SPECIAL OFFER: - Limited Time Only!
(The ad below will not display on your printed page)
Close to a dozen kids crowd around three giant tubs of ice cream in the cafeteria of the Orange County Rescue Mission, in Tustin, California. With bowls and spoons in hand, they eye their favorite flavor and the canister of whipped cream on a nearby table (will anyone notice if they squirt it in their mouth?). The children eventually form a line. When they finally make their way to the front they find they're being served by other kids -- Ben, Bekah, Abigail, and Noah Loecken -- under the watchful eyes of their parents, Jay and Beth. Each of the Loeckens wears a T-shirt that reads "THE ARK TOUR." One 9-year-old boy who's been ogling the tub of vanilla asks 10-year-old Abigail what her shirt means. She says, "The ARK is the name of the RV my family lives in, and the tour just means we ride all over serving people." They consider each other for a minute, until he breaks the silence. "I'll take two scoops, please."
The Loeckens may not live in a shelter but they are, for most intents and purposes, homeless themselves. They sold their 4,500-square-foot home in an upscale Atlanta suburb in April 2008 and moved into a 320-square-foot RV. Since then the six of them have spent their days traveling from state to state committing what they call "acts of random kindness" (thus the "ARK" moniker), helping people who are less fortunate than they are. They've "been of service" from Panama City Beach, Florida, to Seattle, and have dished out food at dozens of homeless shelters, handed out homemade care packages to street people, dusted off donated paperbacks at charitable book banks, and even volunteered to clean cages at local humane societies. The Loeckens have documented their journey -- and the stories of people they meet -- on their Web site and blog, thearktour.org, and now hundreds of curious readers track the family's charitable acts.
So what caused this radical shift from four bedrooms and three baths to one vehicle with a tiny stall shower? In a word: Africa. Two years ago everyone but little Noah went on a charity mission organized by the Loeckens' community church (it also included six other families) to one of the poorest neighborhoods near Nairobi, Kenya.
"Africa rocked our world," says Beth, 40, who was a stay-at-home mom. She and Jay, 42, a mortgage broker, had been living like many other American families up until that point: working too much on weekdays, shopping too much on weekends, and amassing a whole lot of stuff they didn't need. "We saw families with nothing, living in huts with a dirt floor and no beds. But they still had joy. We've always known joy doesn't come from what you have, but somehow, over the course of our lives, we'd lost that." The Loeckens agree that all the time and energy they put into chasing the American dream of "bigger is better" never felt satisfying. "We were unfulfilled," says Jay. "But in Africa we felt a sense of purpose."
After the family returned to Alpharetta, Georgia, that summer, Jay, Beth, and the kids had countless discussions about how they could continue serving the needy. The family volunteered at a rescue mission in Atlanta, and Jay and Beth passed out provisions to the homeless living under bridges. But they wanted to do more. That's when Beth and Jay recalled an old dream they had of traveling the country in an RV. They coupled that thought with their new purpose committing acts of kindness. But what about their four kids? Beth had always homeschooled, so disrupting their education was not the issue. It was the idea of leaving everything -- and everyone they knew -- behind that was tough to grasp. "I didn't want to go at first," says Bekah, 12. "We'd be so far from all my friends." Ben, 14, and Abigail, 10, were excited about traveling but had misgivings about not having their own bedrooms. And Noah, 6, fretted mostly about leaving his toys behind. But after a few months of discussion and prayer, the Loeckens unanimously agreed: "Let's do it!"
In short order Jay and Beth sold the house, bought an RV, and became best friends with their GPS. They closed on the sale of their home and hit the road just in time to avoid the housing crash. Though Jay's income has dropped during the economic slowdown, the family's financial future would have been downright bleak if they still had a mortgage of their own to pay. To the Loeckens, it's one more sign that choosing four wheels over brick and mortar wasn't so crazy after all.
There are just two rooms in the ultra-compact 2006 Monaco Knight that the Loeckens now live in. The front area serves as the kitchen, living room, dining area, and classroom (Beth continues to homeschool), not to mention one bedroom for all four kids. Abigail and Bekah sleep on the foldout couch, Noah gets the love seat and Ben beds down under the kitchen table on blow-up mattress. "Just guess how many times I've woken up and hit my head," he deadpans. The kids each have one small overhead cubby instead of a closet; according to Ben, Abigail's is the messiest. Otherwise the RV is pristine and hyperorganized -- Beth has labeled every Rubbermaid container in it. She and Jay have the back bedroom, which doubles as an office and laundry room (the compact washer and dryer are mere footsteps from the computer and desk where Jay runs the family's Web site, thearktour.org, and his mortgage business). Their motorcycle and their SUV are hitched to the back. "It's kind of nice to drive something that's not your home once in a while," Jay jokes.
