... In October, my friend from high school posted that she wanted to get involved making dinners for the homeless. With the help, I jumped back in and committed to one day a week, but I never follow my own rules so I am sometimes cooking a meal three to four times a week depending on what I had that was donated from individuals in town. It [the meals] started to grow and at one point I had to decide what my purpose was going to be."
Jesi paints a picture of her days and how all the meals she serves come together. “I'm up in the morning cooking and prepping a million different things on my two burners that I use at home. I have four crock pots and a roaster. I don't want to blow out my power so I have stuff plugged in different places--in front of the TV, in the living room, and one plugged in at the end of the couch. Usually there's another crock pot in my bedroom on my nightstand. Then the hustle and bustle of trying to fit it all in the car without spilling it. I've had three knee replacements and I have a really bad back so my physical capabilities are not nearly what they used to be. If I’m not cooking, I’m serving and if I'm not at Cameron Park, I’m at Copeland Park. When we leave Copeland, we go to a local hotel and check on a few people that are down there. Then I wake up and do it again the next morning, but at night I rest and keep my legs up because they're so sore. I also spend a lot of time picking up donations from a variety of locations. I pay for a lot of it out of my own pocket and then I get donations as well.”
When considering what drives Jesi to serve the homeless population, she reflected on a story about her son and how her past continues to shape her current place in the world. “Four and a half years ago, my son was riding the bus home and saw a homeless man sitting by a stoplight with all of this stuff. He wanted to help the homeless man so when he got home he stole my change jar and rode his bike up to the stop light. My son doesn't have a whole lot of empathy for some things, but it was something that touched him. Maybe he remembers when we were homeless when he was young or maybe he has just heard about it. I do what I do because it teaches my sons compassion and teaches the younger generation how to love each other. I had a messy past. I finally came to the other side of it. Once I started volunteering with Sue I realized that this outreach is my passion. I've been homeless before, all the way across the country with my ex. It was an abusive situation so we [my kids and I] got out of it and we were homeless for a week and a half in our vehicle. I didn't sleep much because I needed to stay awake when the kids were sleeping. Most people don't just have mental health or addiction issues that make them end up on the street. It's usually something fairly minuscule that snowballs into a massive thing that you can't get back out of. You need a lot of support and that's the issue. There's not a lot of support available for everyone. Once you have screwed up, and I know better than a lot of people, your past can really haunt you. If their past haunts them forever, I don't know how anyone could expect them to come out on top.”
The reality of homelessness in the area and the need for a hot meal is one that Jesi knows well. “My showing up is whether or not people have a meal. I get people all the time telling me ‘I didn't think I was going to eat’ or ‘I didn't know when I would get my next meal and now I have this meal and the rest of my to go container for later.’ Some people just hate the way homelessness looks. I think more than anything, until you run into someone that has some sort of connection to homelessness, people have a hard time understanding it. It's a real eye-opener for most people. As of November 1st the funding at one of the local hotels ran out. Last year the Warming Center had 40 openings and it was still not enough. We had a gentleman die last year because he was turned away. There are a lot more homeless people in La Crosse than you would think. The number of homeless in the park is not the number of homeless in La Crosse. There are some days where I serve over 100 meals.”
Jesi explained that the power of a person’s story signifies a reason for us to look beyond the surface and consider each page of a book in a person’s life. For it is within pages of our lives, that we often find worth. “Everyone has a story and it's never simply cut-and-dry. It’s not that I have an addiction and say screw everything. It's never that simple, stories are important. Stories are how you find the trauma that started the roller coaster. I have asked a lot of people where they think they went wrong. Sometimes, it's not the day they hit the pipe. It was the day their parents shrugged their shoulders when they said they were being molested or something along those lines. These homeless folks have that ‘I don't give a s*** attitude’ because they have literally been left in the dust by the people who care about them the most. Why would one of us strangers actually care? When I first started cooking and serving meals, people didn't eat from me or they would eat, but were hesitant. Now when I pull up, people are coming over trying to help get tables out, set them up, and put the crock pots out. Never give up on yourself, but nobody's going to do anything for you. You have to do it yourself with the supports that are available. You have to count on yourself and know that you are enough.”
Artist’s Note: Jesi’s crock pots always find a way to feed hungry mouths, which highlights the center of her soul food. The footsteps symbolize how she touches all those that she meets and how others share their stories. The coin symbolizes that we cannot put a price on love. The coin also represents CHANGE, it’s what we need. Jesi inspires us to take action, fight for our community, and ourselves.