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PBJ&Hope

A couple of life-sustaining things are freely offered in Hawthorne Park most afternoons: peanut butter and jelly sandwiches — and hope.

"We are trying to change the world one peanut butter and jelly sandwich at a time," says Robin Dee Fusmer.

Robin, 49, along with her husband, Derek, 52, has given away hundreds of PBJs from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. in the mid-city park over the past month. The Medford couple say it's a simple recipe they serve. And all are welcome.

"Our only question is 'Are you hungry?' " says Robin.

As the Fusmers slather up the sides of bread, the pair listen to the stories of the disadvantaged: young mothers with hungry children, teen runaways fleeing abusive homes, the handicapped sleeping in the streets.

Shawn Tyler, 29, munches on his sandwich Thursday afternoon. As he eats, the lanky, tattooed, young man talks about what defines a family, living on the streets and the generosity of the Fusmers.

"These people just showed up one day," Tyler says with a nod toward the Fusmers, who are busy talking to a young homeless woman.

"They came over to us and asked if we wanted a peanut butter and jelly sandwich," he says. "They really care about us. They don't look down on us."

Once homeless themselves, the Fusmers know first hand that sometimes a simple sandwich can taste "like a steak dinner," says Derek.

After suffering sexual abuse as a child, Robin became a teen runaway at age 15. Derek was out on the streets, and using drugs, at age 12.

"I look at their shoes and I say, 'Yep, I've been in those,' " Derek says.

The Fusmers are also willing to provide more than simple food for the body. Many of the people we see are not just hungry for food, they're still hungry for a touch, for someone to talk to," Robin says.

Tyler came to Medford from Inglewood, Calif., three years ago. "To get away from all the gang violence," he says.

Because he has epilepsy and regularly suffers from grand mal seizures, Tyler says it is hard for him to find work. These days he sleeps under park benches or in nearby bushes. But Tyler is excited because Robin has just told him she will give his information to a friend who has a landscaping business.

"I've done landscaping and construction clean-up," he says.

Tyler holds a picture of his 7-year-old son, who lives with his mother. "He's the reason I want to make my life better," Tyler says.

Regardless of anyone's circumstances, the Fusmers say their message is that a person's today does not have to define their tomorrow.

Robin managed to get off the streets, put herself through college while earning two degrees, married and raised three daughters and ran a local janitorial service with eight employees, she says. Derek raised two sons and ran a successful roofing business.

Married in 2006, the financially successful couple enjoyed a good life and happily wrote out checks to local charities prior to Derek's illness, says Robin.

But the economy and Derek's past drug use is taking a toll today. Robin had to lay off her staff. And Derek was diagnosed with end-stage liver disease in 2008. Doctors gave her husband just two weeks more than a year ago, Robin says.

"But he's still here," she says. "We believe with faith, hope, love and living positively every day, miracles do happen."

The couple says they are still "rich in their hearts." But after incurring $420,000 in medical expenses, the pair were forced to say "good-bye to our home, our rental property and our fancy cars," she says.

"I never thought we'd have to apply for food stamps," Robins says. "The most humbling experience in my life was when my adult children brought me groceries."

Cheryl Salaz met the Fusmers in the park.

"They came to my table and asked if I wanted a peanut butter and jelly sandwich," she says.

Salaz, 51, suffers from birth defects, diabetes and high blood pressure. Wheelchair bound, Salaz uses her toes to pull herself along the park paths. Although she is frequently homeless, Salaz says she has a place to live until next Saturday. Then she'll be back on the streets, she says.

Salaz and Tyler consider the dozen or more people who hang around Hawthorne park to be family. The group consists of all different ages and races, Tyler says. Together, they hang out in the park, sleeping under benches or in the bushes.

"The police think we're a gang," Tyler says. "But we're not, we're just one big family. We watch out for each other."

Although the Fusmers regularly provide information about what is available at other nonprofit service organizations, many people are leery of the organized nonprofit institutions, Derek says.

"We always refer to places like ACCESS and St. Vinney's," Derek says. "But a lot won't go. They've been traumatized by authority figures in the past and are afraid to trust."

Salaz says the St. Vincent de Paul food pantry is simply too far away.

"I can't travel that far," she says.

Homeless or not, many struggle to make ends meet, especially at the end of the month, Robin says.

"Things always get a lot more busy at the end of the month when those checks and food stamps run out," she says.

Right now, as temperatures continue to drop, there is a tremendous need for sleeping bags, coats and jackets, says Robin.

Some days the Fusmers can't be at the park because they must travel to Portland for Derek's ongoing treatments. On those days, the Hawthorne Park crowd worries about their new "family member," says Tyler.

"He's thinking about others before himself," says Tyler. "They make the sandwiches out of their own pocket. They're not getting paid."

Robin has since managed to get her business, Southern Oregon Janitorial, back operating. And Derek is waiting for a liver transplant. They tell their story to those who want to hear.

"I believe that a 15-year-old runaway and a former drug addict can make a difference," Robin says. "And, for as long as we can, we will be giving away peanut butter and jelly sandwiches."

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 776-4497 or e-mail sspecht@mailtribune.com.

Robin Fusmer gives a drink and a hug to Cheryl Salaz in Medford's Hawthorne Park. Salaz is confined to a wheel chair doesn't have a permanent home. Bob Pennell / Mail Tribune photo - Bob Pennell