A year's worth of small talk outside the Pulaski County Courthouse, some Internet sleuthing, an unlikely friendship and a 620-mile road trip led a man living on the streets of Little Rock to a family reunion that had been on hold for 15 years.
Dawn Gieber, a clerk in the 2nd Division of Pulaski County Circuit Court, started striking up conversations last year with James Anderson, who was homeless.
They'd talk about the weather and how their days were going. He'd ask for change occasionally, and she'd sometimes take him food.
Then, at the start of November, she asked, "Why are you homeless?"
James, 51, explained that his family was in Illinois, and he didn't know how to get back there.
Dawn, 46, and her now-husband, Jody Gieber, set out to find James' family.
"We just started investigating," Dawn said. "We tried any avenues online."
The Giebers' search for James' family and its outcome drew attention on social media this week after The Van founder Aaron Reddin posted on Facebook that he hadn't seen James for a while and asked if anyone knew where he was. The Van is a nonprofit that distributes food, clothing and hygiene products to people who are sleeping on the streets and camping in the woods.
One of Reddin's friends started asking around and found out about the Giebers and what happened with James.
Jody, 47, has been a sergeant with the Pulaski County sheriff's office for more than 20 years. He has experience helping homeless people and keeps water in his car for them.
He'd met James on a few occasions -- twice when James was shot while people were trying to take his belongings.
The Giebers have a few acquaintances who are homeless, they said. Both of them take time out of their schedules to take food to people on the streets.
There were more than 990 homeless people in central Arkansas, about half of them living outdoors, according to the last full count of the homeless population in 2017.
"I don't want to be hungry, and I'm sure they don't want to be hungry," Jody said. "All of us are one paycheck away from being homeless."
Jody said his experience with investigative work helped the couple track down two phone numbers possibly connected to James' family. One didn't work, but the other was the home phone of James' brother. Dawn made the first call.
"Hi, my name is Dawn. I know this is going to be a very odd phone call," her voicemail message began.
When she finally talked with the relatives, they thought it was a prank, she said.
"The family had been looking for him for 15 years," Jody said.
"They assumed him dead."
The couple decided to make the 620-mile trip to Montgomery, Ill., to take James home on Nov. 9. The day before they were scheduled to leave, James admitted that he had a warrant out for his arrest on two instances of panhandling.
Dawn went before District Judge Mark Leverett, who agreed to dismiss the charges as long as the Giebers paid any court fees. That cleared the couple to take James out of state.
Leverett said this was the first time he'd had a situation like this go before him in court.
"This situation was so far out of the norm," he said. "It was an incredible set of circumstances that, one, you have someone who was this generous, and two, was this trusting to do something like this for someone they didn't know."
The judge said he's seen an increase in panhandling-related charges recently, and usually tries to assign people to community service rather than saddling them with fees they can't pay.
When James appeared before him, he didn't know the Giebers or what kind of work they did, he said, adding that he learned about it when an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reporter asked whether he had met them before.
"No matter their background, careers or whatnot, it's just really encouraging to see a couple that would be willing to invest this kind of time and money and effort in someone that they don't know and someone that can't do a thing for them in return," Leverett said.
The Giebers made the nine-hour drive to Illinois, listening to country music on the way.
James told them stories about his childhood and his family. They stopped at a Cracker Barrel at one point, which Dawn said was James' first time to eat in a restaurant in years.
James' family had arranged a reunion for the weekend he returned home, but three relatives -- his niece, older brother and sister-in-law met him alone at their home. His sister-in-law and niece met him in the driveway with tears and hugs.
"I thought he was gone, and the next thing you know, he was on his way to my house," said Dan Anderson, James' brother. "I came home from work, and he was there."
Dan said the family's main focus has been helping James get acclimated to living inside again and getting him medical attention for the old gunshot wounds.
"It was a very nice surprise, and it was a happy ending," Dan said. "It's still happy, you know."
The Giebers stayed about two hours, taking photos and getting to know the family. They left the same day and drove back to Little Rock because Jody had to work the next day.
James is now living with his sister in Wisconsin, and the Giebers said they talk to him every couple of weeks. Dawn said James gained 10 pounds in the first week he was there and is doing well.
About a month after they made the trip, the Giebers got married. Their two adult children got ordained for the ceremony and officiated at it.
Since the story about their efforts to help James became public, they've been contacted by many people telling them that they did something amazing, they said.
But they don't see it that way.
"We don't look at what we did as anything," Dawn said, glancing across the courthouse desk to her husband.
"We just helped somebody that needed help," Jody said.
Metro on 02/22/2019
Print Headline: VIDEO: Couple take homeless man from Little Rock on long trip home