A clean break: Putting her own struggles aside to help others

Penny Mickey dries off. "Nice hot shower!" she said. "And it didn't run out of water."
Penny Mickey dries off. "Nice hot shower!" she said. "And it didn't run out of water." (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 05, 2014

Wash Water Wednesday was scheduled to start at 11, but the homeless started arriving by 8 a.m.

"Feels amazing," the first woman out of the shower, in her new clothes, hair swept up in a fresh towel, told Crystal Brown, the organizer.

"We wash up every day, but it's not the same thing," she said. "Also, it's great to know somebody cares."

Water flowed again - tears.

The second woman out of the shower, Stephanie Wilcox, 49, in new green flip-flops with sequins, actually broke into song, right there in the parking lot of the SHARE Food Program, at 29th and Hunting Park Avenue.

She was Maria from West Side Story. "I feel pretty. Oh, so pretty. I feel pretty and witty and bright."

Crystal Brown's idea to offer showers to the homeless began 18 months ago.

A homeless lady, "Miss Cynthia," was living on the porch of an abandoned house down the street from Crystal in Strawberry Mansion.

Crystal and her youngest child, Wednesday, now 3, walked by as Miss Cynthia was cleaning the porch with bleach.

"How you feel?" Crystal asked the woman.

"I'd be better if I can get a hug from that baby."

Wednesday hugged her.

Crystal took Miss Cynthia baby wipes and a pillow and blanket and got to thinking, Where does Miss Cynthia shower? Where do all homeless people shower? Everybody deserves a shower.

Crystal, 44, first profiled in The Inquirer in 2006, has every reason to rage against the world. She was abused for 12 years by her father and even had two children by him. Now 23 and 24, they have been in wheelchairs since their teens with muscular dystrophy, a genetic disease.

"Even with all she has suffered," said the Rev. Ed Hallinan, formerly at St. Martin de Porres Catholic Church, at 23d and Lehigh, "she shows optimism and hope. And life is somehow going to be better. She doesn't sit and wait for it to happen. She creates it."

Hallinan helped Crystal get a wheelchair-accessible van from an anonymous donor when her kids started falling.

Crystal has an aunt who cleaned houses. She cleaned for a woman, Muriel Wolgin, who had become an invalid and needed somebody with a wheelchair van to drive her to appointments.

Crystal offered to help.

One day, Crystal took a check from Miss Wolgin down to the Walnut Street offices of Brown Brothers Harriman & Co., the nation's oldest private bank with close to $4 trillion in assets under custody and administration. 

Crystal liked the bank. "It already had my name on it," she said.

Crystal met William Levy, president of Brown Brothers Harriman Trust Co. of Delaware, NA. He loved her passion to help others.

"She deals with an awful lot of issues of her own," he said, "and yet she puts them aside and says there's people out there who are more needy than I am."

He oversees a small philanthropy, and gave Crystal $5,000 for the first Wash Water Wednesday.

Crystal held it in Fairmount Park, near her house, last July. She rented the shower trailer, handed out tokens. About 60 people came.

This year, Levy suggested she hold the event at SHARE, a well-known nonprofit that supplies food to 400 churches, community centers, and food pantries in the city. He also urged Crystal to let Steveanna Wynn, SHARE's executive director, help her run it.

SHARE donated shampoos and deodorants to Crystal for the first Wash Water Wednesday, and afterward, Crystal took over a photo album to express her thanks.

Wynn loved Crystal's passion and initiative.

"If there were more people like Crystal, who see a need and address it, think how much better this world could be," Wynn said.

Both Levy and Wynn say they didn't know Crystal's full story until recently. It wasn't her past that motivated them to help, but her passion.

"Somewhere along the way she decided that her past was not going to speak to who she was," Wynn said. "And that maybe even because of her past, she needed to try to make life better for as many people as possible along her way."

 This spring  , Wynn sat Crystal down.

"Before we do anything," she told her, "we have to have special insurance coverage for the day, security for the day. Lots of things we have to have that you don't think about, because you're just thinking about giving people a shower."

Crystal secured another $5,000 from Andrew Swinney, president of the Philadelphia Foundation. She and Wynn decided 100 people would be optimum. She rented the shower trailer, and bought food, clothing, and bus tokens.

Crystal knows the best solution would be to find homes for people. But the homeless often avoid shelters, or any place with strings attached. "Sadly, the need [for showers] is a very real one," said Sister Mary Scullion, founder of Project HOME, focused on breaking the cycle of homelessness. "It's so inspiring to see citizens like Crystal try to address it in some way."

Crystal bought underwear, shorts, shirts, towels, even flip-flops from area stores. She bought cereal, snacks, and dried fruits, and went over on the Saturday before to pack 100 goody bags for the homeless to take with them.

Wynn and her staff and volunteers already had it done.

Crystal wept.

"She's helped me accomplish my dream," Crystal said. "I think I love that lady now."

Last Tuesday, Crystal and her mother and sister and one of her daughters, Jasmine, hit parks in Center City, handing out invitations designed by her niece and bus tokens to the homeless.

Crystal didn't want to waste them on people who wouldn't come.

"I'm going to come back and get you, right here," she threatened Mel Cruz, homeless since he got out of prison, pulling back her foot to imply a swift kick.

"Size 9," she said. "You better be there."

"I promise," he said.

Cruz did come.

Among about 70 in all.

One man reported that others had sold their tokens for cigarettes.

Those who came were glad.

"I feel more human now," said Danny Gates, 45, who sleeps on a box. Everywhere he goes, he pushes his partner, Penny Mickey, 46, in her wheelchair.

"Nice hot shower!" she gushed. "And it didn't run out of water."

By noon, hot lunch arrived - fried chicken, coleslaw, macaroni salad, bananas, cookies, rolls, and water, plates as high as one could pile them.

Clean and fed, the homeless headed to the bus stop carrying two grocery bags apiece.

Many hugged Crystal in gratitude.

Crystal saw the joy, the good, and she felt good. And each year, she learns.

She drove down to Center City on Wednesday evening and gave away all the leftover food, much of it going to people who had sold her tokens.

Last week, Levy read about a mobile shower bus in San Francisco, run by a group called Lava Mae, that had just started up. A city bus retrofitted with showers goes to where the homeless are. Levy sent Crystal an article about the bus and the woman who founded the organization.

"Maybe this should be the goal for us after the Wash Water Wednesday event," he e-mailed.

Crystal, who drove a SEPTA bus before she quit to care for her disabled children, replied:

"Wow. This is my vision and I guess hers as well."

Levy, who was out of town and missed Wash Water Wednesday, wrote afterward to Crystal and to Wynn that he'd love to see "a Shower Bus for Philly, with Crystal behind the wheel!"

 


mvitez@phillynews.com

215-854-5639

@MichaelVitez

See the 2006 Inquirer article about Crystal Brown at http://goo.gl/iAY67T

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