By: Lindsey Langley
More than 3 years ago, I moved to Katie Hill here in Northeast Nashville. I began noticing a man walking down Fern Avenue everyday. He had a smooth walk about him. Like a Michael Jackson walk. He sometimes carried a bucket to pick up trash and would leave the bucket at the end of the street. When we walked back at the end of his work day, he would pick the bucket back up again and pick the new trash that had accumulated. That was Ellis.
After about a year of trying to talk to Ellis, he finally stopped in front of my home as I was weedeating one afternoon and asked, "What's your dog's name?". I responded and told him Princess. Ellis just smiled and kept walking. I was just so happy he started talking to me.
Over the next couple of years, i began wondering more about Ellis, and we would share a bit more chatter as he walked by daily. I am an avid "trash picker-upper", so i had immediate respect for him keeping our neighborhood clean. I also had grown close with a few of the families that lived on the Hill. In May of last year little Keith Vaughn was killed on his 5th birthday as he crawled under a car searching for his ball. During the tragedy, I became close with the Bowden Family.
The Bowden's had lived on Katie Hill for nearly 50 years in a modest small home at the end of Fern Avenue. Mack Bowden and his wife raised 6 kids and many grand kids here on Katie Hill...... and Ellis.
60 years ago, Eddie "Ellis or Elrod" Johnson was born in Tunica, MS. I asked him last month in his hospital room, " How is the world did you get to Nashville?" He said, " I started walking. I got so far one day and it got too dark to turn back, so i just keep walking and ended up in Nashville." He then told me that Mack Bowden picked him up on the interstate and the rest is history. I chuckled to myself because that is exactly how i remember Ellis on the hill .... walking.
Ellis ended up living in the Bowden's garage and working for Mr. Bowden's tree service company for nearly 40 years. He became a part of their family. Although Ellis was black, and the Bowden's were white, they never saw each other as "different". As a matter of fact, if you ask Ellis what color he is, he will tell you he is a white man. I laughed out loud when I heard that story about him. Anyone and everyone that knew Ellis around here said he was a kind spirit and never hurt a soul. Although I heard many stories of him being picked on, verbally assaulted, and even physically beat up from bullies around the neighborhood. Everyday when i saw him walking and I asked how he was, he would always say, "Fantastic". I later learned that "Fantastic" is Ellis's favorite word.
Ellis was a hard worker. He worked day after day doing manual labor all around Nashville. He was a handyman. He may not be able to read, write, and had education of a 5th grader, but he could fix your lawn mower in 5 minutes when it would take the average man 5 days. I am no medical expert, but after having many conversations with Ellis, I would consider him to be undiagnosed Autistic and simply just a beautiful mind.
Fast Forward to March 2016 ...
Nashville is growing. The housing market is booming. Katie Hill is the next " hot spot" for real estate. A realtor on Facebook posted a video recently saying " They are just tearing these houses down and building new ones everywhere on Fern, come now and check this out!"
Among those houses being torn down was The Bowden's. Although they were residents on the hill for 50 years, crime was high on the hill recently so they were not opposed to starting a new life in Donelson, and the builder gave the family plenty of time to secure a new home. Yet the memories made on Katie Hill would always be a part of their hearts as they packed up their life and moved to their new home, Ellis's garage and shelter for 40 years was about be torn down ..... and he had never known anything but living on the hill. Penny Bowden, Mack's daughter, shared a story with me not too long ago about how their family moved to Kentucky for the summer years ago. They brought Ellis with them. Ellis did not like Kentucky and missed home, so he walked over 100 miles back to the hill.
This is his home. Katie Hill is all he knew his entire life. So the Bowden's reached out to me to see if there was anything i could do to help him find a home. I began researching tiny homes. My heart ached for Ellis. Where will he go? In March of 2016, the house and the garage where he lived were torn down. Last we had known, Ellis was sleeping in a tent on Weakley Avenue and wherever he could find a spot to lay his head. Ellis didn't like really living inside. He liked being outside. He loved Katie Hill.
Ellis hadn't been seen in a while. The Bowden's called me to see if I had seen him walking around any...... Nope. He was last seen April 20th, and apparently a few people had seen Ellis. Rumors spread that he had been hit by a car and died. So we called Skyline Medical, and they stated he had been treated and released. After receiving that news, we all suspected to see him out walking around, but there was still no sign of Ellis. So the Bowden's decided to call Skyline back and they stated they made a mistake and gave out the wrong information. He was treated, but TRANSPORTED to Centennial Hospital to have major surgery.
