The neighbors

Broke and lonely, Vicki Van Der Hoek had nothing
to look forward to until she met 6-year-old Leon Shields

Vicki Van Der Hoek slowly flipped through pages of a newspaper at her dining room table while early morning sunlight streamed through a corner window.
All she wanted was to be in bed where she could escape her sadness.

There was so much to escape from that spring day in 2002.
Recently diagnosed with fibromyalgia, an inflammatory condition that made her every movement painful, she was in the middle of a messy divorce, and her home was gone, too. She’d been forced to leave her large, five-bedroom brick house with the swimming pool. Now the middle-aged woman lived in a little rental in Morrow, a blonde-headed, green-eyed stranger in a predominantly African-American neighborhood.

Childless, she took note of her neighbors’ yards dotted with bicycles and toys — mute reminders that she was really on her own.

Her one bright spot was Lucky, her sizable Labrador-shepherd dog with alert, espresso-colored eyes.

It was the appropriately named pooch, which Vicki adorned with a red paisley neckerchief, that would lead her to a fortuitous meeting with a little boy with a big smile — 6-year-old Leon Shields.

She was white. He was African American. She was broke, at least until her divorce was finalized. He was from a middle-class, two-parent family. She was lonely. He had plenty of friends. They were 45 years apart.

But Leon would give Vicki a reason to get out of bed every day. Ultimately, she says now, he saved her life.


Boy meets dog
One warm afternoon under a perfectly blue sky, with Lucky unleashed by her side, Vicki opened her garage door and startled a group of little boys playing nearby.

The sight of the big black dog sent the neighborhood boys scurrying to hide behind cars and scrawny dogwood trees.
Leon, a small child with almond-shaped eyes, ran as fast as he could and jumped on the bumper of a truck.

Lucky, wriggling with excitement, couldn’t resist chasing the boys running in all directions.

With sweat building on his forehead, Leon took a couple deep breaths and analyzed the situation.

He had been begging his parents for years to get a dog. But the family of six already owned two cats, and his parents, both working full-time, weren’t up for the responsibility of owning a dog.

I love dogs. I don’t want to be scared of this dog, Leon thought to himself. I just need to get to know him.

Vicki, bemused by the commotion, called Lucky to her side and grabbed hold of the dog’s collar.

There’s nothing to be afraid of, she said. Lucky was a friendly dog.

The boys hesitatingly approached her and began to pet Lucky. Their fears mollified, the boys all went home.

But the next day, Leon hopped on his red Huffy bike and pedaled around the block until he spotted Lucky.

Standing tall, his mouth slightly open, Lucky barked a short, rapid greeting and gently wagged his tail.

Vicki proudly demonstrated Lucky’s ability to respond to commands — shake, sit, retrieve a stick.

Leon’s eyes grew large as he watched.

“I was like, 'Wow,’ I had no idea a dog could be so well trained,” recalled Leon. “I thought, this is the kind of dog I wanted.”

Every day Leon started biking loops around the neighborhood looking for Lucky to play. For Leon, it was almost like having his own dog.

For Vicki, Leon’s companionship would provide glimmers of joy during a bleak time.

Ups and downs
Vicki grew up in Pico Rivera, Calif., just outside Los Angeles, the daughter of a stay-at-home mom and a dad who developed film for Kodak.

At age 12, Vicki saved her allowance to buy the book “Think and Grow Rich” by Napoleon Hill. Deeply influenced by the book, she started thinking about building wealth at a young age. Vicki also had an affinity for the arts. Inspired by a photo of a Diego Rivera mural on the cover of her high school Spanish book, she traveled by herself to Mexico City on her 26th birthday to see the spectacular mural in person.

Vicki met her first husband at a dance club, with the sound of the Bee Gees playing in the background. Saving their money, they bought their first rental property in southern California when Vicki was only 24. Four years into their marriage, Vicki got pregnant. It was a normal pregnancy, but the baby, a girl, entered the world without a whimper. Born with brain damage and organ failure, she died three days later. Vicki hoped to get pregnant again, but it never happened.

