Man behind The Van driven to help

Published 4 December 2017

Aaron Reddin carries his work with him.

He carries it in his mind -- thinking often about the people he wants to help.

He carries it in his heart -- holding onto the anger that helps motivate him to keep going just a little more each day.

He carries it on his body; tattoos in honor of the homeless friends he has made and one with the emblem of The Van, his nonprofit, decorate his arms. The yellow, red and black ink almost overlap with one another until the skin on his biceps is barely visible.

One of these tattoos was derived from a piece of Little Rock police crime scene tape. He picked up the scrap of yellow plastic tape when he first started The Van, a group that take supplies such as food, hygiene products and clothing to the area's homeless population.

At the time, Reddin, now 35, was also working at St. Francis House Ministries, another organization that helps the city's homeless. He would work from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. at St. Francis and then start driving around the city to take supplies to people living outside.

A winter storm swept through the city, and Reddin was scrambling to check on everyone he could, to make sure they had shelter. It was getting late, and he was ready for bed. He decided to skip one stop where a man was sleeping behind a downtown Little Rock restaurant.

"I was supposed to get by and check on that guy that night, and I did not," Reddin said. "He froze to death. Right there in his spot, he froze to death. It hit me like a ton of bricks."

The next day, Reddin picked up the piece of crime tape and carried it around with him until he got the tattoo, a physical reminder of the critical nature of his work.

However, lingering on things and slowing down isn't Reddin's style. The ex-Marine with long, tangled brown hair doesn't like wasting time with bureaucracy or politics. When he sees a need, he tries to fill it.

"Just do the work. Do what needs done. Be what people need us to be," he said of his organization.

Reddin carefully picks volunteers to go out in the vans each night. He has long conversations with them to make sure they have this same spirit, the same drive to help and to preserve the dignity of the homeless people that he espouses.

Mark Deal, who drives a van to North Little Rock on Thursday nights, said working with Reddin has changed the way he drives around town in his personal vehicle, that he is more apt to stop and talk to people who could be homeless.

Deal has been volunteering with The Van for about five years and has gotten to know Reddin well during that time.

He said one word to describe Reddin is "burdened."

"He's burdened because he takes homelessness personally," Deal said.

Reddin's personal life is also tied up in his work with The Van. He met his girlfriend, Tricia Williams, when she was volunteering at the nonprofit.

She started volunteering in The Van's garden, where they are growing turnips and clover plants right now to put some nitrogen back into the soil.

In 2013, they became an official couple and shook on the deal, Williams said with a laugh.

"I was once in a situation where if I wouldn't have a family or if I didn't have a support system, I would have been homeless," she said.

The two once spent five days driving around following the rock band Pearl Jam to concerts -- from Dallas and Houston to Oklahoma City.

But they have spent "89.2 percent" of their dates at The Van's warehouse in North Little Rock, working in the garden, restocking the rows of shelves or spending time together outside in what they call "Chicken Church," Williams said.

At Chicken Church, they pull the grill out near the coops where about 75 chickens live and cook food they pick from the garden, Williams said.

"He is very what you see is what you get," she said. "I think that's a lot of the draw, too. I think that's why a lot of people respect him, respect this."

Reddin said letting other people in on his project was hard; he is protective of his work.

He started out alone. He worked out of a 1994 Chevy Astro, donated in 2011. The original van, which Reddin said he wants to restore, now sits in the warehouse, dust coating the windshield and flames painted on the bumper.

The group has expanded to include Kathryn's House, a small long-term shelter for women and children. It is named for one of Reddin's friends who was shot to death in Little Rock while living on the streets.

Last year, Reddin also helped launch two similar nonprofits in Russellville and in Searcy -- The Russ Bus and the Mission Machine.

He hopes to continue to expand his work -- whether by helping more people in Little Rock or by teaching other cities how to do similar work.

Almost all of The Van's funds come from donations. One karaoke event Saturday at Stickyz Rock 'N' Roll Chicken Shack will benefit Reddin's work. Doors open at 8 p.m. and it costs $10 to attend.

Another event called "An Evening of Merrymaking," will have live music, food and photos with Santa Claus at 6 p.m. Dec. 13. Cold weather gear, men's warm clothing and gas cards can be used for admission.

Supply donations are stored in the warehouse where rows of shelving and bins hold everything from flashlights and tampons to coats. Reddin sorted through them one evening, noting the shortage of men's jeans in smaller sizes.

His night to drive is Wednesday, when he goes to some of the people he calls his best friends. They are homeless, and he said the best way he has found to help is by developing relationships with them.

"Most of my very best friends still sleep in a tent," Reddin said. "That's a big part of The Van ... we are intentionally relational as opposed to being programmatic."

A portion of each day is spent visiting these friends -- taking them to do laundry or get fitted for dentures.

"You just got to walk through it with people," he said.

High Profile on 12/03/2017