Connie Herndon's heart broke as she took her first steps into the filth-stricken Dixon home of 75-year-old veteran Edward Donahue. She could see the elderly man was entirely alone and lost, trapped in a collapsing home with no running water, electricity, plumbing, or phone. His only family and caregiver was gone, leaving him nearly blind, almost deaf, physically disabled, and in a home overtaken by dozens of dogs and decades of trash.
As volunteers for the Pulaski County Humane Society, Connie and her husband, 1st Sgt. Phil Herndon, were called to the home that January day for the sole purpose of taking some of the dogs off the property and into better care.
But Connie quickly realized that this man needed assistance beyond animal care. He was nearly immobile, barely able to move using a walker, unable to drive, and imprisoned in a home that reeked of urine, feces, and the thick smell of a wood-burning stove used as the only source of heat for the home, with no place to go.
“The man had just lost his wife of 44 years, I couldn't just leave him alone,” Connie said.
And day after day, Connie strapped on a safety mask and headed down the street to bring Donahue food and help clean the house up.
Connie, her husband, and several other Humane Society volunteers, spent weeks clearing the home out to improve Donahue's living conditions. The crew quickly managed to accumulate 2.4 tons of trash from the home.
“That was really only a fraction of what was there,” Connie said.
Connie found herself spending up to 80 hours a week with Donahue, and got to know a lot about him.
She learned that he served in the U.S. Army for 12 years, during both the Korean and Vietnam wars, and that he likes to be called Don.
Connie learned how the house got to be in such ruined conditions. His wife, Marion, who had made her living off of buying and reselling items from garage sells, and accumulated years of unsold items. Donahue had trouble finding work after injuring his hip years ago, and the couple struggled financially for years.
Marion was also an animal lover and had a hard time turning a dog away. The Donahue's property was located near a spot where many animals were left abandoned. And even when the Donahues could hardly afford to feed themselves, they would take in dogs and feed them first.
“I found receipts where they would pay around $200 a month in dog food alone,” Connie said. “It just goes to show what a good caring person she was.”
Connie spent weeks inside Donahue's home, clearing out and scrubbing down the kitchen and living room, making sure that if all other options failed, he would a place with livable conditions.
Because the conditions were so unsanitary, Connie got sick in the weeks she spent cleaning the house.
“I started getting sinus infections when I started going over there, even when I wore a mask,” she said. “I had to go on antibiotics twice.”
She had hoped that Social Services would soon takeover and remove him from the home, but because Donahue was mentally stable, the organization couldn't relocate him.
So she took it on herself to call on friends and other Humane Society volunteers to help Donahue. And also helped him get his papers straight so he can receive Veterans Affairs (VA) benefits.
Several members of the community donated household items and commodities for him, including a bed.
“There was nowhere for him to go. Things like going through the VA nursing home takes a lot of time,” Connie said.
“So Jim and Mindy Warren offered for him to live in their garage apartment while he figures things out.”
Connie also said they have a friend willing to purchase his property, which will help him pay his mortgage.
Pulaski County Humane Society President Kim Fuhr witnessed firsthand how Connie took charge and gave hope to a man who most people would consider to be hopeless.
“She put herself in a situation where most people wouldn't touch,” Fuhr said. “People would pop in and out, but no one really stayed and helped like she did. She really took charge of the situation and made sure his needs were met.
Fuhr nominated Connie for KOLR 10's “HomeTown Hero” award for her not only her day-to-day dedication to the Humane Society as a foster care provider and board member, but specifically for her relentless commitment to Mr. Donahue.
“I also felt that the hometown heroes nomination was fitting for her because Mr. Donahue was practically Connie's neighbor and she didn't even know he was living there. It goes to show you don't know the people right in your community who are in need,” Fuhr said.
Connie will be recognized this week on the program, but wanted to ensure that this endeavor took a whole team effort.
“I was overwhelmed by the amount of people who were willing to help out,” Connie said. “Everyone did a little bit of something to help this man.”
A hopeful ending
Connie said that Donahue is now under the guardianship of the public administrator, and she sees him a couple times a week. He now has glasses, a hearing aid, and they are in the process of getting him VA benefits.
“He's really doing a lot better now. He's much happier and breathing much better,” she said.
Donahue is now living in his apartment at the Warren’s home, with the two dogs he kept, named Max and Foxy.
Connie's Hometown Hero story will be featured on KOLR 10 at 6 p.m. tonight.