With a six figure job in print media advertising at the Detroit News and Free Press, it seemed like Nahid Ayoub had it all. Or so she thought. But a friendship she formed with a homeless veteran in 2009 would cause her to reevaluate her life and untap her true calling.
Every morning, the Dearborn resident would take I-75 to get to work downtown, exiting at Howard Street in Detroit. There, a homeless man frequently sat in a wheelchair on the corner. Initially, she ignored him.
“To me, he was invisible,” Ayoub says. “I had that mentality like a lot of us do. ‘Oh, they’re bums, they’re drug addicts, they’re alcoholics. They deserve this.’”
To avoid eye contact with the veteran, Ayoub would often speed down the street, sometimes running through a red light. One day when exiting the freeway, the man used an obscene hand gesture towards her. Angry, Ayoub jumped out her vehicle and yelled at him, telling the man to get a job. The veteran then removed a blanket from his lap, revealing his amputated legs.
At that moment, Ayoub says, she felt like “the lowest of the low of mankind.” After that day, her feelings on the homeless man changed, and she began visiting him everyday before work.
Ayoub and the veteran, whose name is Mike Alston, became friends. Their morning ritual was something she looked forward to, often bringing coffee and bagels. Ayoub says Alston never asked for money once, that he just wanted “hugs, smiles, and a little compassion.”
“Actually, I didn’t do him the favor, he did me the favor,” she says. “I learned that it’s not all about the money, and it doesn’t take money to make you happy. Here you have a homeless man with no legs, sitting on the corner of the expressway who can crack jokes, and yet, we have homes, we have luxury. We have it all, and we complain.”
Meanwhile, Ayoub lost interest in advertising and left her job with the Detroit daily newspapers in 2012. Inspired by Alston, she began working with the homeless.
That year, Ayoub attended her first feeding with a friend in Detroit. The next week, she came back to the shelter with food she made at home. From there, Ayoub went to more feedings, eventually creating her organization, Project Dignity Outreach
(PDO). By finding volunteers on social media, Ayoub was able to host her first feeding in Hamtramck. Called A Day with Dignity, she and volunteers served breakfast, lunch, and dinner to the homeless, while also providing them with clothes, toys, and other items.
Since then, Ayoub has shifted her focus to Detroit, saying she feels like the homeless there are “shunned.” Every Sunday, PDO hosts feedings on 3rd St., outside of the Neighborhood Service Organization’s Tumaini Center. The organization also provides feedings during the holidays, such as Thanksgiving on the Street.
PDO usually has about 20 turkeys donated, which are then taken to Habib’s Cuisine in Dearborn to be cooked and stuffed. On the day before Thanksgiving, Ayoub and her team travel to various places across Detroit, such as the Rosa Parks Transit Center, Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries, and Genesis House. Ayoub says PDO was able to feed 3,000 people in 2015.
One of the PDO semis that contributed to hurricane relief
Recently, the organization’s efforts have included hurricane relief. Last month, PDO partnered with Hype Athletics, the Lebanese American Medical Society, Greenland Market, and others to collect items for victims of Hurricane Harvey. For almost two weeks, PDO and 50 volunteers collected and organized donations such as water, food, toiletries, and medical supplies. The items were then transferred to two semi trucks, one of which was donated by trucking company, Pahoa Express. The semis traveled to Houston, where the items were distributed to various churches and mosques.
“I don’t know how we did it,” says Ayoub, “but everyone pitched in. We pulled it off.”
“It was a breathtaking moment watching those two trucks get loaded and take off for Texas,” adds Amanda Beydoun, PDO’s volunteer coordinator. “We actually saw how collectively we came together in such a short amount of time. We didn’t even have a plan, we just threw this whole thing together.”
The organization recently held another drive for those affected by hurricanes Irma and Maria.
“You can take everything away from a homeless person, but you cannot take away their dignity," says Ayoub. “This is why we are called Project Dignity Outreach. When people stand in line, it’s ‘Thank you, ma’am,’ ‘God bless you.’ To us, that’s the payback, that’s the reward.”