Vicki pressed forward, focusing on real estate investments and spending time with her two stepchildren. But after a decade of marriage, the couple divorced.

In 1986 Vicki followed a boyfriend to Atlanta; the relationship only survived a week after they arrived.

Vicki decided to build a new life on her own here. She bought a house in Peachtree City and continued working as a real estate investor. She also started studying film at Georgia State University and remarried in 1991.

Eleven years later the couple split acrimoniously.

When Vicki moved into Leon’s neighborhood, her financial assets were frozen while lawyers sorted things out. The enervating stress triggered her fibromyalgia and fatigue. And she discovered that her friends, as it turned out, were more attached to her soon-to be ex-husband than her.

She struggled with insomnia. She felt a heaviness in her limbs. Her mind was mired in a constant fog.

“I didn’t have energy to do anything,” Vicki said. “I had no money to do anything. There was nothing I had to do, no place I had to go.”

Not one to cry or feel sorry for herself, she took a practical approach to her situation. She drew up a weekly schedule to keep her going.

Every day, she sat on her back porch and gazed at the lake behind her house. For 30 minutes, she stared into the water, shimmering like diamonds in the sun. It was a form of meditation, a way to escape the confines of her small, khaki-colored home.

She telephoned a short list of relatives, including a distant cousin, and old friends to chat. She wrote postcards — two every week — to children she sponsored through the Christian Children’s Fund (now called the Child Fund).

And every day she read a few pages of “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff” by Richard Carlson.

“And then I had Leon,” said Vicki.


Neighborly visits
After Leon had paid her a couple of visits in the summer of 2002, Vicki walked over to his house and introduced herself to his parents. They took an immediate liking to their new neighbor. Vicki explained that she didn’t have children of her own but she was happy to have Leon visit her and Lucky.

After school started back, Vicki assumed Leon’s visits would taper off as he became consumed with other pursuits.

But one late August afternoon around 4 p.m., Vicki heard the doorbell ring. When she opened the door, she saw Leon, wearing a brightly colored yellow shirt, standing on her doorstep.

Can Lucky play?

To Vicki’s delight, Leon returned the next day and the day after that. Soon a pattern of daily visits unfolded.

Vicki would whittle away afternoons, playing a word game on a computer in her office, tapping at the keys halfheartedly and pausing often to look out the window, watching and waiting for the sound of little feet scampering to the doorbell.

When Leon rang the doorbell, Vicki would jump up to open the garage door.

“It was the only thing I had to look forward to,” Vicki said. “He was the only thing good in my life at that time.”

Before long, they established a routine. Leon would park his bike inside the garage and press the button to close the garage door. He loved closing that garage door. Then he’d go inside Vicki’s modest house filled with art from around the globe — a gold-leaf painting from Egypt, a hand-stitched mola from Guatemala, a woven wall hanging from Colombia — and help himself to a drink from the refrigerator — orange Minute Maid, his favorite.

Lucky would greet Leon with pent-up excitement, eager to play fetch.

All the while, Leon, a happy child and animated storyteller, would chat about his day in great detail.

Vicki was captivated.

“He had no ego. He had no filter,” Vicki said. “He said what he thought and gave me a 6-year-old’s view of the world. I knew the world I lived in and it was nothing as wonderful as the one Leon lived in.”

Leon had a way of making Vicki laugh — a deep, hearty laugh. He took her mind off her troubles. The tension fled her body.

Leon once told Vicki about seeing a man who looked like a vampire. With eyes wide, Leon placed his fingers in his mouth and stretched his lips to demonstrate.

He told her about the time he and his family got lost in Florida and how he remembered how to get back to their hotel.

How were you able to do that?, she asked.

It must be a gift from God, he replied.

Vicki would laugh and jot down their exchanges into a rose print-covered journal.

She would eventually fill many journals with notes about Leon — the cute stories, the funny lines, the dreams of a young boy wanting to someday be a bus driver, or maybe a Delta pilot.


Precocious child
Leon’s friendship with Vicki did not surprise his parents.

