Did I Ever Tell You About the Time… Confessions of a Food Stamp Thief

My husband, Bill and I were having dinner with some friends last night and in keeping with a conversation we were having about how  poor we were when we were young and in “the ministry,”   I told them this story.  They asked if I had ever written a blog post about this and I said, “No.  I’ve never written about any of my adventures in faith that I experienced when we lived in Orlando, Florida.”  I went to bed later, sat my computer on my lap and inspired by what we had talked about, I decided to tell you some of our stories.  Maybe they are for now.  For you or for me, I don’t know.  This is only one of them.

There is nothing beautiful about poverty.  I can’t think of one poetic thing to say about it that would make it sound romantic or make it more “hip.”  No, it is the ugliest and scariest thing I’ve ever confronted as an adult with six children.  It kept me wary of its power as I kept it at bay from an uncomfortably short distance.  I hated it.

Bill and I  had gone out on a limb.  Way out.  We had moved our family of nine and thirteen other families into an apartment complex in the most drug infested area of Orlando, Florida. Moving into an apartment complex in the Pine Hills area of the city, sometimes jokingly referred to as “Crime Hills,” our family had taken two, three bedroom apartments and cut a door between the two to make a six bedroom apartment, big enough for us all to spread out. Compared to everyone else’s apartments, ours was newly renovated and as long as we stayed inside, we never felt like we were living in the “hood.”  But inevitably, we had to go outside and live amongst the others.  We became them.

We had always wanted to make a difference in the world and be on the “cutting edge” of what God seemed to be doing.  Having been on large church staffs,  there was always the idea that we were taking back our cities for God. Taking back our nation.  One day Bill asked me, “Donna, what if we just took one city block and brought the Kingdom of God down to it, close enough for the people to feel God’s presence?  Do you think it’s possible?  Forget taking the city, let’s just take a block!”

Be careful of what you wish for!   At the request of our friend, Rita Garrett, the apartment manager of George Town Apartments, we moved into the “stronghold,” to live with the drug dealers, addicts and prostitutes.  The only way for God to get us to know him was to send Jesus to live with us down here on earth.  We thought that was a good example. I had never felt poor a day in my life until I moved into George Town Apartments.  Byrd fam Orlando

As a ministry, we lived off of tithes and offerings. Something about moving our ministry into a drug and prostitute infested area made stable, financially secure families want to run away from us as far as they could.  Heck…I couldn’t blame them.  It was a ministry and a rather dangerous one at that.  We didn’t expect everyone to jump on our bandwagon of servitude to the down and out.

Tithes and offerings began to dissipate.  We had to look to God as our source and lean totally on Him for our finances, not just those who were tithing to the ministry.  Every morning, Bill gave me $20.00 to go shopping for our family.  $20.00!!!!  That’s all and that included paper goods and toiletries!

I would go to the Winn Dixie, right up the street from the apartment complex and get my grocery cart and shop for the day’s needs.  It didn’t take long to spend the money and somehow I managed to get the basics for all of my family.  All of my needs for the day would barely cover the bottom of the grocery cart.

I remember doing something that I was ashamed of.  We bought well over $100.00 worth of food stamps from someone willing to sell theirs.  I’m sure it was illegal.  We probably paid $25.00 for them.  I’ll never forget going to the store and buying all the groceries I could possibly use but in the end,  I pulled out the suspect food stamp book and paid for them.  I was humiliated.  I never did that again.  True confessions of a food stamp thief.  But I was lucky.  I was an educated,thirty-something white lady who spoke English. Those few things alone made me a misfit in a community of brown skin and generational poverty.  I was the lucky misfit.

As our finances dwindled, so did my high hopes and spirits.  As we voluntarily lived in this ghetto hell, we understood more and more the power and prison of poverty.  Our experiment with living in the stronghold was making differences in others around us, but it mostly was making adjustments in us. I began to understand how impoverished people lost themselves to despair or held on to their faith in God as if their life depended upon it.  It was always one extreme or the other.

One day, I was walking around the store, trying to make my needs fit into a $20.00 grocery budget.  I walked beside a lady who had a cart full of food.  I prayed, “Lord, let me fill up a grocery cart like that.  It would be so nice to buy for several days in advance.”  I looked at the meager supplies in my cart and kept walking.  I knew that one day things would change.

