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He's an inspiration for all seasons

Christopher Jeffers, 5, drops coins as Marshall Roberts and his service dog, Archie, staff their Salvation Army bell ringer station.

BRENDAN FITTERER | Times

Christopher Jeffers, 5, drops coins as Marshall Roberts and his service dog, Archie, staff their Salvation Army bell ringer station.

Marshall Roberts has trouble swallowing, and this time the apple juice sent him into a coughing fit. Tears filled his eyes. Archie stood at attention.

And in those few minutes while Roberts regained his composure, shoppers coming and going at the Publix at Chelsea Place in Trinity quietly slipped folded bills into the narrow slot of the Salvation Army's red kettle.

Greenbacks, not coins. We're talking George Washington, Abe Lincoln, Andrew Jackson.

It has been this way for eight Christmas seasons at the same store, within sniffing distance of the Douglas firs. Eight years without ever missing a day, not even when he flipped his motorized wheelchair off a curb and broke an arm.

This gentle young man whom doctors once said couldn't possibly survive has done that and more. He and his family don't have a lot, yet every year he rings the bells that bring out the best in people and help provide food and clothing for the poor.

Notice we said "bells.'' Most Salvation Army workers hold a traditional golden bell by the handle and wave it back and forth. Roberts has cerebral palsy and limited use of his arms. So he attracts attention by ringing eight bells mounted on a battery-powered turntable he can spin by touching a button on his wheelchair.

It also helps to have Archie, a handsome 5-year-old golden retriever whose mission in life is to protect Roberts. Naturally everybody wants to pet the loveable dog, and Roberts or his nursing assistant, Teresa Nugent, must remind them that Archie is on duty and can't be distracted.

Archie himself is a reminder of generous spirit. Somebody donated $18,000 three years ago so Roberts could get the service dog from an organization called Paws With a Cause.

"We have no idea who did it,'' said Angela Dillow, Marshall's mom. "But Archie has meant so much to Marshall.''

• • •

Thirty-two years ago, Marshall entered the world at Morton Plant Hospital in Clearwater three months early. He suffered a brain hemorrhage. If he went to sleep, he stopped breathing, so sophisticated machines kept him alive. At six months, he finally was able to breathe on his own.

"Doctors said he would never speak, that he would be a vegetable,'' Mrs. Dillow said. "They were very wrong.''

She could tell her son was intelligent because he could tell the difference between her footsteps and others. "He had a keen sense of hearing from the get-go,'' she said. But the damage to the brain would forever twist his body, slur his speech, leave him vulnerable.

Still, he attended school at Richey Elementary and Countryside High. He collected dozens of model cars. He learned songs by his favorite Christian rock singers.

He became a clown.

Marshall's clown name is No Kidding. He's a member of the American Clown Association and the Clown Towners Alley No. 242 in New Port Richey. Not long ago, he developed an allergy to latex, so his mother said he has to stay away from balloons. But he'll be in the annual New Port Richey Christmas parade Saturday night, riding in his chair, alongside Tippy Tippy Longstockings, a.k.a. Angela Dillow.

Mom plays the perpetual 4-year-old girl with a provocative personality. Marshall portrays a grumpy old man who keeps grabbing her with his cane.

"We have a lot of fun,'' Mom says.

"My mom is cool,'' Marshall says.

In 1980, Mrs. Dillow worked as a nurse in a psychiatric hospital where she says a 350-pound female patient attacked her and broke her back. She has endured 23 surgeries,. Her body is full of rods and screws, she said, "and so I can only care for Marshall spiritually and emotionally.''

She works one night a week caring for a boy with muscular dystrophy and watches children after school for another family. Her husband of 13 years, George, has had two hip replacements, spinal surgery and has other health problems.

The family is active at the Calvary Chapel Worship Center near their home in New Port Richey. Mrs. Dillow tells this story about her son:

"About a dozen years ago, he started volunteering at our church. He handed out programs as people came in. The first night, most people went around him. Then you could see them change gradually. After awhile, people lined up to take programs from him. They'd say, 'Good morning, Marshall,' and he loved that.''

Now he leads prayers and takes head counts at Sunday school. He badly wants a job aside from the six-week stint with the Salvation Army each year. He has a job coach, and he attends the Red Apple Adult Training Center.

"With this economy, it's hard to get work for the able-bodied, much less the handicapped,'' his mother said, "but he's had some good interviews. He just wants to be of use; to make a difference.''

The folks at the Salvation Army will argue he already has. The proof is in the kettle.

He's an inspiration for all seasons 12/06/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 9, 2008 2:57pm]
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