Leslie Bacon and the Meaning of Gleaning

Posted In: Culture, Community Profiles,   From Issue 633   By: Mike Thompson

08th March, 2007     0

A sudden knock rattles the door at Saginaw's Gleaning for Jesus headquarters at 517 North Hamilton.

Leslie Bacon answers and a pair of gray-haired ladies enters. One speaks for the other.

"Barbara's kids left her homeless," the friend explains, telling the story of a caretaking daughter who suddenly up and left town.

Barbara has found an apartment in the Rosien Towers high-rise, the friend explains, "but all she has left is the clothes she's wearing."

Leslie and case aide Susanna Coggeshall don't hesitate. There are no forms to fill out, no litany of questions, no proofs of income required.

"We'll get you a sofa bed, some end tables, some dishes, some clothes, enough to get you in," Leslie assures, while Barbara fights back tears.

After she has time to settle down, Susanna asks her age.

"Seventy in April," the woman says.

"Oh, you look good," Susanna responds with reassurance.

Then Leslie takes charge.

"Ten o'clock tomorrow morning, will that be OK?" she tells Barbara.  "We'll meet you at the apartment."

Barbara and her friend give thanks and step out, their outlook a positive turnaround.

Leslie and Sue resume reviewing the other 35 calls for aid that have come by telephone that morning. With their limited resources, they wonder how many they can help.

Not food, but household items

Leslie Bacon is a scavenger, a furniture and appliance repair specialist, an interior decorator, a professional social worker and an evangelist.

She combines them all in Gleaning for Jesus.   She named her nonprofit project for the biblical form of gleaning, in which food left over in a harvest was collected for the needy. Her own 'crop' is anything from an old coffee table to a set of kitchen chairs.

It all adds up to an ingenious form of help in one of America's poorest communities. Many of the people who benefit fail to realize Leslie is certified, licensed and college-educated. She comes across more as someone in jeans and a sweatshirt who simply is unloading a washer and dryer. That's part of her strategy. In this way she can relate to clients one-to-one, not as a superior caseworker "talking down" to them.

She also believes in her Christian faith, although she had to laugh when a Jewish donor once joked,  "You could call it Gleaning for God’ instead."

Donated goods do more than fill an empty home or apartment. Leslie says the clients' spirits are uplifted in ways that can change their entire outlooks on life. When she works with young single mothers, she strives to include items such as lamps and wall hangings.

"I grew up in the Daniels Heights projects with no photos on the wall, no carpeting, just a cold concrete floor," Leslie says.
That's not what I want for my clients. We try to go beyond just bringing the main items. It all depends on what we have available."

She recalls years ago performing a top-to-bottom home makeover for a single mom. The shy young lady told an onlooker, "Leslie helped me learn how to love my kids more."

Leslie says this is an example of her work's deeper effect.

Wonder Woman’ along curbsides

Leslie went through some troubled young adult years before she made a mid-life decision during the late 1980s to enter social work, following the paths of her grandmother and great-grandmother back in Anderson, Indiana.

She completed her studies at Saginaw Valley State University and received a field study assignment with the Saginaw Red Cross, which among many tasks is the first responder when fires leave families homeless.

This was the point when Leslie put two and two together. She had learned how to repair used furniture and appliances while working at her former husband's second-hand store in Detroit. Now she found a unique way to apply these skills to assist her Red Cross clients.

Her first efforts were at a true street-curb scavenger level. She might see a broken-down rocker, for example, but she could use the vinyl from the sides to cover a set of kitchen chairs.
Leslie with her 5-foot-2, 115-pound frame would haul the items to the dark and drafty basement of an old East Side warehouse, and then make the repairs.

"People say I'm a junk lady," she explains, with a laugh reflecting her modesty. "But I'm not your typical social worker. This is more than just picking up stuff off the curb. There's a motive behind it, and production, and results."

