The cowboy, the checkers player, and how they both changed my life
'My dad and Leroy never met … but both have shown me that on darkest paths, there is light,' Jody Zarn says
I have always loved buying people coffee. Friends, strangers, it doesn't matter who you are, chances are, I'll buy you coffee or tea. It's my thing.
So, on Nov. 8, 2019, when I saw a homeless man standing outside my work, it seemed only natural to buy him a cup of tea.
His name was Leroy, and we became instant friends.
Every morning I met Leroy in the mall. I brought food and supplies from home and made tea in my office. We'd visit, and I'd head up to work.
I'd say Leroy wasn't your typical homeless person, but there is no typical homeless person, is there?
People who are homeless are just that: people. They have stories, skills, accomplishments. Leroy had all of those.
Born in Guyana, raised in Barbados, Leroy came from a life like you and me. He obtained a diploma in hotel management, worked in the hospitality industry and studied psychology at the University of Winnipeg.
And, as it turns out, he was once the best checkers player in Canada and the 12th-best in the world.
Leroy learned the game as a boy from an older man in the community. He quickly rose to the top and became ranked as the third-best in Barbados.
He was fondly called the Prince of Barbados, for he was almost as good as his friend, Ron King, who went on to be the best in the world.
And while Leroy's talent for the game took him throughout Canada and the U.S., his journey was not without hardship. He recalled a tournament in Hamilton, where, just before the game, a top player hurled racist taunts at him.
His opponent sneered, only to be defeated by Leroy in an easy win.
In 2004, Leroy was recognized as an outstanding volunteer for the Boys and Girls Club of Winnipeg.
Surviving homeless 'a strategy game'
Leroy learned patience, strategy and mindset by playing games in his mind.
This sharpened his mind, which, he said, enabled him to stay alive on the streets — for surviving homelessness is, in part, a strategy game.
Leroy explained when you live on the streets, every decision you make could mean life or death. He told me if you want to stay alive, you must keep your wits about you. If you head to one part of town, it might mean safety. If you choose another, death.
I had been given a gift: the gift to stop and look at what I had in life.- Jody Zarn
He was assaulted more than 25 times. He told me the rules were to stay away from certain shelters or you'll be assaulted. Wear all black, or you'll be a target (advice given by an eight-year-old girl at the Salvation Army).
One winter night, 2 a.m. and –40, Leroy found himself at the west end of Portage Avenue.
It was bitterly cold, but he had nowhere to go. You could only spend so much time in any given restaurant before the manager kicked you out. After being asked to leave at the last place, he found himself having to decide. Go left? Or right? Which way?
He chose right and came upon a hotel where he worked in his previous life. He knocked on the door, explained to the night person that he used to work there and asked if he could please sit in the lobby until morning.
The lady showed Leroy compassion and let him stay.
Leroy said if he had chosen to go left, he would have surely frozen to death that night.
'A dose of perspective'
I suspect Leroy became homeless due to an unfortunate combination of trauma, mental health issues and a lot of bad luck. A friend once said we are all just one lost wallet away from being homeless. There is a lot of truth to that. Being homeless wasn't his fault.
I admit, when I met Leroy, I thought I was the one doing the "helping." I soon realized he was the one helping me.
That fall had been rough. My dad, Henry, had dementia, and prior to meeting Leroy, our family decided to have him placed in a personal care home.
Dad, an old cowboy from the Prairies, has always been one of my best friends, and seeing him decline to the point where he could no longer live at home was gut-wrenching, to say the least.
When I met Leroy, my heart was broken, and I struggled to adopt a brave face for work.
Caring for a loved one with dementia means grieving their death every day. Each day you lose a little bit more of them, as their mind slips into the fog.
But something interesting started to happen.
I'd arrive at work, depressed. I'd find Leroy in our usual spot and ask him how he was. He'd greet me with a smile and exclaim, "Jody, I'm doing pretty good!"
Here was this man who had just spent the last several hours fighting for his life in one of the most dangerous bus shelters in the city, and all he could talk about was how happy he was, how grateful he was to be alive, how bright his future looked.
He wasn't annoyed because his caramel latte wasn't hot enough, he was thrilled to have a sandwich. He wasn't mad because the bus was late, he was happy because he had someone to talk to.
To say this was a dose of perspective would be an understatement.
After I left Leroy, I'd head up to work with a renewed sense of joy. My heart was always lighter.
I had been given a gift: The gift to stop and look at what I had in life and truly appreciate what I had been given. The good, the bad, the ugly. All of it — a gift.
I started to view Dad's dementia journey with gratitude, rather than despair. Rather than being consumed with grief, I savoured the simple moments. The conversations, the giggles. His voice.
My dad and Leroy never met, yet they loved and respected each other from afar. Both experienced profound adversity, yet both faced their storms head on, with gratitude and grace.
On Nov. 9, 2021, my dear friend Leroy passed away peacefully in his very own home.
On April 8, 2022, my dad reached the end of his journey.
I will be OK.
Both have shown me that even on the darkest paths, there is light. On the loneliest roads, there is hope.