Leon Sims, 87, trembles inside his tiny, gloomy apartment south of Atlanta. He’s scared. He’s desperate. He’s alone.
This is going to kill me, he thinks.
His apartment is infested. Bed bugs — tiny oval-shaped, rusty-red blood-sucking creatures — are everywhere. They crawl on his neck; others inch into his hairline; yet more circle his ears. And all are hungry. Deep-red, swollen bite marks cover his arms.
They invaded the widower’s apartment four years earlier and have only grown more numerous. He sleeps in his khakis and long-sleeve shirts, hoping to stave off the relentless feeders. It’s a futile effort: When they begin dotting his grits and eggs, the elderly man loses his appetite — and, in time, a healthy weight.
His fear – This is going to kill me – is no exaggeration.
One wintry afternoon in November 2012, Jane Warring, a 32-year-old corporate attorney, knocks on his door.
From the moment she steps inside the dimly lit apartment with low-ceilings, Mr. Sims is no longer alone in his fight to live, and to live with dignity.
We can do better, I know we can do better, she thinks to herself.
The apartment complex, located in East Point, looks like a run-down motel where young men and women come and go all hours of the night.
Stray cats and kittens wander the complex. One short evergreen tree juts out of a neglected patch of weeds and trash. The ceaseless sound of cars and trucks roar by on the nearby highway.
A striking woman with long, wavy blonde hair and blue eyes, Jane isn’t sure what to do first. She feels her body stiffen as she surveys the space.
She notes the rusty stove, the refrigerator that leans to one side. It is uncomfortably warm.
“The bugs are bad...really ... bad,” he stammers.
She watches the bugs crawl on the skin of the man she continues to call to this day Mr. Sims.
Making a mental note to throw her clothes in the washer as she soon as she gets home, Jane finally sits down on a wooden chair.
Despite her horror at Mr. Sims’ situation, her demeanor is calm as she pulls out a legal pad and pen.
Tell me all of your problems, she says matter-of-factly.
Shy child blossoms
As a child, Jane, 35, never shied away from completing tasks, even unpleasant ones.
On Saturday mornings, her younger sister Ellen would be lounging on the couch in her pajamas watching cartoons when Jane would stride in and turn off the TV.
OK, Ellie, time to clean our rooms, she would say.
“I was like, ‘Are you insane?!’ recalled Ellen, 30, who lives in Jacksonville, Fla. “Even my mom was like, ‘it’s OK. It’s fine if she wants to watch a little more cartoons.’ But Jane was like, ‘Nope.’ She was very organized, very task oriented.”
Hardworking and driven, Jane got straight A’s in school. Every day she completed her homework, chores and practiced her clarinet without being reminded.
She was also painfully shy. Once when a now-close friend knocked on her front door to introduce herself to the new neighbor, Jane ran into her room and hid.
“I was a nerd in high school,” said Jane, who grew up in Lake Mary, Fla. “I never went to a party... I wanted to be invisible.”
Her goal in life, she said, was to make her parents proud and do the right thing. But she carried a secret well into her 20s that was holding her back from living her life fully and honestly. She was gay.
“I was afraid. I knew it would disappoint them, and my No. 1 goal was to make them happy. I got to my last year in law school and I thought, ‘What am I doing? This is crazy. I am wasting my life.’”
At 24, Jane broke the news to her younger sister first. As the two sat in patio chairs outside a Starbucks, Jane began to cry and told Ellen her secret. Her sister took the announcement in stride. So did her parents, in time. Being openly gay was a turning point for Jane. All shyness and social awkwardness faded. She grew more confident. She was more sociable. Thin and pretty, she stood up straighter and updated her wardrobe with black leggings and boots. She no longer hid. She started dating.
“It was a total 180 degree change,” recalled Ellen. “She totally blossomed.”
And she learned to speak up, especially when she witnessed someone being mistreated.
One sticky summer afternoon in 2014, Jane and Ellen were in line at a Subway when a customer ahead of them started berating the female employee making his sandwich.
“He was just being awful, demeaning her by saying she’d never be able to do much more than work in a Subway. Jane let the first couple comments go by, but then she got really mad,” said Ellen.
This lady can’t stand up for herself because she could get in trouble for doing so, but I can! You’re being an (expletive) and you need to stop talking to these people that way, Jane told the man.
