Rose Meeks, a Christian single mother of four children, has had chesed — spelled out in Hebrew — tattooed on her left wrist since 2011. The word, which translates to “loving kindness,” is not only a personal call to action for Meeks, but also something she has sought most of her life.
Meeks, who moved from Alabama to Mt. Lebanon last summer, has come to the right place.
Thanks to a compassionate and generous extended Pittsburgh community, including local Jewish property developers Daniel Berkowitz and Ben Samson, Meeks and her children were handed a merry Christmas just when they thought a joyful holiday was completely out of reach.
Meeks, 45, and her family were just settling in to their new life as Pittsburghers when their world was turned upside down. On Dec. 9, the home they were renting on South Meadowcroft Avenue caught fire.
While Meeks and her two daughters escaped the house safely, her 17-year-old son Daniel, who has Down syndrome, suffered serious injuries from smoke inhalation and was sent to UPMC Mercy Hospital in critical condition.
While Daniel fought for his life in the ICU at Mercy, Meeks and her two daughters, 9 and 15, and their dog were displaced. Without another option, they all crammed into the small two-bedroom Castle Shannon apartment where Meeks’ 22-year-old daughter and her two young grandchildren lived.
Although Christmas was approaching, Meeks was spending all day at her son’s bedside and at work, and had no time or energy to prepare for the holiday, which created even more stress.
That’s when the remarkable chesed of scores of Pittsburghers kicked in, including the principals at Atlas Development Co., who provided the Meeks family with perhaps the greatest gift of all: a place to live, free of charge.
When Daniel Berkowitz, CEO of Atlas, saw a post on Facebook asking for aid for Meeks and her family, including Christmas gifts and a place for the family to live, he knew he could help.
“We reached out and said we have vacant houses in Beechview,” Berkowitz said. He was soon put in touch with Meeks, and on Dec. 21, just a few days before Christmas, she came to meet with him at one of his properties.
When Meeks arrived, a Christmas tree had already been set up by Berkowitz’s assistant, and the house had been decorated by neighbors. When Meeks saw the house and met Berkowitz, she was moved to tears.
“She’s living with us rent-free until she has her feet on the ground,” Berkowitz said. “The moment we saw Rose’s tattoo there was a tingle up the spine for Ben and me.”
Meeks is “overwhelmed,” she said.
“I mean, what do you say? I’m kind of a loner in life, in the sense that I drive my own ship, and I kind of live in my own world, and take care of my own kids, and I’m stubborn and strong-willed and hard-headed. So, for people to pour out and help me … Lord, where does that come from?”
After living in Alabama for 22 years, she fell in love with Pittsburgh after visiting family here, and decided to make the Steel City her home last August.
Meeks is still trying to digest the enormity of the generosity of Pittsburghers. Last year when she was still living in Alabama, she said, her son was severely hurt by a hit-and-run driver, and because of his special needs, the accident was publicized on the local news.
“I didn’t have one neighbor knock on my door to see if he was OK, and I was in that neighborhood for four years,” Meeks recalled.
Comparing community reaction then to what she has experienced as a newcomer to Pittsburgh is like “night and day,” she said.
“Putting me and my children in a home, not asking for a dime, and saying, ‘Hey, just take a rest for the holidays, and get yourself together,’” she said. “They don’t even know me. I’m taken to a whole new level that I haven’t even figured out yet. I don’t even know how to say ‘thank you’ to all these people.”
The plight of the Meeks family was brought to the attention of the community by Mt. Lebanon resident Niki Kapsambelis, a journalist and author of “The Inheritance,” a non-fiction book about an extended family’s battle against Alzheimer’s disease.
Kapsambelis read about the fire and the injuries of the 17-year-old, and reached out to the family to see if they needed any help. Meeks told her they needed a place to stay, and that she had not had a chance to do anything to prepare for Christmas.
“Her nine-year-old was convinced she had hidden presents somewhere,” Kapsambelis said. “That really got to me, because if you ever had kids that age, they do have that magical thinking. Separately, her daughter said, ‘We’re going to find a place to live. There’s going to be a Christmas miracle’ — which sounds very Hallmark movie. But the kid was saying this.”
“It got shared 450 times,” Kapsambelis said. “There’s the power of social media for you. Once you ask people in this area to respond to a need, I know the capacity for goodness in people here. It really crosses all socioeconomic lines, religious differences, everything. People will gather around to help.”
The donations were collected at the Mt. Lebanon Fire Department, and Kapsambelis met Meeks there on Dec. 23.
“When she walked into the conference room where everything had been secured, she just started crying,” Kapsambelis said. “People had donated things for her children, her two grandchildren, for the dog. Not just toys, but gift cards, financial donations to help them get back on their feet. Her youngest daughter plays basketball, so somebody donated Pitt basketball tickets. There were a lot of really welcoming notes. Two people donated beds for the house, because her stuff is in storage.”
While Kapsambelis is not Jewish, the outpouring of kindness for the Meeks family nonetheless reminded her of the message of Chanukah, she said.
“The phrase I kept thinking about all week while donations were pouring in for Rose and her family was ‘a great miracle happened here,’” she said. “A little resource extended into enough, into what was needed, to light the way for this family.
“And the important factor in my mind is that people made that miracle happen by setting aside their own troubles and putting a stranger first. That is in itself extraordinary to me.”
Meeks’ son, Daniel, is now on the road to recovery, and has been moved to Children’s Institute for rehabilitation. PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.