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Giving thanks by giving back

This Thanksgiving, be thankful that the song that came on Reiko Brown's radio all those years ago was Billie Holiday's Good Morning Heartache.

Brown, a cocaine addict and alcoholic, sat in a bathtub that day, feeling as if it was her fault her father had left the family, certain that the only reason her four younger siblings had gotten into trouble with drugs and crime was that they wanted to be just like her. At the end of the next song, she told herself, she would kick the radio into the water and commit suicide.

"But it was Billie Holiday and I heard every bit of pain in her voice, and if you know Billie Holiday you know that's a lot pain. It was like she was personally telling me 'you don't have to go through with this,' " said Brown, 52, who now lives in Brooksville.

"I heard that, and I just started praying."

Be thankful that not too long afterward, nearly 30 years ago, an anonymous caller proved what Brown had never been able to believe — that somebody did care about her. He told her there would be a Narcotics Anonymous meeting that night at a location she still remembers, Liberty Avenue and Merrick Boulevard in Queens, N.Y. She went, just as the man directed, and she's been clean ever since.

Be thankful that she didn't turn out like five girls she grew up with, the ones she wrote about in her book, Product of My Environment (available at They didn't get the affection they needed from their families, she said, and tried to find it with drugs or by loving men who didn't love them back.

"Every one of them got murdered except for one who (overdosed) on the roof of her apartment building," Brown said of her childhood friends.

Be thankful for that day, five years ago, when Brown and her mother were buying steaks for her family in a butcher shop and saw an old woman order a single pork chop.

"My mother asked me, 'What kind of person is so lonely that they have to buy one pork chop?' " Brown said.

That's when she decided she would cook Thanksgiving dinner for people who don't have family and, in these tough times, for the many people who don't have homes.

She and Angela Gilbert, 50, of Spring Hill, who together formed the organization Building a Foundation Through the Product of My Environment will cook breakfast from 9 to 11 a.m. and dinner from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. today at the old Goodwill store at 1254 S Broad St. in Brooksville.

Give thanks for the many businesses and churches that donated enough labor, food and kitchen space that Brown and Gilbert expect to feed more than 300 people.

Though you don't want to wish it on anybody, it worked out for us that Brown separated from her husband eight years ago. That's what brought her to live with family in Florida, where she now works as a patient care technician at Citrus Memorial Hospital in Inverness. So in a way, we can be thankful for that, too.

And we can be thankful without reservation that Brown met Gilbert this summer at a book signing. That's because, together, they are a confident, energetic — maybe even unstoppable — team.

A month ago, for example, Sunday afternoon basketball at the Jerome Brown Community Center in Brooksville was about to come to an end due to a lack of volunteers. Brown and Gilbert heard about it, wouldn't let it happen, and now it's Sunday afternoon basketball, dodgeball, foosball, checkers, chess, step dancing and rap sessions.

Gilbert, a veteran of decades of community activism in her hometown of Pittsburgh, is smooth and charming. She makes connections, finds businesses that might have interests in common and enlists volunteers.

Brown is the expert at talking to kids, or, really, listening to them in her rap sessions at Jerome Brown and Hillside Estates, especially when they need to talk about that "thing that makes you toss and turn all night, that certain thing that you got inside that you need to say out loud and get out."

So give thanks that someone in our county has decided to listen to children who might otherwise get their message across by hurting others or hurting themselves.

The woman who found herself in that bathtub, in other words, is doing all she can to keep others from winding up there.

And don't you feel thankful for that?

Giving thanks by giving back 11/23/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 23, 2011 8:11pm]
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