SEARCY — What started as a simple act of kindness has blossomed into what Seth Simmons describes as an effort to “wipe out homelessness one person at a time.” White County residents might have seen Simmons driving around Searcy in his Mission Machine, a florescent-green van that carries food, clothing and dignity to those without a permanent place to call home.
In 2006, Simmons was a student at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway when he heard about a coat drive for the homeless that had been put together by Aaron Reddin, and Simmons decided to get involved.
“We put out the word and collected a ton of coats. After that, we started doing drives every year for coats and different things, and it kept getting bigger and bigger,” he said.
The two friends ended up going their separate ways: Reddin moved to Little Rock, and Simmons located in Searcy. When a van was donated to Reddin, he used it to go out in search of homeless people in camps and take them whatever supplies they needed, including water and ice to help them stay hydrated in the often brutal Arkansas summers.
Later, when a motorcycle racer associated with Kawasaki donated a 1983 green Chevrolet van to Simmons, it became the Mission Machine that he operates today.
The fleet of vans has grown to include VanLanta in Atlanta and the Russ Bus in Russellville, all of which are under the umbrella of The One Inc., a nonprofit charity that also includes a large warehouse and garden in Sherwood to benefit the homeless. Members of the group hope they can add vans for Houston and Memphis in the near future. Funds that are received by The One are used to buy gas for the vans and items to distribute, such as sleeping bags, clothing and water.
Simmons said the organization’s efforts focus on finding camps of homeless people who don’t fit the criteria to get into shelters or simply prefer to set up camp on their own. He was quick to point out that tangible items aren’t always what the people need the most.
“Jesus shocked people with the mission to free the oppressed and build up the brokenhearted,” Simmons said. “We are trying to reach out and find people and help restore their dignity. We can’t get his whole mission done, but we have found a part of it that we are passionate about.”
Simmons gets assistance in the endeavor from his wife, Jenny, whom Simmons described as a comforting presence for the homeless people the couple encounter; Jimmy Cooper, a nontraditional college student at Harding University; and area volunteers.
On select Saturdays, the Mission Machine squad holds Loads of Love events, when the group takes over a laundromat in the county for three hours and keeps the machines humming for the homeless of the area to wash their clothes. While there, those who need them can pick up supplies, such as a fresh set of clothes and hygiene supplies, and eat a hot meal that Simmons cooks on a home-built smoker he received as a donation.
At one of the Loads of Love events, Simmons said, he found out about a couple who were living in an abandoned camper and needed to wash their bedding. He went out to meet the husband and wife in the camper, which was in the middle of an overgrown field. They had no running water or electricity, and there were holes in the roof and floor.
Simmons convinced the couple to come back to the laundromat with him to wash their clothes, and before they left, Simmons connected with a local woman who was willing to let the couple move the camper to her property and have it hooked up to utilities for temporary living. Simmons described the man as a “handy, hardworking dude” who was struggling with substance abuse.
“He was remorseful and ready to get out of that lifestyle,” Simmons said. “We ended up helping him find a job, and in a couple of months, we were helping them move into an apartment. He has stayed clean and still has that job, and now they are living in a house. There are so many reasons the homeless end up in the situations they’re in, whether it’s not having any connections or just needing someone to reach out to them.”
Simmons said it is important to him that the volunteers he works with get to know the people they are helping. For example, at Loads of Love, besides feeding coins into machines and folding clothes, volunteers provide a kind ear to listen to people and give support.
“It’s our goal to hear their life stories before they leave. They need to get that connection and know that someone cares about what’s going on in their lives. That can break so many walls down and help them get their dignity back, which is the No. 1 thing we are trying to do,” Simmons said.
For more information on how to donate or volunteer with the Mission Machine, Simmons said a list of what is needed is available on the Mission Machine Facebook page and on Twitter.