When I wrote to tell JoAnn Cayce she had been nominated for a national award, JoAnn responded: “I don’t know this fellow that’s nominated me – he happened to be the mayor of an adjacent town – and I don’t know what I’ve done that he thinks is so special. I’m just doing what my mother and grandmother have done before me. And besides, I don’t have much use for awards anyway. The President wanted to give me an award last year and I told him to put it in the mail.”
I loved her response so much I tried to call her. For six months, she wouldn’t talk with me. She was too busy taking care of the poor to be bothered talking about it.
Finally, one hot summer day we got together at her home in a wide spot in the road, called Thornton, Arkansas. When I asked her why she did what she did, she told me her earliest memories were of her mother taking care of people.
“My mother always saw after everybody who couldn’t see after themselves. We never knew who would be eating or sleeping with us. She would take in prostitutes, alcoholics, anyone. She was always filling out papers for them, taking people food or clothing – whatever. In her later years she would get up in the morning and put on a big pot of turnip greens or beans or soup and she would watch the people coming down this road out here to see who might be hungry.”
JoAnn followed her mother’s lead for more than forty years. A one-woman Salvation Army, she did whatever needed to be done for the poor in the four counties surrounding the little town of Thornton, Arkansas. It is a mark of her impact that many government agencies referred problems they couldn’t solve to her.
When I asked about it, she said “I do nothing” and pointed to the contents of her two storage sheds. “All this stuff has been given to us. I’m just a tunnel it flows through. It didn’t come from me. It comes from caring people. A lot of them, I never see. I don’t even know how they find out about me, but they will come here and bring things or drop them off on the porch.”
JoAnn believed human begins cannot be fully happy until they serve the purpose God intended for them. She found her joy in helping others and felt blessed by the process.
“The poor have done for me more than I will ever do for them,” she said. “They make me feel needed. What would I do with my life if I didn’t have people who needed me? Play bridge? Collect dolls and clean house? Anybody can dust! It’s a joy to just be alive and be of service to somebody.
“I don’t care how who you are,” she said. “You can find a way to help somebody. When you want to find a way, there is a way. Don’t ever be afraid to do what is in your heart.”