Local Hero

Mother Mercy

Whether it's a hot meal, a bed for the night or a major appliance, Sandra LaDay—an all-purpose angel—fills any need for the poor of Port Arthur Texas

By Richard Jerome. Alicia Dennis in Port Arthur

Until this year, life wasn't too kind to Yolanda Green. At 43, she is divorced and can't work because of rheumatoid arthritis, glaucoma and other ailments. On her $543 in monthly disability and Social Security checks, she supports six children under 13, none of them hers: She has legal custody of four of her grandchildren, whose mother was in prison, and two of her grandnephews. The holidays are especially wrenching for Green; it's tough just to get through each day, much less play Santa to a half-dozen kids.

Then, last Christmas, she saw a flyer about Sandra LaDay and her charity, People Supporting People, which serves the poor and homeless of Port Arthur, Texas. Green called—and Hurricane Sandra swept in. "She took the kids to get their hair cut, then to a Christmas party," says Green. "None of them had ever been to one." Within days LaDay had supplied the family with food, furniture and clothes. "I can call on her for anything and she makes it happen," says Green. "When my daughter needed seizure medicine, Sandra raised the money. When we run short of groceries, she helps. We're alive because of her."

Thanks to LaDay, hundreds of others also have better lives in Port Arthur, a struggling oil-refinery town on the Gulf Coast. Operating out of a gas station turned shelter in the city's poorest neighborhood, LaDay, 52, is a one-woman charity machine—her work all the more remarkable in light of her own, seemingly staggering personal tragedies. Her particular brand of do-gooding defies categorization: If a family lacks a refrigerator, she'll find a donated one. If they have nowhere to sleep, she'll get them beds. School supplies? She'll convince a stationery store to give them away. Her phone rings incessantly, and she listens patiently, at times tearily, to each caller.

Once a month, LaDay turns her shelter into a cafeteria, where she and volunteers--including her husband, Willie, 52, a disabled roofer—have dished out up to 700 meals in a day. She also opens her home for more intimate dinners for the poor on a glass table set with china and crystal flutes—donated by people holding garage sales. "Some of these people have never had anyone wait on them," she says in her soft drawl. "I sit them down and cook for them so they feel like they're worth something."

Neighborhood kids without proper homes show up at LaDay's door just for a bath or to brush their teeth—she keeps 35 toothbrushes, each labeled with a child's name. She'll even do laundry for their parents. "Some of these kids sleep under bridges, in abandoned buildings," says law firm case manager Shane Woodruff, 36, a PSP volunteer. LaDay's work has made her a folk hero in Port Arthur. Tall and unassuming, LaDay wears little makeup, no jewelry and can be seen scuffing around town in broken flip-flops. Quick to laugh or cry, she's likely to embrace a stranger on first meeting. "A lot of families are hurting," says Rep. Nicholas Lampson, 59, the local Democratic congressman. "We talk about helping them, but we don't often do what Sandra's doing."

LaDay doesn't confine her altruism to Port Arthur. In Vidor, Texas, 30 miles to the north, former Wal-Mart cashier Bonnie Murphy was drowning after a broken marriage left her to provide for a teenage son. In June, Murphy, 38, posted a plea for help on a community Web site. LaDay was watching. "I knew we could at least get her a washer and dryer and some food," she says. Within days she had the appliances donated and delivered by a local store and provided canned goods. LaDay can be persuasive. "The moment she calls, we want to jump in and help," says Anthony Bass, 39, of Mattress City USA, who has given seven of his stock. "If s great to watch her in action," adds Mark Rule, 45, proprietor of the local Outback Steakhouse, which offers food and volunteers for LaDay's meal days. "Her spirit is unending."

If LaDay fights hard for her clients, it's because she has walked in their shoes. She grew up in Port Arthur, the oldest child of 11 born to Shelton Guillory, a roofer, and his homemaker wife, Dorothy. She and Willie met in third grade. "He'd copy off my paper in class and I always let him," she recalls. Dating through high school, the pair served in the Army, he for two years, she for six months. They wed in 1972 after both were honorably discharged, and had five children.

But sorrow plagued the family. Eldest son Kevin, 31, served prison time on a firearms charge. "He hung with the wrong crowd and I couldn't save him," his mother says. Willie Jr., 29, suffers from chronic schizophrenia and has been in and out of hospitals. The cruelest blow came in 1978, when, while being driven to the market, LaDay and her year-old son J.J. were involved in an auto accident; the child was killed. "I held him in a blanket while he died," she says, sobbing. "My tiny baby died, and I couldn't do anything for him."

LaDay sank into a depression and lost her job as a waitress. "I just kept slipping down, down, down," she says, adding that only concern for her other children—including Sueanda, 28, a nursing student, and Patricia, 24, who is studying cosmetology—helped pull her out of it. Meanwhile, Willie struggled to support the family with intermittent roofing work. Sometimes they went days without utilities because of unpaid bills. "I had to walk to a neighbor's house that had hot water," LaDay says. "We didn't have anything."

But one day in 1986 she saw firsthand that some people had much less. By then LaDay had kicked her depression enough to take a job as a drugstore clerk, and she and Willie were doing a bit better. She was taking home her biweekly paycheck when she saw a woman and five kids rooting through a trash bin. "They were looking for food and clothes," she recalls. "I cried and told them to come home with me."

LaDay gave them baths, food, clothes—and her $369 check. They in turn gave her an epiphany: As needy as she was herself, she would serve those who were needier. LaDay hooked up with Janis Parks, owner of a local auto supply store, and cooked and served holiday meals to the hungry—some purchased, some donated—from LaDay's front porch. "I told Sandra, 'You can't keep taking people off the street—it's not safe,'" says Parks, 59. "So I helped her find a place for the shelter." In 1996 the ad hoc charity became a nonprofit. There is no formal staff, however, and only sporadic volunteers.

One, video store clerk Michelle Bradford, 24, got back some of that good karma. As a girl she'd helped PSP wrap holiday gifts for kids. A year ago she was the destitute single mother of a 6-year-old girl, Mercedes. "I fell through a hole," she says. "I had no job, no place to live. Sometimes we slept in the car." LaDay took on temporary custody of Mercedes while Bradford went to live with an uncle and right herself. "Because Sandra is helping me," she says, "I finally see I can make it."

Some wonder if LaDay herself can hold up. "She just can't stop helping people," says Willie, who suffers from lung and prostate cancer and cannot work. The couple are close—they rarely pass each other without a warm smile or a pat. LaDay quit a file clerk job to stay home with him, and they live solely on his $l,073-monthly disability check. "I worry about her," says Parks. "She's pushed to the brink every day."

Why does she drive herself so hard? LaDay answers with a letter from 10-year-old Courtney: "Our dad left us and it is just our mama. Thanks to you we have three beds and dresses and clothes. ... We love you."

LaDay wipes a tear from her cheek. "Sometimes I just can't stop crying," she says. "The sad stories all around, you can't help but cry."

  • Contributors:
  • Alicia Dennis.