Finding One's Worth Through Giving

Russ Mitchell brings us more good news, the tale of a man who changes lives for the better with broad strokes:

Peter Phelps gets to spend his days doing what he loves … creating art.

"I try to get in 40 hours a week, sometimes I get more, very rarely less than 40 hours," he said. "I really work at it. And I usually have 3, 4, 5 paintings all going at the same time."

Remarkable for any 81-year-old, perhaps … but more so for Phelps, who just recently was homeless, and dying.

"Well, I came to Boston to die, not to live," he told Mitchell.

Phelps is a former school teacher from Springfield, Mass., who has loved art and painting for four decades.

He is also a former smoker, and two years ago he was diagnosed with lung cancer. His doctor told him it was terminal.

But he found a clinical trial at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. He gave away everything he owned and enrolled in the trial.

"I came to Dana Farber with my clothes on my back," he said. "They said to me, 'Where are you staying tonight?' I looked at them astounded and said, 'I'm staying in your hospital.' 'We don't have a hospital.'

"I was thunderstruck, and they put me in a cab with some coupons and off I went to Shattack Shelter."

For 18 months, the Shattack Shelter for the homeless became the closest thing Phelps had to a home.

"Living in a shelter, they take away something that is very important. They don't mean to take it away, it just disappears: it's your own worth. People want to know that they have worth. It's very important: 'I am somebody.'"

Somebody, indeed … a survivor. Phelps's cancer went into full remission.

When asked what three words he would use to describe Phelps, Mark Hinderlie, president of Hearth, said, "Generous, brilliant and un-self-conscious."

Hearth is a non-profit organization in Boston that helps homeless elderly find places to live. They were able to place Phelps here in Spencer House, where Phelps now lives and paints.

But this is not where the story ends.

Phelps' paintings soon caught the attention of his new neighbors, many of whom now have his paintings in their apartments.

"After I did the first batch of paintings, maybe 40 of them, I put them out and I said to people, 'You want a painting, it's free, you come into the apartment, you pick out something.' And that's exactly what they did. And they enjoyed it.

"Everyone wanted flowers, my God, I never painted so many flowers in my life!" he laughed.

But painting for his neighbors wasn't enough. He wanted them involved. He began holding classes, teaching them how to paint, and how to make jewelry.

He worked with one woman making beaded jewelry: "There you are, young lady. You can try it on and see how it fits. Okay?"

"What do you think your students get out of a class like that?" Mitchell asked.

"Oh, God, the same thing! They struggle for their worth too. And this gives them an avenue of worth."

In September he donated 80 paintings to Hearth, the folks who helped find him his home. Hearth displayed them, and then sold them at auction, raising some six thousand dollars for the organization.

"And Phelps was there for every minute of the show, on the street in front of our facility saying, 'Hi, come on in, I'd like to show you my paintings,'" said Hinderlie.

With his new lease (on both an apartment and on life) Phelps plans to continue painting, and to continue to reach out to those who might need his help.

"You don't ask, 'Should I help you or not,' you just do it," he said. "You don't ask any questions, you just do it. You know what needs to be done, and that's what means giving back."

For more info:

  • Hearth Home
  • Rogerson Communities' Spencer House