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Monday, April 29, 2002
A Helping Heart 

A quadriplegic reaches out to assist others with disabilities; his list of good deeds is long.

    LAKELAND - Bobby Boedicker has been taunted and called a panhandler.
    He has had french fries thrown at him. He has even been spit on while sitting in his wheelchair collecting donations to help the handicapped.
    Maybe he is just misunderstood.
    Boedicker, a quadriplegic since a 1978 car accident, has operated a charity called Help the Handicapped Inc. since March 1989.
    His shoestring yearly administrative budget - $4,800 in 2001 - is used to pay his apartment-home office rent and buy stamps and other supplies.
    A small portion, $110 a month, pays for his medications.
    The rest goes to helping others in need.
    "When I started this organization, a lot of people said, "Bobby is only going to be able to help Bobby," " he says.
    But he has helped thousands who found themselves down on their luck because of medical problems or disabilities. Boedicker raised about $50,000 last year, and years past have brought in $20,000 to $35,000.
    An annual golf tournament held in August is his signature event. It gives the "best prizes in Polk," said Eric Rauch, a Polk County sheriff's sergeant who plays the tournament every year. "He's a great guy, and it's a good cause."
    By networking with hotels and tourist attractions throughout Florida, Boedicker is able to provide "everyone who plays" with a prize. He then mails each of his 150 or so sponsors a handwritten thank-you note with pictures enclosed.
    But Boedicker's main source of money comes from those he "meets and greets" in front of Publix or Wal-Mart twice a week, when he sometimes spends 10 hours a day in the sun.
    His spinal cord injury affected his sweat glands, and he is prone to heat stroke. But he will not quit.
    "God gave me a gift - the gift of helping others," he said.

No Frills Charity

    Boedicker is not about frills.
    "All we started with is a shoe box, $6 and faith, not necessarily in that order," he said.
    Meeting and greeting has gained not only donations for the organization, but also for clients. He does not advertise, but word of mouth travels.
    Help the Handicapped has paid for wheelchair ramps, groceries, utility bills and medicines for people with disabilities who ran into trouble making ends meet.
    The tools of his trade include a telephone, pads of paper, a pen and a fax machine. He is assisted by his "soul mate, best friend and trooper," Cheri Alleman.
    Last year, Boedicker debated "for months" over whether to buy the fax machine because he thought it might be getting "just a little too fancy," said Lorenzo McCloud, Help the Handicapped's volunteer director.

Charity Of Last Resort

    Boedicker, at times, has his own share of physical pain. But as quick as he brings up his own woes, he drops them and changes the subject.
    "Every time I think about quitting, the phone will ring and it's someone who needs help." For many, like Josephine Redding, he was their last resort.
    Redding, 62, is not one to ask for a handout. "I'd rather leave the help for others who need it," she said.
    But when her husband left her, Redding, who has diabetes and arthritis, ran into financial trouble. Living on a $554 disability check became a challenge. When her gas was turned off, she reluctantly turned to charity organizations.
    She called the United Way and was referred to other local charities funded by the United Way, only to find there were "no funds available."
    Redding heard about Help the Handicapped from a neighbor and looked Boedicker up in the telephone book. About an hour later, her gas bill was paid.

Screening Out Scammers

    Boedicker is no fool. He might not have the latest in modern technology, but he can interrogate like a skilled detective.
    He asks for Social Security number, income and other probing questions. It's Boedicker's personal screening process.
    "Sometimes, I get the phone slammed in my ear," he said. He wants to make sure that those he helps are truly in need.
    "I take the time to listen. If you listen to people long enough, eventually [someone who isn't being truthful] will dig themselves in a hole."
    By comparison, the more sophisticated United Way of Central Florida maintains a database of those who have sought direct assistance in the past. "It's not to catch people. It's to help people with program services," said President Terry Worthington.
    Boedicker said the United Way occasionally will help him screen a client, but he won't join or accept any funding from the organization because he disagrees with the way bigger charities operate.
    "They say they are out of funds. If they are out of funds, how do they pay their electric, their rent, their employees?"
    Worthington said the United Way of Central Florida doesn't give direct assistance to every person who has a need but focuses more on rehabilitation and self-help programs.
    "We don't touch some of those very extreme and profound needs," he said. But the United Way, which received more than $9 million last year, funds 150 programs and services, from cardiopulmonary resuscitation training to drug prevention to help for the homeless. About $100,000 each year is used to help working people in crisis situations.
    "Those funds are very discretionary," Worthington said. "If [Boedicker] never runs out of funds, I'd like to know his secret."

Staying Simple

    The secret, said Boedicker, is low overhead costs, the lack of red tape, and his personalized method of operation.
    A list of those who have received his help goes on and on.
     There's Debbie Simmons, a mother of two who had multiple strokes that left her paralyzed. Boedicker paid for the materials to build a wheelchair ramp at her Lake Wales mobile home. "I admire Bobby," she said. "He's not in any shape to do anything for anybody, but he does it. It's his priority."
    And it includes those referred to him from larger nonprofits with much more money.
    Good Shepherd Hospice of Mid-Florida, an organization funded by the United Way, is frequently helped by Boedicker.
    Deana Neely, a social worker at Good Shepherd, met him a few years ago while he was fundraising in front of Publix. Neely said she can count on Boedicker. "He is "always willing to help my clients when I have problems getting assistance" from much larger agencies," she said.
    Neely recalled a case that touched her heart. "We had a lady whose last request was to be taken to church. She needed to be taken on a stretcher, and someone had to stay with her." When Neely couldn't find a nonprofit agency to provide that service, she called Boedicker. "He never questioned that [request]. He got to work on it right away." The woman was at peace after her trip to church and died about two weeks later, Neely said.

A Life's Mission

    Boedicker says he's just doing what he's supposed to be doing. He feels it in his heart.
    He exchanged one dream for another. He had just tried out for professional baseball when he was injured. He hopes to one day have a baseball field in his name where children with special needs can play. "I'll have it some day," he said.
    Then, the phone rang again.
    "Help the Handicapped Inc. How can I help you?"
How to reach Help the Handicapped Inc.:
By mail: P.O. Box 1114, Lakeland FL 33802-1114
By telephone: (863) 683-1764 

Reprinted with permission from The Tampa Tribune

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