FHS students’ upstart charity helps Dayton’s homeless

On an average Monday night, Steve Burke and Alic Brock aren’t at home doing homework or riding around with their friends. Fairmont students by day, they hit the streets on foot armed with only backpacks and blankets to walk into homeless camps in the roughest parts of downtown Dayton.

Brock and Burke run Love ‘n the Love, a budding charity unique to Fairmont. They sell a product with a simple design: a white T-shirt bearing the words “Grace always triumphs over judgment.”

For $12, anyone can purchase one of Love ‘n the Love’s T-shirts, but people often pay more than the regular price because of the cause the shirts support. The profit goes toward blankets, food, clothing and other supplies that Burke, Brock and a band of other “urban missionaries” personally deliver to Dayton’s homeless camps. 

The mission

Their journey begins behind the Biltmore Towers, a low-income housing complex that once entertained presidents and diplomats. “We pray first, and we don’t take any sort of protection. We have faith, and that’s our protection. Usually, we go to the big [homeless] camp on foot with blankets and food,” said Burke, a junior.

The group travels with Dayton Street Ministries, a congregation of an entirely different breed.

“Dayton Street Ministries isn’t like any church-run group,” said Burke, who considers Nate Johnstone, Dayton Street Ministries’ founder and leader, a good friend. They have been working together since last September.

Johnstone, 23, has built a relationship of trust with Dayton’s homeless community, but it took constant effort.  On several occasions, he was attacked with knives and forced to defend himself. “He had to go to the homeless communities and establish himself to build trust. Talk to most homeless people, they’ll know big Nate [Johnstone],” said Brock.

Even though Brock said people tend to feel comfortable around Johnstone, the young men acknowledge their work holds an element of danger. To Brock, it’s part of the mission.

“At times, it’s frightening and sometimes dangerous. Parents are a little sketchy about letting their kids go down,” said Brock, but the results are worth it.  “A lot of homeless people have trouble trusting people. But when you build that trust, it’s humbling that those people, some who have lived on the streets for over 20 years, still want to show you that love and be a family.”

Between working at the Biltmore Low-Income Housing Building and visiting the all-too numerous homeless camps, Burke and Brock have become familiar faces. “It’s one thing when you give someone some food and say ‘see you later.’ We go down and build relationships and actually eat with them. [At the Biltmore] they say, ‘I’m looking forward to seeing you next week,’” said Brock.

Some wonder why they do it, but for Burke, the answer is simple. “Aside from helping people, part of the reason is to humble yourself because we take for granted what we have all the time,” he said. “We say how poor we are, but we go to school every day, most of us eat three square meals, we have houses with running water and toilets, we have health care. Then you see these people without homes or anything, and most of them still have a pretty good outlook on life. It’s real humbling to see these people who are still surviving, yet they have so little.”

Getting started

This budding charity began humbly and, as Burke says, somewhat unexpectedly. Last year, Burke joined Trinity Alone, a Fairmont alternative band, where he got to know Brock. “As we grew closer and started talking, we grew closer to God as well. God tells us to serve people all the time, so we wanted to think of something we could do that wasn’t for ourselves and would benefit someone,” said Burke. The pieces started falling into place.

“We just hung out a lot and one day they came up with the idea,” said Zach Jeckering, a senior who has been helping out with “pretty much everything” since Love ’n the Love’s beginning in October 2009.

The quote “Grace always triumphs over judgment” comes from Jesus for President by Shane Claiborne, a book Burke and Brock were reading at the time. Next, the friends grappled with the brain-scratcher of every group: the name.

Burke, Brock and Jeckering were sitting at the computer brainstorming while Burke was petting Brock’s Great Dane, Palmer. “I was petting him and I said, ‘Look at Palmer down here, lovin’ the love.’”  At that, Brock looked up and said, “That’s it!”

Once they had the T-shirt design out of the way, the next step was coming up with the money.  Their first contribution came in the form of bags of coins that had been sitting in Brock’s garage. After wrapping $830 in quarters, Brock and Burke realized that they weren’t dealing in pocket change any more. “We were like: ‘holy cannoli!’ None of us could believe it at first,” said Brock.

With a strong financial basis, they went to Mary Tyler, the teacher of the Digital Design program that Burke takes at Fairmont. “I was drawn to this idea because I believe everyone should volunteer in some way to improve our community. I think Love ‘n the Love is an impressive project,” she said.

She gave them a deal on the raw material, and with 175 plain white T’s, they got down to business. Burke worked from the minute he got out of school until 9:30 printing the shirts. “It was a lot of work,” he said.

In only six months, Love ’n the Love has leaped onto the stage, spreading its message of acceptance and establishing itself in the community. But before there was Love ’n the Love, Brock experienced a dark time in his life that he openly talks about today.

“I was one of the kids that would drink and do drugs all the time,” said Brock. “Eventually my friends said to me ‘We don’t know who you are anymore.’ My best friends turned their backs on me, and my whole world was gone.” When he finally hit rock-bottom, Brock says he underwent a spiritual transformation that shaped the way he now looks at life.

Brock, now a senior, was raised in a Catholic household, but it took a mission trip to Ecuador to awaken his desire to make a difference. “God made me realize I have to spread that love. I realized it’s not about me anymore,” said Brock. Burke, as well, said he had run-ins with the law before. 

Reaching out

Love ‘n Love delivered its first twine-wrapped T-shirts to people at Fairhaven Church and its high school ministry, where Burke and Brock belong. They try to make it personal, telling customers what they’re doing and where the money is going.

This January, Trinity Alone sold $200 worth of shirts at a show at Fairhaven, covering the $200 cost to produce the shirts. “Everything else goes to the homeless,” said Burke, who estimates the profits are now at $500, which Brock keeps in a bank account specifically for the charity. Burke acknowledges that right now they “aren’t making a ton of money,” but they have built a solid following.  

Central Unit Secretary Jennifer Chapman has bought two Love ‘n the Love shirts, and she says it feels fantastic to support their cause. “They always have this positive air about them,” said Chapman of Burke and Brock, who assist her in the Central Unit office.

The sky’s the limit

Like most Fairmont students, Burke and Brock have to balance school, work and other obligations, not to mention running an upstart company. “With school we’ve been busy, but this summer we’re going to hit it real hard. We have big plans for the future,” said Burke. A Love ‘n the Love Tour of the Midwest may be in the works.

The teenage executive directors of Love ‘n the Love plan on making their company bigger and more visible. They are currently investigating the legal aspects of making Love ‘n the Love into a legitimate 501c(3) charity, which would give people tax write-offs as an incentive to donate. Brock says it’s a very long and intense process. The group has also received free business advice from Essex Human Resource Solutions.

There are hopes of starting a Myspace page that will feature their personal stories, message, goals and a web store where people will be able to order products online. Customers may soon see Love ‘n the Love handmade hats as well. When the first batch of shirts sells out (from which Burke predicts a profit of $1,700), a new batch of shirts will be available featuring the group’s new symbol: a red heart stamped with “Love ‘n the Love.”  

So far, most of Love ‘n the Love’s advertising has been by word of mouth, but word spreads quickly. “Somebody from Atlanta, Ga., was asking if the shirts will be available soon,” said Burke.

To spread their message, the group produced a short video, but what exactly is Love ’n the Love’s message?

“We want people to get over the whole ‘this person looks different, that person acts differently’ and judging them or being mean for no reason at all,” said Burke. “You need to get over it because it doesn’t do any good for anyone. We want to spread love and show people if you love people for being themselves, it changes your views and how you act as a person.”