#52in52 Week 39: Rick Swyden

#52in52 Week 39: Rick Swyden

“Expectations are resentments waiting to happen,” Rick said as we sat down at our outdoor table at Inspirations in Edmond.  He had ordered a salad and I got the BLT wrap. I munched through my salt and vinegar chips as he spoke.

“An unexpected gift at an unexpected time is joy waiting to happen,” he concluded.

Rick enjoys trying to surprise people all the time.  Locally, he is known as the Hotdog Man.  He’s the founder and director of the charity nonprofit Hotdogs for the Homeless.  It’s an organization very close to my heart, which feeds 200 people each week in downtown Oklahoma City.  They provide consistent meals and often socks, clothes, and toiletries to the poor and disadvantaged.  But also, they provide hope, love, and encouragement.  I’ve been volunteering with Hotdogs for nearly nine years.

“What are the five worst and greatest things that have happened to you?” Rick asked me.  I thought about it, but he jumped in before I could articulate an answer.

“100% of the ‘worsts’ were likely expectations that were not met.”

Rick’s magical touch is in his ability to leverage expectations to bring people joy. He advises not to let people know what you have planned because then they will have expectations.

 

His daughter Allison once went to Spain.  She worked hard for the trip and was so excited for the opportunity to go.  She ended up in Seville when the group stopped in the town.  Suddenly, the whole place just sort of turned into one big party.  When Rick asked her what was her favorite memory from the trip – that was the moment she pointed to.  It had defied her expectations in a dramatic way.

Sometimes Rick wonders “Why am I like this?”

But he sort of knows why.  When Rick was a kid he was having a birthday party with his dad and friends at a fast food joint.  A stranger approached him and shook his hand and wished him a happy birthday.  When Rick pulled his hand away, he was holding a five-dollar bill.  It changed him forever – the surprise of it.  The joy it brought him.  Any time he sees a kid at a birthday party now, he makes sure to shake their hand and leave them with a cash surprise.

 

Rick has an excess of passion.  And he works to always channel it for good.

His favorite movie is Serendipity.  He says he’s probably seen it over 2,000 times.  He puts it on each time he works.

He recalled his favorite quote: “You know the Greeks didn’t write obituaries, they only asked one question after a man died, ‘Did he have passion?’”

Rick’s daughter has already written his eulogy – and it begins with that line.

 

He told me there are three things he won’t discuss: politics, religion, and tattoos.  Rick used to be very passionate about politics.  But he found himself mad all the time.  So, he just stopped.

 

So I had to know – how did Hotdogs get started?  I’ve known Rick so long but never actually asked.

Years ago Rick was in a very dark place in his life.  His wife, Susan, was going through breast cancer treatments.  Their debt was “monstrous” and mounting.

He was filming weddings for a living.  Some friends of theirs invited them to come spend New Year’s Eve in San Antonio.  But Rick and Susan had to decline – they couldn’t afford it.

A call came in to Rick’s video editing business.  A woman had suddenly passed and her family needed a video for the funeral with extraordinarily short notice.  It was a 300-photo scanning project.  It took all night, but Rick got it done for them.

They left him a $300 tip.  Rick and Susan decided to treat themselves to that New Year’s Eve trip.  And they were glad they did – they had one of the greatest times of their lives.

One evening they were at Rivercenter Mall when Rick saw a homeless man sitting on a bench.  He urged the others to go on to the restaurant and he would catch up.  He walked over and approached the man and engaged him in conversation.  He remembers he was so dirty.  But his eyes – they were so big and so unrealistically blue.  The whites were as clear as porcelain.  The sight of it was stunning.  The contrast.

They spoke for about ten minutes and then Rick went inside.  He decided he wanted to bring the man some food.  There was an A&W at the food court, so Rick and his friend went and waited in a 30-minute line together.  When they arrived at the counter to order a burger meal they were met with shocking news – “I’m sorry, all we serve is hotdogs at this location.”  So that’s what they bought.  But when they returned with the meal, the homeless man was nowhere to be found.

“There’s never a homeless person around when you need one,” Rick laughed.

He tried to send the meal with a cabbie to give to a homeless person, but around that time he saw a couple appear from an alleyway.  He went to them.  They were hungry.  They told their story – they needed money to buy some IDs so they could get work.  Rick gave them a twenty-dollar bill out of his pocket – even though he could barely afford it.

“It moved me so much I had to go back to my hotel room and I cried for an hour.”

Rick says it split him between joyful laughter and tears.  He called his pal Mike and told him what had happened.

New Year’s Eve night rolled around and Rick and his friend watched a young couple have a messy break-up right in front of them and right before the festivities were to begin. “She needs a hotdog,” Rick laughed to his buddy.

Rick came back home.  On that Sunday he bought hotdogs, buns, and chips.  He didn’t have the money to do so, but he felt compelled to do it.

He and Susan went downtown to pass out the food.  She wanted him to hand it through the window, but he says that would feel too much like driving through a petting zoo.  So instead he got out, passed out meals, and spoke to people directly.  To calm his wife’s nerves, he took Mike the following week.  Mike carried a gun.  They wouldn’t ever need it, though.

Hotdogs has continued every week since then for nearly 14 years.  It’s been a sacrifice.  But it’s also found indelible pockets of support.

Early on, Rick’s neighbors learned what he was up to.  They started contributing materials and time – and refrigerator space.  Hotdogs grew.  Donations started to come in here and there.  It became a whole neighborhood thing.

Rick is humble and doesn’t tell anyone what he does.  He also doesn’t ask for money.  It just sort of manifests. Ricks spiritual mantra is “You buy and I’ll fly – you provide and I’ll divide.”  Rick still can’t believe Hotdogs continues to run to this day.

One weekend a news crew was in the neighborhood.  One of Rick’s neighbors needed a kidney and another was a donor match. Best of all, there was a Bedlam spin on the whole thing.  The reporter noticed Rick packing up his hotdogs and inquired about what was going on.  He told her about his mission and they filmed and ran a small piece on it.  Donations started flooding in.  His banker helped him get an account set up to process the contributions.  Then, Sooner Catholic ran a piece on Rick.  The floodgates were blown out.  Within weeks, over $15,000 had poured in. “I didn’t sign up for this,” Rick thought.  It was seemingly miraculous.

Soon after the TV news piece aired, Rick got a call.  It was from that family who needed the funeral video on a quick turn-around.  The family who had tipped Rick the $300 that enabled him to travel to San Antonio.  The family that gave him the opportunity to find his affinity for helping the homeless. One of the children had a message for Rick: “My mom was the biggest homeless philanthropist around.” It was serendipity.

“It was her $300 that started this,” Rick grinned.  Coincidentally, she had been buried the same day Rick fed his first homeless person.  She was Norma June Lynch Speegle.

And now Rick’s philanthropy touches so many people.  He gets to walk into businesses and ask “Who are we going to bless today?” and make miracles happen for so many people. And he has more and bigger plans for that mission going forward.  He is so excited about it all.  I am excited for him.  I often write about how my lunch dates could change the world.  Rick’s actively doing it one sack lunch at a time.


It has been a joy getting to know Rick over the years and become a more integral part of executing his mission.  To learn more about how to get involved, visit hotdogsforthehomeless.com and like us on Facebook!

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