When Storm Watch 2014 (aka Pineapple Express) was reported, Jonyce O’Neill was not thinking of a flooded landscape or a potential leaking roof … she thought instead of her friends, her ‘peeps.’ As many sat at a computer screen staring at predictions of how bad the storm would be, O’Neill put a plea on Social Media for trash bags, coats and blankets for her friends who would endure the elements ... outdoors.
The renowned poet and author Maya Angelou once said, “Success is liking yourself, liking what you do and liking how you do it.”
Of the many words which might describe O’Neill, success and humble would be among them.
By day she is the Director of the Learning Tree Preschool in Oakdale. A job she has held and maintained for a total of 20 years. An employment which she describes saved her and her three children, whom she raised for many years as a single mom. She knows what it is like to want more, to wonder how one will make ends meet, to live paycheck to paycheck.
“Many of us are just one paycheck from being in that same place,” O’Neill said of her peeps who call the streets, parks and doorways home.
“They are not bad people. They are people who made a bad choice in their life and now struggle with how to get back.”
As she speaks of her friends, her love and care for them is undeniable. She describes them as her family, citing the analogy and comparison of family not always being who we choose, but who we inherit and we love them all the same. It is a union which happened by chance and with no forewarning.
Several years ago O’Neill began the local program Hope for the Heart. It was an outreach program, which took a meal and snacks to a local park every Sunday. There was no true goal other than to offer fellowship, hope and a genuine caring ear.
The idea for the program locally came after she had made a trip to Los Angeles and spent some time at the Dream Center.
“It’s huge,” she said of the Church and overall facility. “This place is ginormous.”
While there she was a participant in an Adopt a Block program, visiting skid row and the projects.
“After going to skid row, we would pass out sandwiches and water and we didn’t have enough,” she recounted of her volunteer time. “I saw things people never want to see. They think our homeless are bad. Not everyone is receptive.
“I came back and saw these guys in the park and realized they need someone to support them too.”
With the help of friend and former United Methodist Church Pastor, ‘Pastor Tim,’ O’Neill began her life’s mission prepping meals in the church kitchen and later from her own home.
After more than a decade of touching the lives of local children and their families through her ‘day’ job, she was now using her free time to touch the lives of the forgotten.
“I’m mostly just a presence for them,” she said. “I’ve grown to love them. Most of them are very decent people.”
There are many misconceptions O’Neill acknowledges that the mass majority have about the local homeless. She acknowledges that some are true transients, stopping through Oakdale for limited amounts of time and others are positioned here permanently.
“They all grew up here,” she said of her friends. “They’re all Oakdaleans. The ones who live here, ‘live’ here. They love Oakdale. They don’t want to go anywhere else. Their family is here.
“The biggest misconception is that they want to be out there and that they deserve it.”
Offering her own personal experience and understanding, the advocate acknowledged the fine line of helping a person with a substance abuse or alcohol problem. Often times, she said, their family has tried to help, but the addiction is too strong.
O’Neill speaks of their challenges and triumphs as if they are her own, tearing up as she recounts small victories, as well as setbacks.
“Like Vickie is clean and sober for 11 months now,” she shared of one of her friends. “She just can’t get off the streets.
“I worry about her every day. It just takes one instance for her to fall off the wagon and she’s staying strong. Often times their friends are still using, so it’s a very slippery slope.”
What’s most interesting about O’Neill, her peeps and this program she started after a life-changing trip is that beyond that she does not remember when Hope for the Heart officially began. It’s almost as if she woke one day and just started serving.
“All my life experience up to now has taught me a lot,” she said. “That’s why you should have a big heart. I wish I knew more then, as I do now (re: resources and programs). I could have helped more.”
To piggy back off of this sentiment, O’Neill has returned to school to expand her knowledge in social services.
“I went back to school so I could learn more on how to help them,” she said. “They need a mentor. They need someone who takes them and walks them through the entire process. Not just go here for this service, there for that service.”
O’Neill’s stories of the people the large part of the community know as the ‘homeless’ could fill a book. She is one woman, with one simple motivation: to help and serve.
“The more you interact with these people you realize they are not bad people. How many of us are that close to being down on our luck?” she said.
When posed the question of a mentor, a person she looks to for guidance and inspiration, her answer rings as pure as her efforts.
“When you read the Bible and it says, Jesus helped everyone and passed judgment on no one,” she shared. “That’s my ultimate goal.”