‘There was a ring with MY name on it!’: Janitor with cerebral palsy ‘overwhelmed’ by football team’s act of kindness

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“I haven’t always had a godly work ethic. I remember in high school thinking, ‘Why work hard to get all A’s when I can give half effort and still have a B-average?’ It is kind of embarrassing to think about now. Even in college I had an ‘as long as you get by’ mentality. My first job was at a Christian bookstore and my work ethic was terrible. The manager had to speak with me about the frustration of other co-workers that I wasn’t pulling my weight. Between that and other grievous mistakes I made there, I certainly did not leave that job with a sound testimony.

The next several years were very difficult financially due to my lack of preparing for the future and poor work ethic. However, in my mid-twenties, my wife and I began attending a new church where I was introduced to men who worked! I’m not talking about men who were workaholics (nor would I condone that), but about men who worked with a higher purpose. They were men who didn’t see their vocational work as secular. They saw all they did, whether running a construction company or selling swimming pools, as ministry.

This was a new concept for me. Doing dirty work could be ministry? Filling up Coke machines (which would be my vocation later) could be evangelical? To understand my utter conundrum here, you have to understand that from the time I was young, I felt a very passionate call to ‘the ministry’ and I had built up in my own mind what this would look like. To me, ‘my ministry’ would involve traveling the world and preaching in pulpits; because in my mind, I was destined for this type of work!

So, when I neared the end of high school and was encouraged to think towards choosing a career path, I would hear none of it. For me, it was world evangelism or bust! I had a pastor-friend who encouraged me to pursue a vocational college degree as a ‘back-up plan.’ But this, in my naïve eyes, would be a sign of complete lack of faith. This faulty understanding of what ‘the ministry’ was and my lack of biblical understanding regarding the role of work and God’s heart in it, would bite me in the rear time and time again.

Around the year 2010, the Lord enrolled me in the school of hard knocks, so to speak. It was time for me to learn the value of hard work. I did some construction clean-up when the heat index was near 110 degrees! Then, of all things, I signed up to be a substitute teacher in a public school system. Allow me to explain the humor of this:

I was born with Cerebral Palsy. CP affects different people in different ways. For some, it can affect one area of the body severely, but not other areas. For example, maybe your speech is fine, but you’re completely unable to walk. For me however, all areas are affected, at least to some degree.

Courtesy of Jamie Freeman

Substitute teaching is no walk in the park under the best of circumstances. But, when a room full of middle school students sees a handicapped man limp into the room and with garbled speech announce, ‘Hey guys, today I’ll be your sub,’ they have one thought: ‘Fresh meat!’

Though I had spent a lot time looking for a job before deciding to substitute teach, having Cerebral Palsy made getting a job difficult because companies were hesitant to hire a handicapped individual. After trying to get a job everywhere else, it had come to this. Subbing was the only door that had opened up for me. It was my only avenue for providing for my young son and pregnant wife. This had to work. To get my bluff in on these kids, I had to be one tough-nosed sub, and I was!

Courtesy of Jamie Freeman

But in the end, substitute teaching wasn’t enough to make ends meet. I needed a way to supplement our income.  It was a really hard time financially. In fact, we’ve had a lot of really hard times financially. You may be wondering, if you have Cerebral Palsy, why not make things easier on your family and draw disability?

Ah, yes… this is a conversation I have become awfully familiar with. Many, because they loved and cared for our family, asked that same question. Let me say up front I am thankful for a government that takes care of its people who are unable to care for themselves. I believe ideally this should be the role of the church, but when that ideal is not met, it is good for a government to provide for its people. But I also believe that to the degree a man can work, he should. For me, this is a deep scriptural conviction.

Though we might like to see a footnote which omits those with any type of disability, it isn’t there. My Cerebral Palsy does not exempt me from the Apostle Paul’s admonishment. With that said, there are, understandably, those who truly cannot work and provide for themselves, and for these circumstances such government programs are beneficial. I find myself in a unique position here. Though I am a handicapped man who can work, I am also the father of an even more severely handicapped child who likely will not be able to support himself as an adult and will genuinely depend upon government benefits.

Courtesy of Jamie Freeman

While you may not want me to be the guy that draws your blood in the hospital or the surgeon performing on your brain, I can do other things. I can serve as a janitor, I can fill up coke machines, and I can be one heck of a substitute teacher. As I see it, to the degree I am able to work, I should and therefore I do!

So, how was I going to supplement my substitute teaching income? It was at about this time I was invited to come speak at a fairly large church. Now, fairly large churches generally give fairly large love offerings to guest speakers. This church was very gracious to us and we left that Sunday night with $3,000! This was a lot of money for us at the time and I knew I had to invest it. I needed to use this money in such a way that it would keep providing income for us in the future. But what would my investment be? I thought on this for awhile. By this point, I had been trying for nearly three years to find truly gainful employment, with no success. I get it, hiring the handicapped guy is a very risky move, and I have no bitterness about that. But, if no one was going to hire me, I had to find a way to use the $3k to hire myself. It was time to become an entrepreneur!

I had to find a business venture. A few days later, while riding in a truck with a friend who was also a young entrepreneur, he asked me, ‘What about buying some Coke machines? There can be some good money in vending.’ Well, I wasn’t traveling the world as a great evangelist as I had planned… and, I was desperate for a steadier income to support my growing family, so after giving it some thought, I figured vending machines were worth a shot. I bought three used soda machines, filed for my own LLC, and began Freeman Vending, LLC. This is when I truly began to learn the spiritual importance of hard work. I began to learn that even filling soda machines can be a ‘ministry.’

