Audrey Galex saw a mattress one day on the side of the road, and a funny thing happened.
It wasn’t the first time. No, she saw discarded mattresses on the regular.
On this particular day, oh a couple of years ago, something moved inside of her. Galex, 61, of Atlanta stopped her car, got out and snapped a picture with her phone, then another.
First a wide shot, an “establishing shot of where it was located,” she said, to offer context.
“Then I just kinda let the spirit move me,” she told me recently.
Galex, who just happens to hail from a long line of mattress manufacturers, was suddenly seeing more than their raw materials — metal, fabric, wood and foam. She saw a metaphor for the human longing for home and shelter.
To her, the discarded, abandoned mattress on a curb, and a person who is homeless standing on a curb, represented the shameful disconnect between the need for a home and the lack of affordable housing.
Then one day, Galex, for some reason, decided to post her photos on Facebook, and well, wouldn’t you know it, people started responding, texting photos of abandoned mattresses they’d seen, too.
“I’d ask where did you see it,” she told me. “Would you mind if I added it to my Facebook page?”
People from all over the world — Panama, France, Greece even — obliged. Some, including a few relatives, sent videos to accompany the images.
People were having fun with it, but really, for Galex, the exercise was an invitation to the rest of us.
Not only did she want us to witness the beauty in what most people might consider only trash, she wanted us to ask ourselves how best to help those who desperately needed a place to lay their heads, a place to call home.
That’s a big question.
Over half a million people go homeless on a single night in the United States, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Approximately 65% are found in homeless shelters, and the other 35% — just under 200,000 — are found unsheltered on our streets, on sidewalks, in parks, cars or abandoned buildings.
Meanwhile, over 350,000 sheltered homeless people are found in emergency shelters and transitional housing programs.
In Georgia, 9,499 people are homeless on any given night.
That’s a big problem.
As an avid volunteer and longtime journalist who for a week lived in Atlanta’s Open Door community to try to understand homelessness, Galex knew those numbers and had crossed paths with a good many of those people.
And so about a year ago, she was having a conversation with her life coach about how she might use the images she’d taken to benefit the Initiative for Affordable Housing Inc., a private nonprofit that provides transitional housing and social services for homeless and low-income families in the Atlanta area.
After responding to a barrage of questions from her coach, Galex set out to find galleries that would allow her to put on a show and donate all proceeds to the housing initiative.
“I emailed 10 galleries, maybe more,” she said. “Two responded.”
Coincidentally, one of them, Galleria Regina in Decatur’s Oakhurst neighborhood, had one night available — Jan. 10, Galex’s 61st birthday.
Of the 30 images she displayed that night, eight of them have sold. Counting cash donations, she has raised more than $1,000 toward her efforts.
Galex could hardly believe it. For most of her life, she’d done everything she could to avoid work with mattresses, vowing to never join the family business in her hometown of Rock Island, Illinois.
Instead, she’d take a circuitous route to journalism. She studied international relations in Cairo, lived with the Bedouin in Petra, Jordan, and hitchhiked through Syria. She worked on John Anderson’s presidential campaign in 1980 and considered a career in politics.
She ended up in journalism school before finding jobs in television, first in her hometown and Kansas City, Missouri, then with CNN in Jerusalem. In 1987, she and her husband, Dave Schechter, relocated to Atlanta with the network. Galex became a mom and soon co-founded Roots & Wings Life Stories to record family stories. She did storytelling, got involved in interfaith initiatives, worked as a volunteer director at a nursing home and finally landed a job at the AIB Network as program content manager.
What she didn’t appreciate growing up, watching her father run a mattress business and visiting “the shop” frequently, she could see clearly now.
“My father’s family manufactured mattresses for three generations,” she said. “Mattresses supported my dreams, my travels, my education, and watching my dad taught me what it means to be a real leader. If a load of mattresses needed to be driven to Marshalltown, Iowa, in a driving snowstorm, my dad did it.”
Perhaps it’s no coincidence, the mattress project merges her parents’ sense of activism. Her father, also a former mayor, and city councilman, had served on the Rock Island Housing Authority, and conversations around the kitchen table about housing were common. Her mother, an artist, believed in the power of the arts to uplift the spirit and helped organize an initiative after the couple retired to South Florida to bring colorful canvases to hospitals, shelters and clinics.
“I may have abandoned the actual running of the business, but the values — hard work, pitching in, and helping others in need — are what drives me,” Galex said.
Beginning Thursday, she will have a second showing of images from the Abandoned Mattress Project at the Aimee Jewelry & Fine Art Gallery in Decatur. It runs through the end of the month.
Mark your calendars. It’s our chance to see trash in another way and to really ask ourselves how best to help those who desperately needed a place to lay their heads, a place to call home.
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