His story shows just how fast life can go completely bad – and how good can still come from it.
Dave Houck – people often call the leader of SoZo Kids Pastor Dave – was born in Bradenton, His father, Gene, a locksmith for the local school board, and his mother, Susan, who worked in a restaurant, had built a pleasant middle-class life for Dave and his brother, Rolland. Nice home, two cars, new clothes and good food on the table.
When Dave was about seven, the school board called in the employees to help dig trenches for a new sprinkler system at a football field. Gene injured his back digging and then underwent an unsuccessful surgery that severed his spine and left him paralyzed from the waist down. He lost his job and Susan, staying home to look after him, also was suddenly unemployed. Within a few months, the family lost everything and ended up living in a 1952 camper trailer in the Ocala National Forest. Somebody had added three enclosed porches to the crumbling structure.
“So, it’s leaking. There’s green mold on the walls. Floors are weak,” Dave says. “But for my brother and me, it’s an adventure. A canal and a lake. A swamp. We moved there and paid about $100 a month.”
But Gene, an Army veteran, had his pride, which made it tough for everyone.
“We were on food stamps for a while. Then people started making comments to my Mom about how she was using the system, her dirty little kids,” Dave said. “So, my Dad took us off welfare and on a course for survival. If we didn’t grow it, fish it, catch it or hunt it, we weren’t going to get it. We grew a huge garden and that sucked because I hate vegetables.”
Neighbors would sometimes leave bags of food on their fence for Dave to pick up on his way home from school.
“I knew it was mine, but it was embarrassing because all the kids would see me pick up the bag,” Dave says.
They made fun of Dave and his family.
“We didn’t live in a high-class neighborhood,” he says ironically. “But they were more affluent – that meant their parents had a job.
“I joke that someday I’m going to write a book called ‘Hambone Poor.’ That means that until you have to borrow a hambone to season your beans, then give it back to the owner, you don’t know real poverty. But his parents were generous with their neighbors and made sure that everyone had food and necessities.
“My parents had nothing,” he says, “and they gave half of that away.
“The place was rotten from the rain. There was a backup from the septic system and we had snakes and frogs and stuff popping out of the toilet in the middle of the night.”
A woman who had grown up with Dave confessed that, as a girl, she would never eat with the Houcks.
“She never knew what my Mom had in the cooking pot,” Dave says.
While his father would often get the boys jobs working for the neighbors, it was the school board jobs that Dave really hated.
“They would call over the school intercom, ‘Any kid that qualifies for welfare, go to room 101 and get your job.’ I wouldn’t go,” Dave says. “My Dad would call and tell them. Then I’d hear, ‘David Houck, go to room 101 for your welfare job.’”
While Dave cleaned desks, his friends were outside playing basketball and baseball. And with his hand-me-down clothes – “In the early ’80s I’m wearing plaid bell-bottom golf pants” – home haircuts and duct-taped shoes, he was teased and bullied. So, he learned to fight.
“I could be a mean kid. But, that’s how we survived,” Dave says.
At one point, his parents had an additional 13 kids living in the two-bedroom house they had found. Gene fashioned a plywood cover to fit over the bathtub at night. That became a bed for a couple of children. (Dave and his wife, Tammy, follow in those footsteps. They have four children of their own, have adopted eight more and now also have seven grandchildren.)
After 12 years, Gene got a settlement for his injuries.
“My Dad had such a long list of people he believed he owed, that in the end we were only able to buy a super cheap used car, a microwave and a used VCR,” Dave says. “We also went to a store to buy some new clothes. I was 15, just starting high school. I got my first pair of brand name pants and halfway-brand-name sneakers. They weren’t Reeboks. The kids called them ‘hotboxes.’”
Finally, Dave “pumped somebody in the eye because I’m tired of hearing it. I hated it,” and was promptly suspended from that school. At home, his father insisted that Dave and Rolland do chores in the yard, the garden and around the house.
“My Dad didn’t communicate with us, but he was keeping us away from the really bad kids who became drug addicts, prisoners, dead,” Dave says. “They stole cars and I wanted to hang out with them. Nope.”
In his late teens, Dave had a vision of his future, which he wrote on pages of a yellow legal pad. He thought it was stupid, balled it up and gave it to his mother to trash.
Several years later, after Dave had run off to California, come back, and was at an impasse in his life, she gave it back to him. The short version is that the vision was a blueprint for the work that Dave began over 25 years ago – the non-profit Help Agency, SoZo Kids, Salt Life Church and the many programs that help the thousands of children and families who live in extreme poverty in the Ocala National Forest. They provide food, summer camp, school supplies, mentoring, clothing, personal hygiene items, job skills, dental treatment and other assistance. They just had a Christmas party and gifts for 1,500 children.
Pastor Dave sums up his work.
“We are stopping a whole generation of stuff from happening,” he says. “We’re breaking a generational cycle. We’re helping to change the future for these kids.”
Pastor Dave wants to ensure that those kids won’t know the poverty, drugs, prostitution and hunger that their parents grew up with.
For more information and how to help, visit www.sozokids.org. The SoZo Kids Club of The Villages will be celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Help Agency at its quarterly meeting on Feb. 4 at the Oxford Assembly of God, 12114 U.S. Hwy. 301. Contact LaRae Donnellan at [email protected] for meeting time and more information on how to join with the many Villages organizations that already are helping.
John W Prince is a writer and Villager. For more information visit www.GoMyStory.com.