By Alexandra Hemmerly-BrownDecember 22, 2010
WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Dec. 22, 2010) -- Dedie Davis knows what it's like to be homeless.
Davis and her two children slept in their car for a short time in 1998, until family and friends helped them get back on their feet.
So passing out food and hugs, often venturing into homeless encampments in the Seattle area, doesn't faze her.
Davis, the founder and president of Operation Open Arms, a non-profit organization devoted to providing food and supplies to homeless veterans and veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, explained her passion for charitable work is fueled by her personal experiences.
Davis is the wife of Sgt. Byron Davis, a Marine-turned Army Reserve Soldier with three overseas tours under his belt.
Davis said she first became interested in helping Soldiers with PTSD after witnessing the changes her husband experienced after his deployment to Iraq in 2004.
"It was very easy to tell that he wasn't okay," she said.
Davis, in support of her husband's treatment, attended an in-patient program with him run by Veterans Affairs. It was during that treatment Davis learned not all veterans have a support system in place, or the means to receive the proper care needed to make progress.
Now Davis fundraises for both PTSD sufferers and the homeless, something she said comes naturally to her.
"I've always tried to find someone who is less fortunate than me, and help them," Davis explained.
After her experience with homelessness, Davis said she often took her children to volunteer at soup kitchens and homeless shelters. She said she raised them with the mindset that no matter what the circumstances, there is always someone living in more dire conditions.
"They grew up knowing that that's what we did," Davis said of volunteering. "I just think it needs to be done. I just hope that if it was me, someone would help."
Davis said it was this outlook on helping others that led to her founding Operation Open Arms.
In 2007 on her way to work, Davis would repeatedly spot a white plastic deck chair propped underneath an overpass. She said something about that chair grabbed her attention, and she knew she couldn't be content until she discovered who the chair belonged to.
"As hard as I tried, I could not shake the feeling that I needed to go there," Davis said.
After several attempts to convince her husband to accompany her under the overpass, he conceded and escorted a four-months-pregnant Davis through ankle-high mud to find the chair's owner. What they found was three men living under the bridge. One of them was a veteran of the Vietnam war.
She said at first the men were weary of their presence and intentions, but when they learned that Byron was a Soldier and his wife was pregnant, they became more at ease.
Davis said the homeless veteran had a brain injury and a metal plate in his skull, but thought the only place for him in society was on the streets. Davis and her husband tried to help the men, offering them alternatives to being homeless, but they declined any help aside from donations of food and supplies.
They continued to visit the men over the next year, yet "they were almost non-accepting of the things I was giving them," she said, explaining that even being homeless, the men retained their pride.
One day, Davis said, they went looking for the men under the bridge, but they were gone.
So Davis took her help for the homeless to Seattle's streets, visiting known homeless encampments and "tent cities," bringing donations of food, cold-weather gear and any other supplies they ask her for.
Armed with 25 volunteers, Davis runs her organization in her free time, taking no pay for herself or her volunteers.
"I don't think money needs to be made," she explained.
Davis' approach to helping others recently caught the attention of the E! Channel and was featured in a special news piece on PTSD called "E! Investigates: Military Wives."
During taping for the show, Davis took host Laura Ling on one of her trips to drop off food for the homeless, and the reaction among the homeless population was mixed. Some were grateful for the assistance, others, possibly scared by the camera crew, refused Davis' care bags.
"It's upsetting," Davis said of those who refuse her assistance. "You want to help out as many people as possible."
One encounter during filming turned hostile, Davis said, when a Vietnam vet began shouting at her.
"This man got in my face, and was yelling about the bad treatment he received when they [U.S. troops] returned from Vietnam," she said. Davis said the man was very angry and shouted at her, "Where were you 35 years ago'"
Unfazed, Davis told the man 35 years ago she was still in diapers, which made the man laugh and quelled his anger.
Davis said she enjoys helping veterans, but is saddened to see any of America's former servicemembers on the streets.
"It's an honor for me to be able to go and tell them that I appreciate their service," she said.
Davis explained that on recent trips into homeless encampments, she's noticed more young veterans than in the past.
"To me, that's even more confusing," Davis said of the growth in current-conflict homeless veterans.
After the E! Channel's airing, Davis said she received many messages from people who were interested in starting Operation Open Arms chapters in their own cities, and Davis is appreciative.
"Maybe I'll rub off on some people," she said. "I feel like I'm supposed to be doing this. I won't stop until I know I've made a difference."