More recently, Jane, who lives in Midtown, noticed what looked like a parking spot but beside it was a fire hydrant obscured by a tree. She kept seeing drivers get tickets for parking there. One day she went to Home Depot, bought some white spray paint and painted hash marks on the pavement to warn people against parking there.
Jane, who works for the global law firm Clyde & Co., began volunteering for Atlanta Volunteer Lawyer’s Foundation (AVLF), a nonprofit that provides legal services for low-income individuals, while she was in law school at Emory University.
Her first pro bono case for the organization involved a young man who’d bought a used car that turned out to be a lemon. He showed up at AVLF’s free Saturday law clinic seeking help returning the car, which the dealership had refused. Jane wrote a letter to the dealership and within days it took the vehicle back.
“He was dealing with this for months and after I wrote the letter, it was over in a week,” Jane said. “I felt so happy — and useful.”
We can fix this
In late 2012, Mr. Sims took a cab one Saturday to the AVLF’s free law clinic, seeking help for his bed-bug problem. His situation was so dire, Deputy Director Michael Lucas immediately thought of Jane.
She had a reputation for being an excellent lawyer, and he knew a bed-bug case wouldn’t make her flinch. Plus, she was the kind of attorney who not only provided legal assistance but would make home visits to ensure her clients’ basic needs were met.
The legal course for a bed-bug case often requires taking action against the landlord to cover the costs of moving a tenant into a new apartment. The cases are usually resolved within a matter of weeks.
Mr. Sims’ problems, however, were greater than just bed-bugs, and it would put Jane’s level of commitment to the test.
That first day at Mr. Sims bug-infested apartment, Jane carefully took notes as he listed his woes. In addition to the bugs, he had diabetes, which he was not equipped to monitor. He had been given a glucose testing kit, but he didn’t know how to use it; it was still in the box. His ID card had expired, and he had misplaced his birth certificate. He was getting harassing debt collection calls over a $30 clock he’d bought years ago. Getting by on a monthly Social Security check of $900, he didn’t have a bank account and paid his bills in cash or with money orders obtained from a nearby gas station.
Mr. Sims needed a lot more than a new place to live.
“I just thought, we can fix these things,” said Jane. “They are all fixable.”
Alone and in need
Mr. Sims was born in 1925 on a cotton farm in Valdosta to a single mom. He never met his father. He stopped going to school when he was 7 to work on the farm.
In the 1950s, he moved to East Point and worked in a bakery for nearly 18 years, missing only one day of work. When he was 50, he married his wife Carol, who was 26 years younger.
A die-hard Atlanta Braves fan, Mr. Sims turned Carol into one, too, and together they watched every game on TV. They also sewed pillows together and sold them at yard sales for extra cash. Carol suffered from diabetes so severely, she had both her legs amputated. Mr. Sims became her caretaker. When she was hospitalized for months at a time, he never left her side, even sleeping in a recliner next to her bed. She died in 1994. She was only 43.
Soon after, Mr. Sims suffered a minor stroke, which triggered severe stuttering. His face quivers as he strains to say just a couple words at a time.
Mr. Sims had no living blood relatives. The only family left was Carol’s sister, who lived about an hour away in Griffin and called Mr. Sims every night at 8:30 p.m. to check on him. His few friends included a kind nurse who helped from time-to-time, a friendly cabbie he paid (at a deeply discounted rate) to get around town and a fellow tenant, whom he met occasionally for barbecue. Before he met Jane, the only regular face-to-face contact he had with another human being was a home health aide, covered by Medicaid, who gave him his twice weekly bath.
Jane reached out to Mr. Sims’ landlord and learned he had taken measures to try to eliminate the bugs, including buying Mr. Sims a new recliner and mattress. But she knew eradicating the bed bugs would require Mr. Sims to move out for at least a couple weeks.
Even without the bed bugs, Jane wanted to find Mr. Sims a nicer place to live. She called several places in East Point, but one after another either had waiting lists of a year or longer or did not accept Section 8 housing vouchers. But in a lucky coincidence, when Jane called one well-maintained apartment building for seniors, she learned Mr. Sims was already on the waiting list thanks to the nurse. A one-bedroom apartment with cream-colored walls and new appliances was opening up in just a couple months. Mr. Sims would be able to transfer his Section 8 voucher to help cover the costs. His portion would remain the same at $160 a month.