I worked so hard on my vending machine route! I was substitute teaching three or four days a week, then working my route after school and on Saturdays. I did this for about ten years and I loved every minute of it. At the peak of my vending business, I had about forty soda machines. During this time, I also completed my Bachelor’s degree online from Oklahoma Baptist University, and my family was steadily growing.

Courtesy of Jamie Freeman

By the spring of 2019, we had five kids and lots of vending machines! But, I was struggling with the vending route. More business also meant more expenses and making a profit was getting harder. One day, I pulled up to one of my machines located in an apartment complex and it hit me that, though it had been a fun decade of running my own show, it was time to look for something new. In hind sight, I had no clue at the time that we were a year away from the Covid-19 pandemic. I’m not sure my business would have survived it. Things were already tight. But the Lord was leading us.

I went home that night and started job hunting online. I don’t remember why I chose to look on the Greenwood School’s website, but I did. They weren’t hiring school janitors at the time. But, I filled out an application for ‘future school janitor,’ just to get my name in the hat. A few months went by. I was filling a vending machine at an auto mechanic’s garage and received a phone call from Greenwood school. They had a janitorial position open and wanted to see if I wanted to interview. ‘Absolutely,’ I said.

I went in and met with Jerry Elmore and Jim Caudle. I’d later learn both these men are very gifted at their work and served in various capacities before working for the school, which could be deemed quite honorable, and even heroic. The interview went great and I left feeling optimistic. The next day, Mr. Caudle called me again. Indeed, the interview had gone well, and instead of taking the position I interviewed for as a night custodian, he wanted me to take a day position taking care of one their athletic complexes. It was an honor to accept. I quickly sold the vending route and prepared for this new adventure as a Greenwood Bulldog.

Football is a big deal in Greenwood. Real big. Rick Jones is one of the most winning coaches in Arkansas High School football history. His win-loss record in Greenwood is 185-26, including eight state championships. To be given the keys to the football complex in Greenwood and trusted to take care of it is a big honor.

I didn’t know when I started that this would be Coach Jones’ last year as a bulldog, but I knew I wanted to do a really good job cleaning for him. If you’re going to work for the best, you need to be your best. Plus, by this time, work ethic had become a spiritual matter for me. This was a way to worship. So, I poured everything I had into it. I loved working at Greenwood from day one. I liked everything about it. Not to mention, after ten years of only paying yourself if the vending machines did good enough, a guaranteed paycheck was nice.

The next year, Chris Young had taken over as head football coach in Greenwood. Chris had coached under Coach Jones for us. He knew Greenwood football inside and out. Because of Covid-19, we were unsure what this football season would look like. There was always a bit of a question as to whether or not our boys would even get to play each week.

But for me, Covid or no Covid, I was going to serve this team. I was going to somehow share the love of Christ in the way I cleaned. I was convinced that no job was mundane or ‘secular.’ All work is meaningful and, if done with a right heart, it can all be ‘ministry.’ So, we (you see, I already considered myself part of the team) took it a week at a time and each week, we’d come up with a win! Going into the playoffs, the Bulldogs were undefeated and nothing was going to stop us!

Winning the 2020 Arkansas 6A State Football Championship made this our 10th state title in 21 years. It was a special win for us. We were in the midst of a pandemic and it was our first year without legendary Coach Rick Jones.  Yet, the winning tradition continued.

But this story got even more special when it came time to order championship rings. Our football boys knew work ethic was a big deal to me. In the grace of God, I had gained their respect for working hard, despite my disability. So, unbeknownst to me, when championship rings were ordered, the boys made sure they did what they had to do in order for me to receive a ring, too! I had been told to be at the ring ceremony because the boys wanted to give me a hat, but when they called my name and I went to receive my gift, there was a ring with my name on it underneath.  Their kindness and generosity was overwhelming.

Courtesy of Jamie Freeman

So, when I took the picture of myself wearing the ring and posted it to Facebook, I had no clue of the reaction I would receive. At first, I was astonished the reaction garnered enough attention to attract local news media. And before I knew it, my simple Facebook post was seen on ESPN’s Sports Center, the NFL on ESPN, Instagram, TikTok, and other social media platforms. It has been a bit overwhelming.

Courtesy of Jamie Freeman

But in the end, my takeaway has been that a positive work ethic can reach farther than one could ever dream. When we seek to do our work, whatever it may be, with a heart of joy and love for Christ and His Gospel, even scrubbing toilets can lead to having an impact that touches the entire nation. No work is meaningless. No job is mundane. When done with the right heart, all the work of your hands has profound and significant purpose!”

Courtesy of Jamie Freeman

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Jamie Freeman of Arkansas. You can follow his journey on Facebook. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.

Read more acts of kindness here:

‘Late-night milk run, huh?’ I was standing in front of a tired momma in Target just before closing. ‘Go get that precious baby to bed. I got you.’: Woman shares act of kindness for stranger

‘I asked Audonte what he wanted for his birthday. ‘Just some cupcakes.’ Every day, he’s at the park by himself.’: Mom shares act of kindness for wandering boy at park, ‘It takes a village’

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