Written by Charlie Peters
Each Sunday, one of Union Station Homeless Services’ most dedicated volunteers makes his way over to the organization’s Adult Center to serve food to the homeless. From his wheelchair, a grinning Keith Du Bois spends hours passing out food to the hungry and encouragement to the most desperate.
When the work is done, Du Bois, 51, heads to the place he’s called home for two decades: Centennial Place, a Union Station low-income housing facility for formerly chronically homeless adults, where he hosts a weekly breakfast mixer for his neighbors. Du Bois is a Union Station volunteer, event organizer and client.
Union Station volunteer and client Keith Du Bois will participate in the organization’s 5K race on March 21.
Du Bois aims to transition into another role on Saturday, March 21: race finisher at Union Station’s inaugural “Rockin’ for the Homeless” charity 5K Run/Walk at Arcadia County Park. Registration is open online for the public event, which includes a 1K walk for children and families, plus food and music. Proceeds from the event will support Union Station, the San Gabriel Valley’s largest social service agency that helps the homeless rebuild their lives.
Du Bois, who has cerebral palsy, laughed as he said he plans to max out the speedometer on his motorized wheelchair on the course.
“Keith is an outstanding example of so many folks we know and work with whose fortitude, courage and positive attitude lead them to become productive and successful members for the community,” said Union Station CEO Marv Gross, who will attend the 5K dressed as a rock star.
In the old YMCA building — which is now the 142-room Centennial Place — Du Bois’ positive attitude is on display every Friday at 10 a.m. That’s when Centennial Cafe, Du Bois’ brainchild of a coffee-and-doughnuts mixer for his neighbors, opens up. As residents gather in the old YMCA gymnasium to sit and chat, Du Bois’ creation is proof of the potential of homeless people if they’re given support.
“This provides us with a sense of community,” said Du Bois, who said he’s never considered himself to be homeless, in part because of Centennial Place’s support. “It feels inspiring to be part of something that’s bigger than yourself. All of us are a part of each other.”
Du Bois knows inspiration; he’s a living, breathing example of it. Subsisting on meals bought with food stamps while being raised by his grandmother in South Central Los Angeles, he was stricken with meningitis at age 3. The illness caused inflammation to his brain and spinal cord membranes, cutting off oxygen to his brain. The trauma resulted in cerebral palsy, a disorder that limits movement permanently and, in some cases, can negatively affect cognitive and speech functions.
But the brain disorder was only the beginning of a series of battles for Du Bois, who is African American. He said he faced discrimination — not only for being black, but also for not being “black enough,” depending on his surroundings. While studying at Asuza Pacific University, he said his roommates kicked him out of their apartment after discovering he was gay. According to Du Bois, he was also once fired him from a part-time job because of his sexual orientation.
Over time, Du Bois said, depression began to set in. After couch-surfing for a short while in 1995, a despondent Du Bois — with nowhere else to turn — found himself at Centennial Place. Because he felt shunned by society, he said, anger welled up in him, and he didn’t speak to his neighbors for five years.
But time began to heal some of the emotional wounds caused by his physical condition and discrimination. One night, Du Bois said he dreamed about having coffee with his neighbors. He pitched the idea to the then-director of Centennial Place three years ago, and Centennial Cafe has been a weekly happening ever since.
“For me, I’m not where I want to be in life. But I am where I am, so I have to make the best of it,” said Du Bois. “If I can’t be happy here, I’ll never be happy anywhere, whether it’s [at Centennial Place] or Beverly Hills. I have learned to be happy.”
Du Bois said part of that learning process can be credited to Union Station’s guidance ever since the organization took over Centennial Place five years ago. Case managers and staff have repeatedly tested his limits with a simple, motivating question: “Can you do that for yourself?”
The encouragement has led him to push his perceived limitations. The upcoming 5K charity fundraiser is one example. Du Bois has never completed a 5K but anticipates being inspired by the outpouring of community support at the event.
The 5K is being coordinated by Union Station’s Young Leaders Society, a volunteer group of Pasadena-area professionals committed to carrying out the nonprofit organization’s mission.
“Union Station was founded by volunteers, [and] for the past 42 years volunteers have been the mainstays of our efforts,” said Gross. “We simply could not serve the homeless as we do today without our dedicated volunteers. Their heartfelt generosity and contributions of time, energy and talent are absolutely invaluable.”
Union Station’s volunteers and staff have done more than provide Du Bois with a safe place to stay; he said that over the
long term, living at Centennial Place has made him reconsider what the idea of “home” truly means.
“I’m very happy,” he said. “Do I want a two-bedroom house with my own kitchen and my own backyard? Yes, I do. But am I content with what I have here? Absolutely.
“I think I can’t ever be happy with a house if I can’t be content with where I am now.”
What: 5K Run/Walk, 1K Kiddie Dash
When: Saturday, March 21, from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m.
Check-in begins at 7 a.m., opening ceremonies are at 8:15 and the runners take off at 8:30 a.m
Where: Arcadia County Park
(405 S. Santa Anita Ave.)
Cost: $40 for the 5K, $15 for the 1K Kiddie Dash
Additional details: Dress as your favorite rock star. During the closing ceremony, the “most rockin’” participant will be awarded with a prize. All participants will receive a T-shirt and medal. Local band Head Lite View will play, and a food truck will also be present. Event sponsorships are still available.
Proceeds will benefit Union Station Homeless Services.