As with all the best stories, this one starts with a dog.
His name? Samson. What kind? A rare white Great Dane.
He lived with his owner, Todd Johnson, in a minivan parked in a strip mall near a fitness center in Keller. Todd, a member of the gym, used the facilities to shower before going to work.
One early morning, Patti Tavlian visited the gym. She saw the dog in the van. He looked terrible. He looked like he was almost dead, she recalls. “He could barely get around. The dog needed help.”
When she got home, she posted on her neighborhood’s NextDoor.com page:
“There is a homeless man that lives in his car,” she wrote. “He owns a large, white Great Dane who is horrifically malnourished and even has trouble walking at times... I contacted animal control and they said they would send someone to check.... The dog is in dire need of help.... Thank you neighbors.”
Neighbors would get involved, but maybe not the way you’d think. “It was like an onion,” said one neighbor, Deborah Gatzke, in an interview. “You hear the original story, but there’s always layers.”
The post blew up
An animal control officer showed up and learned the story.
Samson was dying of cancer.
One reason Todd, 47, lived in the van was because he spent his money on his dog, for expensive dog food, medical treatment and day care while Todd went to work.
The first layer of the onion was peeled away.
“We found out he had cancer,” Patti told me. “He wasn’t being mistreated. What we found out was that he was treated better than most people.”
What happened next? The post on NextDoor blew up. Dozens of neighbors took an interest. They began organizing to find Todd and Samson an apartment. They donated money and food.
Todd was bewildered by the sudden attention. He didn’t visit the NextDoor website, so he wondered what was happening.
“I’d wake up, and there’d be dog food by my door. I knew something was going on, but I didn’t know what it was.”
“Am I some kind of meme or something?” he asked his donors.
“Apparently everyone knew what was going on but me for the longest time.”
They raised $3,000
This could have happened in any town. Something about a sick dog and a homeless man who cared for him pings people in their hearts.
Deborah, who took on the role of lead organizer, told me up to 50 neighbors got involved in the Todd/Samson project.
They raised close to $3,000 and worked with the Mutt Shack, a doggie day care in North Richland Hills and the Euless-based Trinity GAP Rescue.
Everybody liked the dog. “Super-sweet and good with all the other dogs,” says Steffenie Vela, president of the animal rescue.
Everybody liked Todd, too. “He’s not a sweet talker,” Deborah says. “He’s not a con man. He’s a nice guy with a big heart.”
Samson needed cancer surgery. The donations paid for it at a Colleyville animal hospital. But during his recovery, Samson couldn’t live in a van. So neighbors rallied and raised enough money to put Todd and Samson in a Motel 6 for a couple of weeks.
Todd tells me he is extremely grateful for what he calls “the NextDoor ladies.”
“I’ll tell you now. The dog is what got the attention. It wasn’t me.”
Yeah, dogs do that.
Where to live?
The focus of the group turned to getting the man and dog an apartment.
The group found an affordable Denton apartment and offered to put up a security deposit and the first month’s rent. With a new job, Todd could take over monthly rent payments, right?
Turns out Todd doesn’t want an apartment. He likes living in his van, although he says he wishes he could upgrade it.
Todd’s unwillingness to change his residence was, at first, baffling to the NextDoor ladies. But it caused them to think.
“Who am I to say that my dream of living in a house or an apartment should be his dream?” Deborah asks. “It wasn’t his dream.”
Todd couldn’t say enough thanks. He was very appreciative.
No one expected what happened next. Samson was recovering well from surgery. But in early August, the dog died.
The group paid for end-of-life expenses. Samson, who was 10, was cremated.
“It’s lonely now,” Todd says.
With Samson gone, the group didn’t pull away. The focus shifted to helping Todd find a job. But he was a bit stubborn about what kind of job he wanted. He also got pulled over by Arlington police and was found to be driving without a license. He spent a night in jail.
“If we had known all the facts up front, would we have done anything differently?” Deborah asks. “Maybe.”
There was $1,200 left from donations. Deborah would give him some on a regular basis for food and gas.
“Finally, we just had to do some tough love,” she says. The group gave him $400 and returned the rest to the animal rescue group.
“There’s nothing more we could do as a group.”
What it means
Even though it was the plight of the dog that got everyone’s attention, after the dog was gone, the NextDoor ladies didn’t drop Todd.
“It’s just the character of those people,” he says.
Todd now lives in his van in Rockwall, waiting for a new job to start as a furnace operator in a glass manufacturing plant. He says he has no plans to get another dog.
“I’m broke,” he says. “I’m out of gas, out of money, out of everything. But it will work out. It always does.”
The Mutt Shack, the doggie day care where Samson often stayed, closed last week for unrelated reasons.
Deborah sums up the meaning for her: “Everybody doesn’t know what to do, but as a group we can all do a little and do big things.”
Patti, who started this with her complaint, says: “With everything bad going on in the world, this happened, and this at least gives you hope that good people are out there.”
I agree. We live in a world where we’re bombarded with problems, and we can’t solve them. But when we see something like this in our neighborhood, a story of a man and his sick dog, we can make a difference. It makes us feel better about this world.