Born prematurely at 28 weeks, Xaleon “Leon” Laron Shields weighed just 4.8 pounds. But he took his first steps ahead of schedule around 7 months of age. By the time he was 3, he had mastered unlocking the front door. His parents, Tonia Shields, who works in medical billing at a hospital, and Robert Shields, who works for the U.S. Postal Service, soon realized Leon was an unusually curious, smart and determined child. And he was preternaturally comfortable around adults — maybe to a fault.

“We used to worry because he would just talk to anybody,” said Tonia. “We could be out and a stranger could put their arms out, and he would go give them a hug.”

Leon often talked about Vicki at the dinner table.

“Miss Vicki said this, Miss Vicki said that,” Tonia recalled. “Miss Vicki has traveled to such and such place. Can we go there?”

Being a kid, Leon never gave any thought to what he meant to Vicki.

“I had no idea Vicki was going through a hard time,” said Leon. “I was just a little kid. I was never going to see her because I felt sorry for her. I just really liked her company.”

Photo: Leon plays with Vicki's dog Bobby as Vicki looks on at her home in Morrow. Hyosub Shin,


Changing dynamic
Over the years, the Clayton County neighborhood of vinyl-sided homes that Vicki and Leon shared began to fall into decline. Several houses went into foreclosure; others were converted to rentals. Yards were neglected.

In 2005, Leon and his family left for a new construction home about five miles away.

Vicki, attached to her lake view, decided to remain. And with Leon’s afterschool babysitter living in the same neighborhood, it was easy for Vicki and Leon to continue seeing each other regularly.

By now Vicki’s divorce was well behind her. Her financial status had improved and she’d reconnected with old friends. She was dating. She was feeling better. With more energy and resources, she began taking Leon on outings to the Georgia Aquarium, Oakland Cemetery and the King Center. And she started traveling the globe again — Russia, Cuba, Costa Rica, China.

When Leon was in the sixth grade, he was assigned a school project on China. While attentive and well-behaved, Leon was not studious. He was getting by with C’s and even a few D’s.

When he mentioned the project to Vicki, she pulled out photo albums, paper currency, restaurant menus, a ticket to the Palace Museum and other items from her trip to China. Soon her dining room table was covered with photographs of the Great Wall and terracotta sculptures. Leon carefully picked up each photograph, each ticket, each menu and jotted down notes in a spiral notebook as Vicki explained the significance of each item. He took what he learned and turned it into an illustrated report, which earned him an A-plus.

No more C’s and D’s for me, he told Vicki. I’ve made up my mind: only A’s and B’s for me from now on.
After that, Leon’s grades steadily improved. He would eventually go on to graduate in the top 15th percentile of his class.

Photo: Vicki and Leon frequent the restaurant at the Renaissance Concourse Atlanta Airport Hotel where they eat lunch and watch the planes take off and land. Leon is close to getting his pilot’s license and is studying aviation administration in college. Hyosub Shin,


Cultural exchange
Who has seen the Leonardo da Vinci exhibit at the High Museum, asked Leon’s 8th grade art teacher at Adamson Middle School.

Leon’s hand shot up in the air.

Vicki had taken him to see the 2009 exhibition of constructions made from da Vinci’s sketches of fanciful inventions. Leon had been especially fascinated by the three stories-high replica of da Vinci’s Sforza Horse monument.

As he walked out of class that day, he noticed the teacher had a print of Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” on her desk. He had also seen Van Gogh masterpieces at the museum on another trip with Vicki.

As high school loomed, Vicki began to fear their relationship would change. What teenage boy wants to pal around with a woman who was nearly 60? she wondered.

But she was wrong.

Once Leon became a teenager, the dynamic between them changed, but not in the way Vicki anticipated. They continued to spend time together but on more equal footing, like friends instead of mentor and mentee.

One of their favorite things to do became something they called film camp.

Seated side by side on Vicki’s amber-colored paisley couch, they watched double features of classic movies such as "Casablanca," "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "Cool Hand Luke."

Vicki would organize the movie based on a theme, and between features they would go out to lunch and discuss the films over pizza or burgers. They both agreed that “Citizen Kane” was the worst movie ever made, and they didn’t care what film historians said.

