ROANOKE, Va. – A Roanoke woman’s simple acts of pay-it-forward kindness have gone a long way in making a lasting impact in the community.
Debra Ferrell, 54, is the founder of the LLC, ‘Love With Skin On.’
“It is a kindness organization where our motto is, ‘Be love. Do stuff,’” Ferrell said. “People tend to do a lot of talking, and I feel we need to put our hands and our feet to that and do stuff.”
She said there is a difference between being nice and being kind.
“If you expect something in return, it is nice,” Ferrell said. “But if you don’t expect anything in return, it is kind. That is where my whole heart is at in all of it. You help people without expecting anything in return. My whole philosophy is there’s always a way you can be kind to somebody. There is always someone who could use a little bit of kindness. Kindness is compassion in action.”
Ferrell said this philosophy stems from the way she was raised.
“I try my best to be loving and in no way am I perfect by any stretch of the imagination,” she joked. “But my parents raised me that way. They were foster parents. We had like seven foster brothers and sisters. My parents’ door was always open. My Mamaw and Papaw’s door was always open. It didn’t matter who you were. You were just welcomed.”
Ferrell is also encouraged to put others before herself as she works as a service coordinator at a retirement community.
When she is not there, she’s finding ways to share acts of kindness wherever she can.
“I get my grandkids involved and we make yard signs and plant them in people’s yards with an encouraging quote,” she said. “Something like, ‘Your smile matters.’ We also find unique rocks and paint kind words on them and place them in rock beds or parking lots throughout the city.”
She said Jan. 13 is her favorite day because it is National Rubber Ducky Day.
“We go out randomly and give them to the community,” Ferrell said. “That is the coolest thing ever because we will walk into a Dunkin Donuts, start handing them out and people get so excited over rubber duckies,” she said as she laughed.
Ferrell also makes gift baskets anonymously and places them on doorsteps with a small request that that stranger pays it forward.
“February 17 is Random Acts of Kindness Day,” she said. “We go pay for people’s gas, give our gift cards and things like that. One of the most meaningful things we do is our ‘Share the Warmth’ event, where we put out scarves, hats and gloves at bus shelters when it gets cold for the homeless.”
Ferrell said one special memory comes to mind when she thinks of helping people experiencing homelessness. She got emotional as she relayed the story.
Ferrell said she used to work in a homeless facility and her children would volunteer at soup kitchens just like she did as a child growing up.
“There is not one of us who hasn’t made a mistake. We just all haven’t gotten caught,” she said. “That is how I try to see the world. I am not successful by any stretch, but I see beyond this to this.”
Since she was a child, Ferrell said she always knew she wanted to create a place for people to go to feel safe.
“My door is always opened,” she said. “I always called my house a refuge because that is what I wanted it to be. Everybody needs a safe place. It doesn’t matter, whatever, this is a refuge you can come home to.”
Ferrell said she credits that part of her passion to her Papaw.
“My Papaw didn’t say much but I knew his door was always open,” Ferrell said. “We had some family members who had some difficulty with drugs, but Papaw didn’t care. They came in anyway because they are family. He was always there to help them. That was passed on to my parents who were the same way. We used to go on service projects and would help rebuild people’s homes. For example, we met a lady who had like 22 chihuahuas and 11 kids and they were living in a tiny two-bedroom house. She was so thankful we were there to help build onto it.”
Ferrell said her faith is also a big part of why she started ‘Love with Skin On.’
She had her fair share of struggles including being a single mother at a young age.
“I got pregnant as a teen,” Ferrell said. “I graduated at 17 and was seven months pregnant. When I was younger, I wanted to open a home for unwedded mothers. That was a passion of mine because I have been there, and I have done that. My family supported me thankfully, but a lot of families don’t. My son’s biological father was not there and emotionally, I was alone. That was my struggle point. My heart and spirit were so broken for a short period of time and then it was like, ok I am going to make sure no one else feels the same way I do. It was something I did as a teen without a lot of knowledge, so I made a decision, and my consequences were that I became pregnant. But I will tell you, my son is one of the greatest gifts and he was blessed to have the same giving heart,” she said through tears.
Ferrell went on to get her degree in social work and became a pastor for 18 years.
Ferrell said it is best never to judge.
“We are all human beings created the same way and we forget that so often,” Ferrell said. “There is something deep inside a person that caused much pain and anger and frustration, but it doesn’t mean they are a bad person. You have to go beyond what you hear and see.”
Ferrell now has a total of three children and 10 grandchildren ages 2-16 years old.
She said her goal is to get her home back to being a refuge again.
“It hasn’t been a refuge in my mind in a while,” she said. “It is not comfortable to me.”
Unfortunately, Ferrell said she discovered some faulty construction in her home at the start of the pandemic that resulted in her ceiling falling in.
“Things just started falling apart and then COVID hit and everything skyrocketed,” Ferrell said. “Before, you could walk on my porch and not feel like you were going to fall through,” she slightly joked. “We called a refuge because we use to be able to invite anyone. On Saturday, I would cook breakfast and whoever could come, came. We would gather and they would just talk about everything.”
Ferrell said she’s concerned about the safety of others due to the condition of her home.
“I am so worried about the fact that I have no ceiling and dust,” she said as she fought back tears. “But people probably wouldn’t care as much as I do. Little by little, I’ll get it fixed though.”
Ferrell said her biggest goal is to be like Jesus Christ.
“People say all the time that he was so loving and gracious,” Ferrell said. “He was so compassionate. He saw people and not the stuff surrounding them. He saw them. I want people to meet me and know that somebody loves you just the way you are. You don’t have to change or spit out the right words. Just be you.”
Ferrell, who runs her organization out of her own pocket, hopes to gain nonprofit status for ‘Love with Skin On.’
She encourages people to participate in kind acts no matter where they are located.
“Just know that there is no one lower than you,” Ferrell said. “There is no one better than you. Every single person deserves to be treated with dignity, compassion and love and respect. You have been extended grace in your life and if you can see through that to extend grace to someone else, then one by one, the world will get a little better.”
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