Once he was lost, but now Montie is found!
EDITOR’S NOTE — When AP National Writer Martha Irvine learned that her family had been reunited with a long-lost cousin, she set out to tell his story — and that of the big-hearted kin who embraced him.
Read Montie’s Heartwarming Story Below…
WOODHAVEN, Michigan — His hair had grayed and he’d lost several teeth.
But there was something about the small, wiry man who walked into the shelter at the Woodhaven Bible Church in suburban Detroit in search of a bed for the night. With boyish enthusiasm, he told church volunteer Pat Fite about his “good day,” how pleased he was to have found some discarded returnable cans and a grungy baseball. Pat helped him clean up the ball. She continued to study his face.
It was a good day for Monte, indeed — and it was about to get a whole lot better.
“You look so familiar,” Pat said to him as she poured him a cup of coffee that cold evening last December. He thought the same of her, but wasn’t sure why, until she directed him to a nearby table to get a name tag. He scrawled “MONTE” on it, and immediately, Pat knew this was no stranger.
“You’re family to me!” she exclaimed, as she darted from behind a kitchen counter in the church basement to hug Monte Handley, who she’d somehow realized was her husband Howard’s younger cousin.
The last time they had seen him, Pat and Howard were in their 20s and Monte was a towheaded, freckled boy at a Handley family reunion — summertime picnics that had become increasingly infrequent over the years as the older generation died.
Now, at age 47, here was Monte, waiting for a free meal in a church basement, with no job, scant reading skills and a home he’d fled to escape his druggie friends. Other than the baseball and the cans, the few possessions he carried with him were in a canvas duffel bag: a bit of clothing, cartoons he’d drawn, and a dilapidated book of photos of storefront artwork and signs he’d once painted to earn money. That was it.
With everything going on in her own life, Pat didn’t have to take this on.
She and Howard have their own financial struggles and live in an urban area that has seen more than its share of economic heartache, with foreclosure notices, boarded-up banks and gas stations, crumbling roads and peeling paint around every corner. It is a sobering scene.
And yet they knew they had to help. Here, in the midst of hardship, a family was stepping up to take care of one of their own, banding together as their elders would have done in the days before government took on so much of the responsibility.
Whether divine intervention or just an incredible stroke of luck, Monte was back in the family fold — and Pat and Howard were not about to lose him again.
Once he was lost, but now Montie is found!
The Handleys lost track of Monte
It still amazes Pat that the Handleys somehow lost track of one of their own.
Howard’s mom, Myra, was one of 16 Handley children from a farm family that grew up on the Illinois-Indiana border. Many of them, Monte’s dad Kenneth included, moved to Michigan as young adults and weathered the Depression together. With the addition of children and grandchildren, they grew into a sprawling but still tight-knit clan.
Pat remembers how taken aback she was when she attended her first Handley family reunion, with watermelons kept cold in a nearby stream and Grandma Handley’s cherry cake guaranteed to be on the menu. She hadn’t had much opportunity to know her own extended family because they’d died or moved away. And she wasn’t at all accustomed to a family that hugged as much as the Handleys.
“I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is so weird,'” she says, laughing. “But it really made you feel good. They were so warm and welcoming.”
Her view of family was forever changed.
Today, there are Handley cousins strewn across the country. My own mother, a Handley cousin herself, could probably list most of them.
But even she was a bit perplexed when Pat sent an e-mail telling the family about Monte, who is decades younger than most of his cousins. Had she ever met him? One cousin dug up an old black-and-white photo that shows Monte and twin brother Michael with some of their older cousins at a family picnic in 1965, when the boys were 4.
But that’s about where their early history with the Handleys ended. Shortly after, Monte’s parents split up and his dad, who struggled with mental illness, died a few years later. His mom remarried and Monte lost contact with the family altogether, despite some cousins’ more recent attempts to find him and his brother.
There were other reasons Monte got lost. In high school, he struggled academically and his teachers determined that he was developmentally disabled, but he still managed to graduate in 1980. When he was 17, the courts named his mother his legal guardian and said he should continue to live with her into adulthood
Six years later, though, she died of a pulmonary embolism at age 54. Monte was 24
“That has always been a huge void for him,” Pat says. “His mom was his everything.”
With his twin brother looking in on him from time to time, Monte continued to live in his mother’s home in Redford Township, Mich. He worked odd jobs, but found nothing steady because he couldn’t read much.