And sometimes they hosted dinners for visiting dignitaries from around the globe for the Georgia Council for International Visitors, a nonprofit cultural exchange program, Vicki had become involved with.

In preparation to receive their first guests — three journalists from Burundi — Vicki and Leon worked together like a team, shopping for groceries and preparing a meal of baked chicken, rice, vegetables and chocolate ice cream. Since then, Vicki has hosted groups from 60 countries; often with Leon by her side.

“She has exposed me to so many things, and opened my eyes to so many things,” Leon said. “I wouldn’t be the person I am if it weren’t for her.”

Photo: Julius Alexander (right), founder of ACE Academy, observes Leon complete a flight check on a Cessna plane at Fulton County airport. Leon hopes to be a commercial pilot one day. Hyosub Shin,


Sky’s the limit
One sunny afternoon in August, Leon and Vicki sat in the dining room of the Renaissance Concourse Hotel by the Atlanta airport and watched planes take off and land, one after another.

Leon, now 19, is a sophomore at Clayton State University, studying aviation administration.

From an early age, Leon had expressed an interest in being a pilot. For his 13th birthday, Vicki took him on a tour at FlightSafety aviation school in Atlanta, and a manager there gave him a free flight simulation experience.

When Vicki heard about Aviation Career Enrichment (ACE), a non-profit that helps provide aviation opportunities to young people of color, she encouraged Leon to apply, and he was accepted into the highly competitive program.

“She has always encouraged me to follow my dream of being a pilot,” Leon said.

He’s close to getting his pilot license, having completed 54 hours of flight time through ACE. Someday he hopes to be a commercial pilot.

A waiter takes their orders, and Leon orders a Shirley Temple, his favorite. Noting that Leon is driving, Vicki orders wine. The server asks if they want the usual — a portobello sandwich for her; a hamburger and fries for him. Leon opts to try something new — a barbecue sandwich.

While they eat, they chat about planes, (Leon can identify every one) and an upcoming dinner with the Georgia Council for International Visitors.

They talk like two old friends who have known each other a long time.

Leon is no longer the chatty little kid from the neighborhood. He is a young man, soft-spoken, even-keeled and focused. Vicki is no longer the forlorn neighbor, resisting the urge to wallow in bed.

“You never know what’s going to happen in your life,” said Vicki, smiling brightly. “Who could have ever imagined a child in my neighborhood could have made such a difference in my life? Who could ever imagine we would still be friends? No one could plan what we have.”

Much has happened in their lives over the past 13 years, but they have remained constants all that time.

They met by chance, thanks to a dog named Lucky. And despite their differences in age, race and circumstance, they have enriched each other’s lives in meaningful ways.

People rarely know when something great is about to happen. It’s only when they embrace the possibility — and the people around them — that they can experience something as extraordinary as the friendship Vicki and Leon share.

Behind the story


An avid AJC reader and a fan of Personal Journeys, Vicki Van Der Hoek emailed us in May 2014 after we ran the story “Mondays with Mr. Collins,” about a troubled African-American child who was helped by his friendship with a retired white man. (You can read that story here). Vicki thought we might be interested in telling her story about how a young black boy helped her through a troubled time. She was correct.

Features writer Helena Oliviero spent several hours with Vicki and Leon at Vicki’s house, at the Fulton County airport where Leon takes aviation classes and at the Renaissance Hotel, their favorite spot to dine and watch planes take off and land.

Helena also spoke to Leon’s parents.

“Vicki talks about how much Leon has meant to her,” says Leon’s mother, Tonia Shields, “but we thank God for her. My husband and I say we wish we had someone like that in our lives when we were young.”

This is an inspiring story about a remarkable friendship — and how being open to the people around us can enrich our lives.

Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor

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 more than a dozen to date. She was educated at the University of San Francisco.

Hyosub Shin was born and raised in South Korea. Inspired by the work of National Geographic photographers, he came to the United States to study photography and joined the AJC photo staff in 2007. Past assignments include the Georgia Legislative session, Atlanta Dream’s Eastern Conference title game, the Atlanta Air Show and the Atlanta Braves’ National League Division Series.