On the night of April 20th, Ellis was walking along the side of Weakley Avenue around 2am, and he was hit by a car. Hit and left to die. Apparently some neighbors had heard him screaming and called the paramedics. Skyline transported Ellis to Centennial after realizing that he needed major esophagus surgery. His esophagus has ruptured and fluid had filled his lungs. We were told he had little to no change of living. After spending 7 days alone in the hospital, we were finally able to get to him. To love him. To give him hope. To share his first smile with him after living through such a dramatic experience.
Ellis began to respond to us. He made it through surgery, but not without a fight. I can't begin to tell you how great the staff at Centennial Medical Center have been with Ellis. Ellis has no insurance, and could have easily been treated as the homeless black man. I demanded everyone know his story and to treat him like the honorable man he is, and they did. Little did we know his fight was just beginning. The medication that Ellis was having to take to keep his blood pressure down cause his hands and feet to literally swell to the size of super hero hands and feet. They. Were. SCARY. After a while though, they shrunk up to nothing and almost withered away, which was just as terrifying. He began smiling and gradually began talking. The esophagus surgery was MAJOR and he was on a feeding tube for at least 2 months. As he began to talk, he could tell us a little bit of what happened, but could not remember who it was that hit him and drove off. During it all, he still said he was "fantastic". His positive attitude and physical improvement was quite remarkable.
The doctors then informed us that Ellis was most likely going to lose both of his feet and most likely all of his fingers. We were all devastated. Yet, Ellis just wanted to know when he was going to get out. He still was fantastic. He really just wanted to get his hands and feet, learn how to use them, and get out on the streets again to work.
Ellis had been through so much, and remained positive. Those of us helping Ellis had been going through a lot too. Ellis has no insurance. The hospitals did everything they could to help Ellis, but it takes months to even get an appointment with Social Security or disability. The hospital would not release him with out a follow up plan, and we had nowhere for him to go, or the funds to cover everything he needs. What did we do? We prayed, and we still pray every day that the needs for Ellis will be met. in June, Ellis's legs were removed below the knee, left hand fingers, and half of the fingers on his right hand.
Ellis spent about 3 weeks recovering at Centennial hospital post op. After weeks of trying to find a place for him to go, Ellis was admitted to Summit Medical Rehab facility with a brand new pair of legs from the folks at Nashville Prosthetics and Daryl Farler ( we are so blessed for this amazing man coming into Ellis's life! ).
July has been a great month for Ellis. Challenging, but nothing Ellis can't handle. He was admitted to Summit Medical Rehab this month, and you would think Ellis was born to be an amputee marathon runner! The first day he stood up and walked 50 feet in his new legs. He celebrated his 61st birthday and ready for his new life. He was released from Skyline Medical and is currently living with Penny Bowden Sain as he learns how to navigate his new life and heal completely. Everyone that has encountered Ellis falls in love with him and his ability to fight and tenacity to get better. When most people would be depressed and down at the situation they are in, he is ready for a new life. He said he is ready to cut the grass again and get to work.
It has been extremely difficult for many of us, especially Penny, who is now caring for Ellis full time... but nothing in comparison to the difficulty Ellis has overcome. Ellis has no insurance yet, and Ellis has no permanent place to call home. and this is where we need the support from the Nashville community.
Part of Project NENA's mission is to create inclusive restorative communities, and Ellis belongs on Katie Hill. This is where he wants to be, and where he deserves to live the rest of his life. Just because growth is occurring in our city, does not mean we are allowed forget about those who were here first. You hear about equitably housing and communities, but do they really exist? Can different worlds truly exist or are we just gentrifying every single community and forgetting about live, people, and humanity? This is an opportunity to show what true LOVE is and the power of LOVE.
Project NENA originally had a plot of land to place a community garden in honor of Keith Vaughn, and we still plan on creating this, but we have to meet the immediate needs of the community, and we feel like we can still put a garden on the land AND build a home for Ellis. We want to build the micro/mini home that we originally wanted to build for him before this tragedy took over his life.
Of course we have immediate needs for Ellis as well. We need help paying for his medicine, clothing, food, and basic necessities, but ultimately we want him back on the hill where he wants to be. He is part of the heartbeat of Katie Hill, and without him, this neighborhood is not the same. We have a commitment from a builder interested in building him a home, but he will still need support in so many different areas for years to come, and we want to make sure he has every opportunity in the world to get back on the hill and walk the streets of Katie Hill and Northeast Nashville like he has for years.
please consider giving to Project NENA to help support the needs of Ellis. We are small organization. We do not have the funds to do this alone and we need the support of this city in order to make things happen for folks like Ellis.
Please click the donate button and be sure you write a note to support Ellis on Katie Hill. Your donations are tax deductible and appreciated so much!