But the laughs didn't come as easily during those first weeks, when the family struggled to adjust. Bekah did indeed miss her friends, Ben longed for privacy, and Jay missed just about everything associated with life outside the camper. "At points I was like, 'Let's just stop this crazy ride and buy another house,'" he says. "It usually happened when the electricity went out, the hookups weren't working, or I had to deal with dumping the sewage." Jay, who had never driven an RV before, also had to master the arts of backing the 40-foot-long vehicle out of driveways, parallel parking, and merging onto highways.
The payoff for their sacrifices, big and small, is clear when the family mixes with the kids and adults at the Orange County Rescue Mission. After shaking a lot of rough, worn hands on their arrival, the Loeckens dish up lunch for those who live in the mission and lead a prayer in the center of the cafeteria. They also recruit the shelter's kids for an after-lunch game of catch (with balls they donated), play with the babies and toddlers (Abigail is clearly in love with an 18-month-old girl in a sparkly tutu), and talk to fellow parents about their kids' picky palates. There is a natural give-and-take here: The Loeckens lend a sense of normalcy to families whose lives have been turned upside down by addictions, financial hardships, and abuse at the hands of a spouse or boyfriend, and the mission's residents reignite that sense of purpose the Loeckens discovered in Africa. "The children seemed so happy to have our family there, their precious faces lit up," Beth wrote that day in her blog.
"In a situation like this," says Beth, pointing back toward the mission from inside the RV, "people are getting help and they're headed uphill. So it's not as emotionally hard." It's the more dire situations, where the circumstances appear more hopeless than redeemable, that really get to Beth, such as the times she and Jay delivered food to men, many of them addicts who didn't want to abide by a shelter's rules, who lived under bridges. "That ripped my heart out. I cried," she says.
The family's mission to serve has not only challenged their emotional fortitude but it has also tested their courage. The Loeckens have found themselves in places that most of us do our best to avoid. So how do Jay and Beth determine the difference between a dicey underpass and a safe one or a rough shelter and an accessible one? They are, after all, in an unfamiliar city every other week, bringing their own children into unknown places. "We are parents first," says Beth. "We would never put our kids in a bad situation. It's good for them to see what's out there, but we also need to protect them from harm." The Loeckens learned to check 211.org, a Web site that lists contacts for social services nationwide, and then locked into a network of people who do the very thing they do: serve. They often hook up with a ministry or locals who are already doing charitable work in the area and then work alongside, chipping in their own best efforts.
And as it turns out, networking locally has provided the Loeckens with more than just opportunities to help out. Aid workers, churchgoers, and everyday people who've followed the ARK blog have provided a constant stream of places to park, hookups for water -- even power supplies for the family's RV. Recently a parishioner in Irvine, California, got his company to service the family's broken generator for free. ("That would have been at least a $700 bill," says Jay.) They are more than grateful for the help...and access to utilities. "When we get a hookup to electric and water in an RV park or at a church, we're like, 'Yes! We can take a long shower!'" says Beth.
By now the Loeckens have learned not to take anything for granted, including each other. As devout nondenominational Christians, they pray as a family daily and say that Jesus is the ultimate guide in their journey. "There's a verse in the Bible that says to consider the poor," says Jay. "What does that mean? Just handing them a care package and saying okay, great, go on your way? We thought maybe it meant going and spending time with them, getting to know them." There is no proselytizing on the ARK tour, but Jay does lead a prayer at most rescue missions he visits, and during a short talk after lunch at the Orange County shelter he said, "I believe if Jesus were here today, this is where he'd be." His comments are met with several "amens."
Though compelled and nourished by their faith, the Loeckens have discovered that there are limits to how much of themselves they can give. And yet those limits are often pushed to extremes. In addition to helping the needy, the family also pitches in to help their hosts. For example, if they are parked in the Smiths' driveway and using their power supply, Beth and the kids might help organize their garage or clean out an old shed. "I'll admit that sometimes it's nonstop and challenging to balance family time -- going on bike rides, playing games," says Beth. "We love serving but also have had to learn how to have some time as a family -- to not give so much away that we have no time left for one another. If we put serving above family, we start getting crabby. And if we don't show acts of random kindness to one another, then we're hypocrites when we convey that message to the world."
It's a tough balancing act, but the Loeckens are working to master it. And they have no plans to end their journey anytime soon. They'll be heading south to San Diego in the morning, then on to Arizona. But for now they're wrapping up a game of softball with five boys at the mission. The last batter slides into home and Jay praises all the kids for a game well played. The boys hang on his every word -- a father figure is rare in these parts. Tall and lanky, Ben swoops down and picks up the most challenging kid of the bunch, a wiry 6-year-old. He twirls him in the air, the boy stretching out his arms like an airplane and giggling. He is happy. Ben dips him low, and the boy snaps out of his high: "Don't drop me," he says apprehensively. Ben laughs and pulls him back up in the air. "I'd never let you down like that," he says. "Never."
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, August 2009.