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Epilogue: Jean Timmons, co-founder of Holy Ground homeless shelter, dies at 79

HUDSON — The tiny mobile home office at Holy Ground hasn't changed since cancer took Grandma Jean away from it two weeks ago.

Almost every personal effect left behind harkens back to a different era. Crooked cigarette butts still poke out of a glass ashtray on the work desk that's barren of a computer. There are no typed documents to be found. A neat stack of reports from Timmons' clients marked in pen sits next to a reading lamp. "MOM" is scrawled on a fan in the corner. A sign on the wall reads, "I'm retired, but I work part-time as a pain in the butt" and it makes Grandma Jean's daughter laugh through her tears.

They founded the homeless shelter together in August 1992. Jean Timmons moved down from New Hampshire to help her daughter, Lisa Barabas-Henry, run the place. Grandma Jean, as she was called at the shelter, was known for being stern but with a tender spot for children. She never learned to use computers because, she said, they were too impersonal. She died Monday of lung cancer. She was 79.

Her main duty at the shelter was intake, said manager Cliff Marle. Everyone who came to live at Holy Ground would come into her office, where she would ask them basic questions, then dig into how they got to be homeless and what medical conditions they had. The more she knew, the more she could help.

She referred them to clinics and Social Security offices, Marle said, and helped them raise money for plane and bus tickets if they were stranded.

A woman who asked to be identified only as Mashell C. said she first met Grandma Jean at intake in 2006. Mashell was an addict with an attitude problem, she said, which Grandma Jean saw right away. "I was feeling all of the feelings I was covering up with drugs," she said. "She snatched me up. Told me to get it together."

Grandma Jean questioned and counseled her almost daily about life choices, contacting her children, what she was doing to better herself. When Mashell's teenage son came to the shelter, Grandma Jean questioned him, too. He has since re-enrolled in high school. Mashell has been clean for four years now.

Grandma Jean grew up in Massachusetts, her daughter said. She married a man in the U.S. Army and spent her time raising six children with him. She became a widow at 38 when he died of lung cancer, still with young children at home. She had about 20 grandchildren and 20 great-grandchildren.

She kept records meticulously, always writing in long hand, as shown by a wall of 3-inch binders dating back to 1992. She was diagnosed with cancer on Jan. 7, 2013. Doctors gave her a year to live if she took chemotherapy treatments. Barabas-Henry said her mother refused because feeling lousy would have kept her from the shelter. She lugged an oxygen tank with her to work every day up until two weeks ago, when she had to go under hospice care at her daughter's house.

In her last conversation with her mother, Barabas-Henry remembers kneeling next to the bed and whispering with her. She didn't know if she could keep up the shelter without her.

"You will," Grandma Jean said.

"No, I can't," Barabas-Henry said. "You're my best friend and you work with me. And you're my momma. That's like losing three people all at once."

But she promised she would.

Contact Alex Orlando at aorlando@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6247.

>>Biography

Jean "Grandma Jean" Timmons

Born: Sept. 10, 1934

Died: March 24, 2014

Survivors: daughters Donna Timmons, Paula Jamison, Andrea Boise, Lisa Barabas-Henry and Marla Holland; son, Floyd Timmons; 20 grandchildren; and 20 great-grandchildren.

Service: wake 5-8 p.m. Friday, funeral, 2 p.m. Saturday, both at Grace Memorial Gardens and Funeral Home in Hudson.

Epilogue: Jean Timmons, co-founder of Holy Ground homeless shelter, dies at 79 03/25/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 25, 2014 9:02pm]
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