A few weeks later, I was at the apartment managers offices, just talking to the staff.  I told them I had to leave and go to the grocery store.  For some reason, I had Bill’s cell phone with me.  (This was  in 1995 when everyone in the family didn’t have a cell phone and it was quite a luxury.)  I was carefully going through my grocery list and nearing my limit, when all of a sudden I got a telephone call in the grocery store.  I had never had a telephone call in a store!  Literally, I tell people that God called me up that day through His servant, Rita, the apartment manager.  When I answered, she said, “Donna, I intended to give you some cash when you were in here a while ago for groceries.  Can you come and get it?”

Well, of course I could and I did!  I parked my cart on an isle that didn’t seem busy,  left the building and went straight to my car and drove to the George Town Apartment offices, picked up the cash and went back to Winn Dixie to fill up my cart (to the brim!)

I’ll never forget how God heard the prayer of a poor minister’s wife!  All I wanted was to be able to feed my family as we ministered to the impoverished in a crime ridden area.  God was faithful and to this day, I will always remember when God called me on the telephone in a grocery store (via Rita Garrett’s voice) and told me to come and get the money to fill up my grocery cart!  Is there anyone reading this who is looking in their “grocery cart” and coming up short ?  Don’t be surprised if “God” calls you up in a grocery store and tells you to come and pick up some cash to make it happen!  Ask God to fill up your cart!  Really…if He did it for me, He can do it for you!



9 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Isaaca Byrd
    Feb 21, 2014 @ 18:57:24

    I loved this! Thanks for sharing our stories 🙂 You do remember them a little differently then I do. I don’t think I had any clue that we were ever in need!

    Sent from my iPhone



    • themuseinme
      Feb 21, 2014 @ 19:06:49

      Children rarely know the needs. They don’t need to know them, if possible. I’m glad you were not scathed by them. Collectively, we share such a rich, fulfilling life! Love you!


  2. Isaaca Byrd
    Feb 21, 2014 @ 18:58:14

    Please keep these coming 🙂

    Sent from my iPhone



    • themuseinme
      Feb 21, 2014 @ 19:03:08

      I will, Izzy! These stories are part of your heritage! I’m planning on putting them under the “Orlando Memoirs” category. I’m sure we each have our own versions of life “in the hood.” Please feel to share if you wish!


  3. Gina Cova
    Feb 22, 2014 @ 01:06:42

    This brought back memories of when I was single with just the first 2 boys. We lived in the “hood” also. We were the only white people in the area for blocks. Everyone called me the “crazy white woman on the corner” and told their children not to mess with us. We didn’t have a lot of anything but my boys never knew it. Jesus took care of us in what ever we needed. We lived there for 3 years before I moved and had another son by then. We lived off of food stamps and what I could make working 2 jobs and going to school full time. Most of the time we had no car and would walk the mile and a half down to the closest grocery store pulling the wagon I had got the boys for Christmas. When I bought it I knew it would serve a double purpose. The boys played and ran to the store but coming home Frank would sit in the space I saved to ride back to the house. What we bought was put into 2 grocery bags to make sure Frank had room to sit. We went every few days to the store and I made what I had bought last those few days. WIC vouchers and food stamps were a blessing from God for us during that time. We didn’t have very much but we did have LOTS OF LOVE in that old house in the hood. And lots of good memories. Thank you for sharing.


    • themuseinme
      Feb 22, 2014 @ 01:40:46

      Wow, Gina! Looking back on times like that makes us wonder how in the world we ever survived. Keeping it real simple made it possible. It was you, your children and God. Glad to see you can look back on that time and mainly remember how much love was in your old house! I love you girl! Hope all is well!


  4. Edna
    Mar 02, 2014 @ 18:04:16

    Thanks for your words Donna. I don’t feel so alone when reading your story. I ask God to fill my grocery basket too.


    • themuseinme
      Mar 03, 2014 @ 03:43:50

      I hope you never feel alone, Edna. (Do you know that Edna was my Grandmother’s name? Edna Belle. So beautifully old fashioned!) There are many people struggling just like you, asking God to put groceries in their carts. All week long, I have heard an old Twila Paris song in my spirit. “God is in control. We believe that his children will not be forsaken.” You will not be forsaken, Edna. God is with you and knows your needs. May your cart be filled to overflowing! Thanks for sharing with me. Let me know how things turn out. I expect good news!


  5. L. E. Barnes
    Mar 06, 2014 @ 02:34:17

    Yes, I remember that ‘double’ apartment you lived in. My dad and I came down to Orlando one summer to go to the Holy Spirit Conference that was being held there, and we stayed with you guys that week. I didn’t realize you were having such a hard time financially–not to mention all the crime you were surrounded by! Praise God for His providence and for getting you through all of that.



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