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Peoria’s Most Famous Homeless Person; Homeless No More… By Mae Catherine Godhigh

Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” Hebrews 13:2

Dear Reader,

It’s Black History Month and the city of Peoria, Illinois said farewell to a local hero, Willie L. (Bae Bro) York Jr.

There were many acts of kindness in honor of Mr. York. There were billboards, tributes and overall compassion from people who loved Willie.

However you choose to remember Willie York is strictly up to you. Whether it was his colorful character, his perplexed life or his humanity; it is important that we realize Willie had a purpose on this earth.

Many of you may not know this but Willie York, Jr. was a veteran. Most of all Willie was a man; A man who preferred the paths of peace and a man who was sensitive to the needs of others. He lived his life with simplicity. Was he perfect? Did he always make good decisions? The answer is no, and none of us has a stone to cast.

The day I learned Willie was a veteran is the day I changed my opinion of him.

I used to think of Willie as some exotic homeless wild man. The feathers, bones, fur and face paint was enough to stop a train. As I began to ask questions about him, I discovered, Willie was much more than Peoria’s Most Famous Homeless Person.

Those of us who were fortunate enough to get out of that place never dreamed, that Vietnam would NEVER get it out of us.

When it comes to war, every soldier’s prayer is to get home alive. At some point in our lives, we have heard the words, battle fatigue, combat stress reaction, shell-shocked or PTSD. Perhaps, you know someone who has these symptoms. Many times the usage of alcohol and drugs become buffers between the day and nightmares.

Many veterans turn to escapism just to cope with the sunrises and sunsets. Their personalities can range from passiveness to extreme aggression. These are our family members, workers, and everyday folk. We do not toss them away or diminish them. We love them. We support them. We welcome them home.

Willie York was prepared to serve his country. Willie was prepared to be wounded in battle. Willie was prepared to even die. However, when Willie came home, he was not prepared to be forgotten. Imagine what it must have felt like to be shunned by your own country. Imagine a nation who openly turned its backs on its veterans. No parades and no thank you; only shame and blame.

Willie experienced happy days and days of struggle. Mr. York made Peoria a better place with one smile at a time.

One day, our daughter, Jamie needed a model for her photography class. She approached Willie and asked him if she could take his picture and asked what would be his fee. Willie replied yes, and the cost would be a gallon of milk. Let that sink in for a moment. Can you grasp the level his humility? Jamie went to the store, purchased the milk and gave it to Willie. She still has his photo.

Periodically, Willie would make appearances at the Pentecostal Church of Jesus Christ. We watched in awe, a man of intelligence displaying his faith and searching for a home. Oftentimes Willie would go into his pockets and give to others.

Willie taught us how to love and how to laugh again. He taught us about the simple acts of kindness. He taught us about survival in the jungles of a faraway land and the not-so-kind concrete jungle in America. He taught us how to coexist with people and nature. No, Willie did not see the world in black and white. He saw a world full of vibrant colors. Even amongst the noise and negativity in the world, Willie found a world of peace amidst the pain.

Yes, Willie taught us a lot about our country, and about our broken systems. His presence was also a billboard about the lack of awareness/support when it comes to our veterans and about us.

Today, I want to say Thank you, Mr. York, for living out your purpose. Thank you for placing your life on the line so I may live mine. Yes, Willie, we will miss you, especially the peeps in the 05. We will miss seeing you on the streets of Peoria, but that’s not the end of your story.

The end of his story is Willie finally made it home. Willie you are homeless no more!