing: lupus, fibromyalgia, and rheumatoid arthritis.
Committed to the Cause
If you thought her health situation and a global pandemic would force Beebs to forget her homeless clients, you’d be wrong.
“My clients are my family,” she says.
To keep serving them, Beebs developed a new phone-in system for assistance. Members of the community regularly leave donated food items on a bench outside her front door, knowing Beebs will get them to those in need.
Her garage has become a mini food pantry with racks of donated boxes and cans of food. Hygiene bags with items such as toothbrushes, toothpaste, deodorants, lotions, and soaps are ready for anyone in need, with bins of supplies on hand to assemble more.
Before COVID, these items would be loaded onto the Beebs Mobile Pantry truck, but these days, clients call Beebs and let her know what they need and how she can help.
“They call and place an order and come pick it up from my porch,” Beebs explains.
Her voicemail greeting explains the new pickup system, and the greeting ends with the reminder, “There is hope.” For people struggling to acquire necessities, Beebs says, it may be exactly what they need to hear that day.
Her homeless clients trust and appreciate her, says Beebs, and that makes her work rewarding, even if it is now more difficult.
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“They love me unconditionally,” she says. “I didn’t know there was a love like that.”