Gingerly, she broke the news to Mr. Sims that he would have to leave almost everything behind — his bed, chair, furniture and pots and pans.
Mr. Sims grew quiet.
I can help you. We will do this together, said Jane.
His eyes scanned the dreary apartment, then he sighed and looked at Jane.
OK...I...can...do...this, he said.
For three consecutive weekends, Jane and Mr. Sims sorted through his possessions. His most prized belongings — his marriage certificate, family photographs, old vinyl records and a rubber fish that sings “Don’t Worry Be Happy” — were put into a large plastic container to be stored outdoors over the winter to kill any remaining bugs.
Meanwhile, Jane put a callout on Facebook asking for donations of furniture, a microwave, clothing, plates, sheets, even a leather belt, socks and shoes to help give Mr. Sims a fresh start.
Photo: Jane leads the way to Mr. Sims’ new apartment in East Point.
A new home
One morning in January 2013, a nurse bathed Mr. Sims at a doctor’s office, making sure to remove every bug from his body. She bagged up his clothes and threw them away. He left in new clothes: khaki pants and a long-sleeved shirt, white tube socks and a pair of black sneakers.
Jane took the day off from work and, along with her mom and friends, moved Mr. Sims into his new apartment. She helped him unpack his clothes, hanging up his shirts in the closet. She toured the apartment with him, pointing out the large window in the living room that overlooked a wooded area with tall pine trees.
She ordered him a barbecue dinner from his favorite restaurant.
Mr. Sims gently smiled, but he barely spoke.
As Jane stood in the doorway getting ready to leave, she felt a huge sense of relief.
“For the first time since I met him, I was leaving him in a safe and clean apartment,” said Jane. “I felt proud of what others have done and what I had done.”
Just before she left, she gave him her stock farewell: Bye Mr. Sims. Call me if you need anything.
The next morning, Jane called to check on him.
I don’t like it here, he said. I want to go back.
Mr. Sims missed his things. He missed his clothes, his pots and pans, his gray felt hat. He missed seeing his neighbors. He missed all that was familiar.
Jane was not discouraged. She knew it would take time for Mr. Sims to get used to his new surroundings and she tried to assuage his fears.
Going back to the old apartment is not an option Mr. Sims, she told him. You are just going to have to hang in there. It will be better.
It had become clear to Jane by now that getting Mr. Sims situated in a new apartment was just the beginning. Here was a man who required help with basic needs and had no one to call on. He needed help with grocery shopping, doctors appointments, putting drops in his eyes. He needed companionship. There was no way she could she just walk away.
Over time, whenever Jane asked him if he was adjusting to his new space, he hesitated with a response. Eventually he stopped shaking his head and began nodding, ever so slightly.
As Christmas 2013 approached, the new place finally started feeling like home. Jane set up a small Christmas tree in his living room and decked it with silver and blue ornaments. They played Johnny Cash records on the stereo.
Is it getting better? she asked.
Yes, it’s better, said Mr. Sims with a smile.
Photo: A lifelong Braves fan, Mr. Sims had never seen a game in person until Jane, along with her fiancee Kelli Moore and seven friends, took him to see one for his 90th birthday. Contributed by Jane Warring
‘He needs us’
Every other Saturday, Jane and her fiancée, Kelli Moore, take Mr. Sims grocery shopping. A man of habit, he scoots up and down the same aisles and pauses to slowly read the labels of the same foods he buys nearly every time: grits, eight loaves of white bread, canned vegetables, bananas, four gallons of milk, a package of chocolate-covered Twinkies.
Sometimes Jane and Kelli help Mr. Sims shop or flip through magazines and wait. Sometimes Jane rummages through the sales bins. Once she bought a bunch of plastic dinosaurs for a craft project.
One day in early February 2013, Mr. Sims deviated from his usual path to stop by the card aisle. He picked up a Valentine’s Day card and began to read it. He encouraged Jane to do the same, and then he placed two cards in his cart.
Before Jane left that day, he gave her one of the cards with a big red heart on the front. “From Leon to You,” he wrote. He handed her the second card to give to her mother on his behalf. “From Leon to Mom,” it said.
