When It All Begins with a Hot Dog
With Relish, Rick Swyden Feeds the Homeless
On Jan. 5, 2003, Rick Swyden and his wife Susan boiled 16 hot dogs, wrapped them in foil, put them in lunch sacks with a bottle of water, a bag of chips, and a napkin. They headed to downtown Oklahoma City, OK, and handed them out to the needy. That's how Hot Dogs For the Homeless began.
In June, the group handed out its 50,000th bagged meal. With the help of benefactors and volunteers, including a Catholic nun, Hot Dogs for the Homeless also provides clothes and toiletries for the needy and prays with them.
What prompted Rick Swyden to dedicate his life to this deed of mercy? Here's his story:
by Rick Swyden
I can still remember laughing when the words came out of my mouth: "Hot Dogs for the Homeless." So simple, so direct, and yet so darn funny sounding. The idea first came to me during a Catholic Bible study meeting. We were discussing what we could do to help people and how we could better "live our faith."
Well, feeding the homeless was a nice thought, but I didn't think I'd really do anything about it. After all, I had my own problems: mortgage payments, medical bills stemming from my wife's breast cancer treatment, computer problems at my business, and extreme emotional stress. This was October of 2002.
Then one day I was watching "Dr. Phil." He was helping someone with depression. He suggested the best way to deal with depression is to do something for someone in need. While I never considered myself "depressed," I was inspired to look beyond my own problems and to channel my stress by helping others.
Fast forward a few months to New Year's Eve, 2002. My wife Susan and I, along with two friends, were in San Antonio, Texas. While out walking, we passed a homeless man. I stopped and told everyone that I would catch up to them in a few minutes. I went back to the homeless man. He was in absolutely horrible condition. His fingernails were long and caked with grime. His skin was almost black from dirt. His moustache covered his lip by over an inch and was caked with what looked like a continuous runny nose. This man was in the worst physical condition of any man I've ever met.
I sat down to talk to him and saw that he had the most beautiful eyes — eyes that pierced my soul. We spoke for about ten minutes. He never asked for anything — not food or money (although I did give him some money just the same). After we ended our conversation, I met up with my wife and friends in the mall and told them that we had to feed this man. So we went to an A&W root beer stand at the food court. When we placed our order for a hamburger, the man at the counter said, "I'm sorry, sir, but all we serve are hot dogs at this location."
It was like a lightning bolt from heaven, God's way of telling me, "You are going to feed a homeless man a hot dog."
By the time I got back to the place where I met the homeless man, he was gone. I walked all over looking for him, but I couldn't find him.
With hot dog, fries, and a root beer in hand, I was determined to feed a homeless person a hot dog that day. We eventually encountered a man and his wife. They were hauling what appeared to be everything they owned, all duct-taped to a two-wheeler. I asked the man if he was hungry. "Oh, yes," said the man. We talked a few minutes. I gave the man a $20 bill, and his wife hugged me so hard and said, "God Bless you."
It was at that moment that "Hot Dogs for the Homeless" came to be.
I can't tell you why, but when I got back to my room, I started crying uncontrollably for about an hour. It was the most emotional moment I have ever felt — both painful and joyful at the same time. I knew my life would never be the same.
Mother Teresa said, "I have come more and more to realize that it is being unwanted that is the worst disease that any human being can ever experience." I've learned after three years of feeding the homeless, that it's not just the hot dog that's important, but that someone takes the time to simply ask, "How was your week?"
This story first appeared in the monthly Friends of Mercy newsletter. To learn more about Friends of Mercy, click here.