If you have spent any amount of time at the Athens Walmart, chances are you have seen Billy Simms and his sidekick Sam the service dog. Perhaps you have even stopped and spent a little time with him, or seen Sam perform one of his many tricks in his shoes and little cowboy hat.
When Nicole Beck didn't see him for a long time, she grew concerned and wondered where he had gone. One day when getting gas, Beck saw Billy, an Athens native, sitting on the curb and made up her mind that this would be the day she stopped to speak with him. Dog biscuits and water in hand she introduced herself and engaged in an hour-long conversation with him.
“His story is just amazing, I didn't want to leave,” she said. “I probably would have stayed there, but I had to go to the post office. We had a full conversation. I told him I was going to do what I could do to help him.”
He never asked her for help, but she felt compelled by God to help him.
“It was God pulling me...I can't explain it.”
When Beck left she was overwhelmed and realized she needed help.
“I'm nobody, I needed resources,” she said.
So she started a Facebook support group to meet people interested in helping Simms. The group quickly grew to almost 400 members.
When people heard about Simms, a war veteran, being in need, compassion started to pour out and in one month the group helped him move into a better apartment. Through the help of donors they were able to furnish his apartment with donated items. He needed clothes, shoes and rides to doctors appointments at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for medical attention. Sam had some medical needs as well that Simms tried to address, but needed a little more help. When Dr. James Morton of Morton's Animal Clinic found out about Simms and Sam, he generously went “above and beyond” to help.
“Dr. James was a God-send for Sam,” Beck said.
Simms had budgeting issues due in part to not having access to the services available to him as a veteran. Beck met one of the group members Nancy Montgomery who works in a field dealing with VA and Social Security benefits. Montgomery saw the need and also felt compelled to help Billy. She helped him get important documents and the assistance he needed to be able to provide for his own needs.
“We didn't give Billy a hand out,” Montgomery said. “We gave him a hand-up.”
Life has been quite a ride for Simms. He is the youngest of 10 children and earned a GED from Henderson County Junior College after attending Athens High School. He served in the military as a teen, where he was shipped off to war. After returning from Vietnam, he was dropped off in California and had to start over from scratch. As a young African-American man in the 1970s who had just returned from a war that was highly controversial, it was no easy feat.
Simms traveled around doing odd jobs eventually making his way back to Athens. Over the years he was an electrician among other things, spent some time riding broncs and was a great bull rider. He did this professionally for years until an injury finally took its toll and he had to have surgery that has prevented him from working to this day. His back and hands are in chronic pain, but his service dog Sam helps him both physically and mentally.
Over the past month Nicole, Nancy and the core group of donors have grown an incredible bond with Simms. He had to give up so much in order to get where he is today, but he wanted change so badly that he was willing to do whatever was needed to create a better life for himself and Sam.
“I am so thankful,” he said.
Beck and Montgomery want people to know that they are just people who stopped and took the time to find out his story.
“The most important thing we want people to take away from this is that, when you see somebody on the corner, you may not know anything about them,” Montgomery said. “If you talk to someone for 10 minutes you can get a feel for whether a person is down on their luck and just needing a little help. Take your time, talk to them, find out what they need and see if you can get a group of people together and get them the help they need. ”
“It is not us, we didn't do anything that a million other people don’t have the capability of doing,” she said. “We just found someone that really touched our hearts. Nicole felt led by God, I do too. We pulled together, we got it out there, we got so much support from the community and we had a willing recipient.”
“I'm ready for a fresh start,” Simms told them.
“Our whole purpose was helping him stand on his own two feet,” Montgomery said. “Everybody in Henderson County has the ability to do the same thing and the need is there. ”
Simms is coming up on his 66th birthday in a few days and the occasion will be celebrated with a birthday party at Boogie's. The group is not asking for donations, but would appreciate cards and words of encouragement for their dear friend. Simms loves companionship and talking to people. As far as how you can help him these days, Nicole and Nancy say that a gift of your time and company is enough.
There are so many people in Henderson County that need someone to care. One doesn't have to look far, single parents, victims of domestic violence, veterans, the elderly, abused and neglected children are everywhere. The needs are out there and they are many. Find someone that you feel called to help and make a difference in someones life. Maybe you do not have the finances to help, but you can offer a ride to the doctor, a cooked meal, some clothing, work with what you have, but do what you can.
"Life is inherently risky. There is only one big risk you should avoid at all costs, and that is the risk of doing nothing.”
— Denis Waitley