Breakfast at the McDonald’s on Avalon Park Boulevard became a common routine for UCF senior business management major Chris Hayden.
He didn’t know it would be a life-changing one.
Last September, Hayden noticed a man with a bicycle holding a sign that read “Homeless Vietnam Vet” sitting on a curb near the McDonald’s.
“The first time I saw him, I ordered a breakfast platter for [him],” said Hayden, a native of Jupiter. Dallas, the homeless veteran, “seemed really positive and level-headed. I made it a routine to stop there at least twice a week to get him food … each time I’d learn more about him. I used to help my mom volunteer at a homeless shelter back in my hometown, so I knew I wanted to do something for Dallas.”
Dallas, who preferred not to be interviewed, supported himself and his wife Trudie as a plumber in Orlando for years before slipping through the cracks of the Veterans Affairs medical system. He served two tours in Vietnam with the 101st Airborne Division.
“I told him if it weren’t for [U.S. involvement in] Vietnam, I may have never met the love of my life,” Hayden says.
Dolly Dang, an Orlando native and Hayden’s girlfriend of four years, is a first-generation Vietnamese American.
“I have a personal connection [to the Vietnam War] since my mom came over during the fall of Saigon,” said Dang, a senior business management major. “Every first-generation Vietnamese-American knows about our parents’ struggles during and after the war … it makes me appreciate the life I have way more.”
After several years at the hospital, Dallas was told he would need surgery on a hip that had been impaled by shrapnel in Vietnam. Before agreeing to the procedure, Dallas decided to get an opinion from a second doctor. According to Dallas, the VA hospital cut off his benefits thereafter.
Heather Frebe, the public affairs officer at the Orlando Veterans Affairs Hospital, said that Dallas’ action would not cause the termination of his benefits.
“The only way you could lose services is if you choose not to receive them anymore,” she said. “A lot of our patients see doctors both here and outside the VA.”
At about the same time, Trudie was diagnosed with lung disease. Their medical expenses increased further after Dallas lost his VA benefits, which resulted in the loss of their home. The cost of Trudie’s lung medication, nearly $100 a month, kept them in a financial rut.
“Instead of raising money to help feed themselves, they raise money to keep Trudie alive,” said Hayden.
As the holidays grew nearer, Dang and Hayden decided they wanted to put together a Christmas care package for Dallas and Trudie. In early December they started a fundraising campaign on generosity.com, a branch of Indiegogo, titled “Help Dallas Have a Merry Christmas.” Their goal was to raise $200 to pay for three nights at a hotel, clothing from Goodwill, dry goods and toiletries, a new bicycle and a haircut for Dallas and his wife.
Within a day they raised $1,060 in donations from 21 people. At around the same time, the mother of one of Dallas’ old friends agreed to let Dallas and Trudie stay in a shed in the back of her property. Since Dallas and Trudie now had a place to stay, Dang and Hayden pivoted their strategy.
With the money they raised, they bought Dallas a new bike, $400 of dry goods and supplies and gift cards to Wal-Mart and Aldi. They also provided a $250 gift card to pay for Trudie’s lung medication.
“Trudie broke into tears immediately and jumped on the bike. Dallas was eager to go get Trudie’s medication, as they were short $50 and [it] was running out in one day,” Hayden said. “The next day I saw Dallas with his new clothes on with the new bike … he shook my hand, smiled and told me this was the greatest thing to happen to him in over 15 years. They got Trudie two months worth of medication and finally could stop worrying about keeping her alive.”
Dang and Hayden consider themselves lucky for the opportunities they’ve had in life and were happy to pay it forward to Dallas and Trudie.
“If we could help every homeless person we encounter, that would be amazing,” Dang said. “But we don’t have the resources for that, so we just thought we would try to do everything for two people for the holidays.”
Alex Storer is a contributing writer for the Central Florida Future.