Her brother, Mark Butler, describes her as an extremist. "She will be driving along, and she will say, "Ooh, there's a nice chair, there's a good table," Butler explains, mimicking his sister's excited tone of voice. "We can be riding on Sunday in our church clothes, and she's still going to stop and get it."

Gleaning for Jesus grew so fast that Leslie eventually became more selective. She now asks only for items that are in shape to turn over to a client.

A year after she started her volunteer effort, she landed a paid social work position in 1991 with the Saginaw County Youth Protection Council that she still holds today. Her challenge in 'House to Home' is to guide young mothers who are mismanaging their budgets or encountering troubles such as substance abuse. She serves other clients on her own volunteer time.

In 1992, she obtained use of a sprawling former truck depot across Davenport from Riverview Plaza at the north end of town. Donations piled in, especially when City Hall conducted a pair of spring cleanups and used the parking lot as a drop-off site.

Leslie had a hard time keeping up during the middle 1990s, especially when a string of vehicle problems kept her off of the road for a while. She remembers one time when she stalled at a busy intersection.

"I'm out there trying to direct traffic until the tow truck comes," she recalls. "People are honking their horns at me and one guy gives me the finger."

Next came a 1998 fire that destroyed the truck depot and all of its contents. She was left only with her small garage on North Hamilton.

"That was the first time when I wondered whether this was all worth it," Leslie says.

Community comes through

In her own time of need, Leslie discovered that she had friends.

The Saginaw Community Foundation came up with money for replacement trucks. She had called her original blue van 'Ruth' in honor of the Bible's gleaning heroine. She now has two box trucks, Joshua and Peter Paul and a pair of pickup vans, Martha and Timothy.

Youth Protection Council Director Ron Spess has secured United Way funds for a pair of part-time men to help with pickups and deliveries. The grant also allowed Leslie in 2000 to hire Susann Coggeshall, who grew up with 13 siblings in a poor family in Corpus Christi, Texas. Susanna says she always has been the type to help others, even with intensive needs such as home care for elders. She met Leslie when she was picking up a bed for a friend. "By the hand of God, this job was for me," Susanna says. "It's like the work never stops. People aren't just looking for furniture and appliances; they're looking for somebody to talk to. So many women are being abused, or are struggling in other ways. I never knew how bad it is out there."

She's also a lay minister with Old Town Christian Outreach Center. Retiree George Barrett, a Gleaning board member, recalls his first encounter with Leslie. He called to donate what became nearly two trucks full of everything from old air conditioners to furniture to appliances. Leslie showed up and immediately began loading the heaviest items.

"Talk about energy, it was hard to keep up," Barrett says with a chuckle. His son, Glen Barrett, was a sales representative for the H.J. Oldenkamp Co. at 2305 East Genesee. The company merged into a Detroit-area facility. The Barretts helped arrange to donate the building, a facility even more ideal than the old truck depot. When word spread that the roof was leaking DuroLast Roofing provided materials and Beyer Roofing contributed labor.

The structure has a front entrance that opens to a loading ramp. Leslie was so happy at first that she couldn't stop pushing the door's remote control button from 70 feet indoors, up and down, over and over. She has room not only for storage, but also for a 50-by-50-foot community room to conduct various community education projects and self-help workshops.

The Chapel of Love

With all the improvements, Leslie has one special highlight that tops all others. She has converted the front room into a wedding chapel with donated chairs, candles and holders, all the items you'd find in a small sanctuary. She even has bridal dresses, an arbor for the couple to stand beneath, and an organ.

Gleaning for Jesus last summer hosted what Leslie described as her projects third 'gleaned wedding' for a low-income couple that otherwise planned to go to the county magistrate.

"I told them, you're like my godchildren and I won't have you going to no courthouse. Everything was from gleaning. It was the most wonderful thing you ever could see," Leslie says.

Anyone who wishes to make a donation to Gleaning for Jesus, or to inquire about a wedding ceremony, may call 754-6706.

"We have potential in this place," Leslie Bacon says. "It has become the answer to all of our prayers."

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