He used his skill as a cartoonist to earn money and, more recently, made $100 a week at a local car wash. But he lost that job because, as he puts it, he was too focused on “partying and video games.” Some would call him a follower, taken advantage of by the wrong crowd. But he’s willing to take responsibility.
“I wasn’t no angel,” Monte says. “And I’m sorry if I ever hurt anybody.”
His friends moved into the house. They smoked crack, drank beer and burned pieces of furniture in the fireplace for heat, since all the utilities had been shut off.
Monte knew he had to get out of there.
“If I would’ve stayed doing what I was doing, I wouldn’t have made it,” he says. “I’m sure of that.”
One night last December, though it was nearly midnight, he quickly stuffed a duffel bag with those few belongings — and left.
He had no money. No winter boots, only sneakers. And he had no idea where he was going, just that he was walking south, in a blinding snowstorm in the middle of the night, toward the Detroit airport.
“It was a leap of faith,” he says. “That’s what it was.”
By morning, Monte had walked more than 14 miles down a main suburban thoroughfare where he spotted an open diner in Taylor, Mich., and hunkered down in a booth.
Waitress Debra Magyar noticed how cold and despondent he looked and bought him breakfast. She’d gone through a divorce and been through some tough times of her own. Lately, there’d been more people at the diner with hard-luck stories, but something about Monte tugged at her.
“He just seemed so sincere, like he really wanted to do something to change his life,” she says.
Monte thanked her for the meal by drawing her a cartoon of Santa Claus. She still keeps it tucked in her waitress notepad.
Magyar gave him the address of a food bank and pointed him in that direction. Workers at the food bank then directed him to a nearby church, one of several in a Detroit area group called Christnet that provide emergency housing and meals to people in need.
Monte stayed for a week and was sent next to the Woodhaven Bible Church.
That’s where he found Pat, and Pat found Monte
Helping Monte hasn’t been easy.
Though the Fites knew immediately that they would help Monte, it hasn’t been easy. Howard, who’s 73, retired several years ago from a sales job after his second open-heart surgery. He receives Social Security benefits, but has no other retirement income. So Pat, who’s 66, continues to work for a candy broker to help support them and provide medical insurance.
“It’s difficult, it’s difficult,” Pat says, nodding. But she’s been tireless, helping him find housing and counseling for drug-addiction at a nearby Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation Center, among other things.
“I would never, ever turn my back on family,” she says. “I don’t care what I’d have to do.”
Howard recalls how his mother’s generation took in other family members when they had no place to go and cooked extra food to share. “They took care of each other,” he says. “And they’d want us to take care of each other, too.”
They would be pleased, he says, that far-flung Handley cousins have sent money to pay for glasses for Monte and for dental work he’ll need.
Nearly each Sunday, Howard drives the half hour from their home in suburban Southgate to pick up Monte at the rehab center. They worship together at the Woodhaven church.
Afterward, they take him to lunch and often on an afternoon outing, to the zoo or to the historic reenactments that Howard, a former Marine and a military buff, so loves.
Pat bakes Monte his favorite brownies, which he eagerly shares with his buddies at the rehab center. In return, he draws pictures for Pat and Howard’s new granddaughter.
“He wants so much to please people,” Pat says.
Because Monte must leave the rehab center at year’s end, Pat has been gathering his records with his brother’s help to see if he qualifies for some kind of aid. Eventually, she plans to help Monte find an assisted-living home and a job.
He doesn’t want to go back to his mother’s house, afraid he’ll get caught up in his old life. He prefers the routine at the rehab center, where he rises at 6 a.m. to shower, shave and dress for his job at a nearby Salvation Army thrift store.
During breakfast, he and the other residents explore Scriptures. Some of his new friends have been tutoring him, and one morning, after they’d challenged him to read, he earned a standing ovation.
“He is definitely coming out of his shell and coming into his own,” says Celia Polich, his Salvation Army counselor. “He has a new energy about him.”
That’s evident when he talks about everything Pat and Howard have done for him.
“It means a lot. It means hope,” he says. “It means there’s someone out there that cares about me.”
He pauses, then adds: “It means God is awesome!”
He repeats that again and again during our time together. It’s the one point he really wants to make. And indeed, there is something about enthusiastic, “God is awesome!” Monte that inspires hope.
“My story ain’t over yet,” he says, grinning. “I still got a lot to do.”