Late last year Rosemary Pritchett was on her way from the homeless shelter where she lived to a city-hall housing office in Kansas City, Mo., when she spotted a $400 check on the sidewalk. To Pritchett's surprise, the check had already been endorsed. Her daughters—Natasha, 9, and Stephanie, 7—jostled to get a better look. "Can you cash it?" her son, Jeremiah, 13, wondered.

The Pritchetts could have used the money. After living in shelters for six months and squirreling away every spare dime from Rosemary's monthly $386 disability checks, the family had recently put in a $1,200 bid on an abandoned house that had been seized by the county for nonpayment of taxes. Pritchett's own nest egg didn't quite cover the bid she calculated was necessary, so she reluctantly accepted her children's offer to make up the $61 difference from their allowances. Still, she was not about to take advantage of someone else's ill fortune. "Not for a tiny moment did I consider cashing the check." she recalls. "I was thinking. 'The person who lost this must be frantic.' "

Pritchett, 32, was determined to do the right thing but never anticipated that her honesty might be rewarded many times over. "I know if I keep my eyes on the Lord, then everything will fall in place," she says, "To me, the check was just a piece of paper. If anything, it was put there to test my faith."

That evening, after putting her kids to bed at the Cross Roads homeless shelter in Independence, Mo., Pritchett phoned Cheryl Wood, the woman to whom the payroll check was made out. Wood, a nurse who lives in a three-bedroom Victorian-style home with her husband, Derek, and their daughter, Jennifer, 11, was flabbergasted. "I counted the check gone," she says. "It didn't enter my mind that anyone would call." When Wood arrived at Cross Roads a half hour later, Pritchett had just one request: She wanted a thank-you note for her children. But after learning of Pritchett's efforts to buy a home, Wood decided a simple thank-you wasn't enough. "She had gone out of her way for me," says Wood. "I was determined to do something to help her."

Pritchett has known little but hard times most of her life. A native of Saginaw, Mich., she ran away when she was 12 to escape an unhappy home and shuttled between foster families as a teenager. At 17, she took off for North Carolina and found sanctuary briefly with a Baptist deacon and his wife; later she became pregnant and fled to a home for unwed mothers in California, where Jeremiah was born. Moving back to the Midwest in 1981, Pritchett settled in Milwaukee, where she became engaged and gave birth to her two daughters. But this relationship deteriorated, she says, and for a year she took refuge in a women's shelter. She subsequently worked as an upholsterer in Pittsburg, Kans., and attended night classes to become a paralegal. In 1988, suffering from posttraumatic stress distress, she qualified for Social Security disability payments and since then has been living in public housing, trailer parks and homeless shelters in the Kansas City area.

Despite her troubles, Pritchett has kept her kids in school and done her best "to maintain a sense of family," she says. The day after she found the check, Pritchett's bid for the house was approved and her luck suddenly began to improve. True to her word, Wood volunteered to help out with the renovation. "I asked what her color schemes would be," says Wood. "It just shows how naive I was." When she dropped by to see the house, Wood was shocked at the extent of the disrepair. The windows were boarded up, and inside she found Pritchett and her children trying to rip out broken plaster walls with small hand tools. Wood first convinced Charlie Copeland, a fellow member of Kansas City's Broadway Baptist Church, to volunteer his services as a general contractor. Then she started going through the Yellow Pages to enlist further help.

Almost immediately, the A.B. May Co. did electrical wiring, and Neenan Plumbing donated a water heater. After Wood contacted local media, who publicized the project, nearly 200 people volunteered help or money. Home-supply store owner Jim Hatfield replaced doors and provided custom-made windows for the Pritchett's new home. Judy Billman, an interior decorator, found donors for flooring, fabrics, wallpaper and some furniture. Ruby Bateman offered to make quilts. And used-car dealer Bill Adkins, learning that Pritchett was getting up at 5 A.M. to take her kids on a two-hour bus ride to school, gave her a 1986 Hyundai, complete with free maintenance.

After two months in their new home, the Pritchett family is ecstatic. Jeremiah, who initially was afraid his school friends would learn he was homeless, now has something to be proud of. Pritchett wants to resume her paralegal studies. Meanwhile, she and Wood hope the friends who have rallied to their cause will be inspired to help other homeless people. "It's kind of like an extended family," says Pritchett. A very large extended family. Last weekend 70 volunteers gathered at the Pritchett home for a housewarming. "People were awed by the change," she says. "It was like everybody was opening a Christmas present."

David Grogan, Alexandra Mezey in Kansas City

  • Contributors:
  • Alexandra Mezey.