She saw a need, and she met it. Simple really, she says.
The 87-year-old woman from Coarsegold doesn't think about issues as other people's problems. For Phyllis Minnitte-Bilbo, the ills of society are only solved by "us."
That's why she recently wrote a $100 check to Fresno First Steps Home. She asked her daughter if she'd like to donate too. Her encouragement to "recruit one person" caught on. By the end of last month, she mailed six $100 checks to help a nonprofit that's committed to help end homelessness in Fresno.
She hopes the domino effect will keep going.
"Winter is coming, and you and I know we'll be cozy under our 15 blankets if that's what it takes, but they (homeless) are out on the street and they are freezing," Minnitte-Bilbo said. "How in good conscience can we enjoy our lives, knowing someone out there is suffering, that we can help without any real sacrifice on our part to better their lives?"
Minnitte-Bilbo was moved to action after reading about recent sweeps of homeless encampments in downtown Fresno. She believes emergency housing is crucial to ending homelessness. Fresno First Steps Home is a city-sponsored nonprofit that helps do that.
"I don't go looking for the problem, but if I'm aware and I don't do something about it, I feel somehow like I have let society down," she said.
Choosing to do nothing also has its costs. According to Fresno First Steps Homes, not helping solve the problem of homelessness costs the community nearly $80 million a year in public resources. Housing one homeless person can save taxpayers almost $12,000 annually.
"Let's face it, what it's going to take is money. That's the bottom line," Minnitte-Bilbo said. "We all owe a debt to society, and this is one way of paying that debt."
Minnitte-Bilbo feels personally responsible to fix what she views as wrong: "I've always had an interest -- and this is going to sound really hokey -- in serving justice."
Worried that a school bus could go off a dangerous curve in Coarsegold, she recently wrote letters and followed up with Madera County officials until reflective warning posts were installed.
At a high school reunion in Fresno in the late '80s, she realized many of her Japanese-American friends were not there -- they had never graduated because they were shipped off to internment camps during World War II. She organized graduation ceremonies for them that included many of her graduating classmates -- then in their 60s -- dressing up in their old caps and gowns to celebrate. The idea spread like "wildfire" throughout the country.
In a letter to The Fresno Bee recently, titled "EVERYONE MATTERS," Minnitte-Bilbo quoted Revolutionary War patriot Thomas Paine to talk about homelessness:
When "my poor are happy ... my streets (empty) of beggars ... then can that country boast of its constitution and its government."
Displacing homeless people without helping them find housing is just "kicking the can down the road," she said. Most homeless just need a leg up, she said.
But most of all, the solution must be love, she said.
"They are human beings, they are one of us," she said. "I'm not looking down at them, I am looking across at them."
She talked about the importance of nurturing children to better explain her point.
"We have to love them and encourage them, and only when we give them love and encouragement will they grow. That's what the sun does to our trees and our birds and our bees," she said. "If they are shown love and encouragement, that is all it takes, and this is all it's going to take. The homeless need to know they are loved as well."
Checks made payable to Fresno First Steps Home can be mailed to:
Mayor's Office City of Fresno 2600 Fresno St. Fresno, California 93721
Reach the reporter at (559) 441-6386 or firstname.lastname@example.org.