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Columnist: Leila Bell Kerr and a boy named Sylvester

Lynn Walker Gendusa

Contributing columnist

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The human touch is one of our greatest gifts. To receive it or give it away is a reward that can’t be purchased.

To calm a crying child, to hold the hand of the elderly, to reassure a friend, to embrace a loved one, to pet an animal — all relieve fear and heal our spirits. A touch makes us realize someone cares enough to reach over and let us know they are with us.

Touch is a gift from God that we often take for granted both in receiving and administering it. We forget its power.

Leila Bell Kerr lives behind me in a red brick house with a warm bed, loving parents and enough food to never go hungry.

Leila is a happy dog. What breed we do not know. My friend Deborah loves dogs.

She would give her last dime to a shelter and would pick up a dog off the road spending days trying to find it a home. One day a friend of hers called to inform Deborah that she had found a rescue dog but couldn’t find a good home for her.

Deborah and Rick had lost their beloved Annie a few years earlier and had not gotten another dog. Deborah told her friend she would “try out” the rescue for a night and see how it goes.

When she arrived I went over to Deborah’s house. I saw a black and white spotted dog with skinny, long legs on a stout body. Her ears were all black except for one tiny white spot and eyes that searched the ground as she slightly trembled. Fear pinned her ears back and she watched feet way to closely.

She had been kicked and abused and you could tell. She had been starved because she constantly scanned for food. Her first year of life was a trauma that is hard to think about if you have a heart at all. Deborah was not sure about keeping Leila.

Leila wasn’t friendly to children, or certain men, but when I pulled up her face to look at her eyes there was something that made me think that under this surface of fear lay a great dog. I begged Deborah to keep her.

As we stroked her you could see her trembling subsiding. She was starting to trust the human touch.

That was six years ago. Leila Bell Kerr became known as the “Lotto dog!” She goes on walks twice a day, plays tennis with her dad, runs like the wind, loves long trips in the car, sleeps between her parents, sneaks a treat when she can and is, most of all, loved.

Her ears point straight to the sky as she tilts her head to understand what you are saying. She still scans for food, will tolerate children, and puts up with other dogs most of the time. Her eyes are bright and look up to you for that treat or love every time she sees you.

Leila Bell Kerr was rescued and calmed by the power of the human touch.

Sylvester was a boy I met long ago in the Jefferson County Shelter Cottage in Birmingham, Alabama. I was a mother of a 2 year old and also a student at Birmingham Southern College. I was part of a group of students that were sent to study for one month at the Juvenile Delinquent Center and volunteer to help the children and teens there.

My counselor in college was Coach Bill Battle. I loved this guy. He had told me that he needed to discuss something with me the day before we were to start.

I was scared because I knew what he was about to say.

“You know, Lynn, you are a young mother and I think you should be in the Shelter Cottage working with those kids as your study.”

“Coach,” I replied, “I can’t do it. I can’t work with those kids. I am not strong enough to do that!”

You see, the Shelter Cottage was a sidewalk and a world away from the detention center. It housed children from a month old to 17 years. There were over 30 of them living there with three adults watching over them and a few volunteers.

I had heard horror stories of the abused kids, the teen runaways, the lost and forgotten little ones of society. It was built to temporarily house them until they found foster homes, or went to state homes, or were adopted or placed back in their own homes. But, usually the kids stayed much longer in the shelter because there weren’t enough foster homes, enough room in the state home or parent’s homes that still were not safe.

“Coach, I will try it for one day. Deal?”

Smiling wryly, “OK,” he said.

I went to the cottage for one day and I never left it. It would change my world and the images are like a page in a book I turn to remind myself of a time when God gave me great strength and stamina.

One of the 30 was a little skinny boy named Sylvester. His smile was as wide as he could stretch it. He would run toward me when I entered the door. Sometimes I would bring my daughter with me and he would hold her and play with her tiny ringlets as they curled around his finger.

“Miss Lynn, can I be her brother?” he would ask. And every time I would come up with an answer that really wasn’t an answer at all. There simply wasn’t one.

Sylvester’s ears were deformed because he had been burned so many times with cigarettes. His 9-year-old body was housed in a 6 year old’s frame because of malnourishment. He craved hugs because I am sure he had not had many. His smile was wide because this Shelter Cottage was the best home he ever had.

One Day I came in to find Sylvester was not there. “Where is my buddy?” I asked at the front desk.

“Miss Lynn, you aren’t going to believe this! After you left last night the kids started to play and Sylvester landed on the concrete floor. He whimpered away to his bed. We thought he was fine, but when we checked on him hours later, he was rocking in pain!”

Sylvester had shattered his elbow so severely he had to have extensive surgery. He had lived with his pain for hours for fear he would be in trouble. Pain was something he was used to.

Soon after I had to move away from Birmingham. It was hard to let go of Sylvester’s final, fierce embrace.

I don’t know if anyone ever rescued Sylvester. But for a moment in Sylvester’s life, the human hand reached out and stroked his sweet soul, held his little body and gave him calm. The fear that had once resided in his eyes was gone and all that was left was “hope.”

Abuse can happen to all God’s loved creations. It is a crime and it is horrible. We cannot close our eyes to it because it is real and leaves deep scars.

This Christmas while you are out buying gifts for your family please also give what you can to the places that house and help those that have no voice. Those that are born into a world where they are not wanted or are abused. Make them smile with the warmth of your heart or the power of the touch of your hand. It is God’s gift to you.

Lynn Walker Gendusa is a former LaGrange resident who currently resides in Roswell.