Neither remembers exactly when it started, but one day after going grocery shopping, Mr. Sims extended his arms to hug Jane.
Give me some sugar, he said.
A goodbye embrace is now part of their regular routine.
Jane admits there are times when helping Mr. Sims puts stress on her home life.
One recent Sunday, Jane arrived at Mr. Sims’ apartment feeling distracted and tense.
She’d had a long week at work and was on the go all weekend with errands and preparing for an out-of-town deposition. She had planned to visit Mr. Sims and take him shopping Saturday so she and Kelli could have some alone time Sunday before Jane left town, but it didn’t work out.
“There were definitely some groans as we realized time had gotten away from us that weekend and we hadn’t made any time for ourselves,” Jane said.
Maybe we could ask a friend to take Mr. Sims shopping, Jane suggested to Kelli.
It’s OK, said Kelli. We’ll be together, which is what matters today, and he needs us.
When they arrived at Mr. Sims’ door, he was ready to go and eagerly slipping out of his brown slippers and into his black sneakers.
Despite her frustration, she was glad they’d come.
For Mr. Sims’ 90th birthday, Jane and some friends wanted to do something special to mark the occasion, so they surprised him with tickets to see his beloved Braves in action.
When someone mentioned to a Braves employee they were celebrating Mr. Sims’ 90th birthday, the whole group was moved to prime seats behind third base.
When’s the last time you saw a game in person, Jane asked Mr. Sims.
I never have, he answered as he nibbled on a hot dog.
The Braves were not at their best that night. Down 0-7 in the bottom of the 7th inning against the Miami Marlins, fans started peeling away early.
I don’t know, Mr. Sims, do you think we can turn this around? asked Jane.
Mr. Sims laughed.
I still like watching, he said, grinning.
While the stadium emptied out early, Mr. Sims and his friends stayed until the very last pitch.
Making a difference
Jane is a person who can barely sit still for five minutes. She walks fast. She talks fast. Her mind is always racing.
But when she shows up to help Mr. Sims, she has to slow down. She has no choice.
“Taking him grocery shopping is like the sun salutation in yoga — it’s slow and repetitive and there is no rushing through it,” she said. “You can fight it or you can embrace it. Watching him examine a cup of New England clam chowder for two straight minutes and then put it back and grab the same can of vegetable he always gets, it makes me laugh. If your spouse did that, you’d probably scream, but when Mr. Sims does it you just laugh. What’s the rush?”
Since Mr. Sims came into her life, Jane is more aware of those around her who are struggling and living in extreme poverty. And she notices the people who offer to help — even Mr. Sims, who she watched give a homeless man a dollar for helping load his groceries into her car.
“What I’ve learned is that it doesn’t take any special skill or talent to make a difference. It takes a willingness to continue to show up and do it. I think it’s a matter of finding someone who needs help and is open to being helped and pairing them with someone like me who wants to make a difference,” she said. “That’s what we need more of. One person helping one person.”
On a recent wintry afternoon, Mr. Sims tells Jane to “give me some sugar” and holds her close. His eyes are closed and a contented smile stretches across his face. Jane smiles, too, knowing she is doing the right thing and what she is doing is making a difference.
“I need a long hug,” says Mr. Sims. “It’s going to have to last me until I see you again.”
HOW WE GOT THE STORY
I first heard about Jane Warring and her experience helping Leon Sims from my friend, former AJC colleague Paul Donsky, who volunteers with Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation (AVLF). Sims happily agreed to share the story. Jane, however, was initially reluctant. She said she never helped Mr. Sims to receive recognition and she considers herself a private person. She eventually agreed to share this heartwarming story in hopes it will inspire more people to reach out and help those in need.
ABOUT THE REPORTER
Helena Oliviero joined the AJC in 2002 as a features writer. Previously she worked for the Sun News in Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Knight Ridder as a correspondent in Mexico. The leader of the pack in Personal Journeys, she’s written 18 to date. She was educated at the University of San Francisco.
ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER
Sean McNeil is an internationally-recognized photographer, videographer and editor based in Atlanta. He has been honored by the Associated Press, Florida Press Club, the Society of Professional Journalists. He once lost his GoPro in the mouth of a gator on a quest for the perfect shot. Follow his travels on Instagram @fotokrat.