Pamela Atkinson is welcomed among kings and paupers

Published: Sunday, Oct. 3 2010 12:11 a.m. MDT

Deseret News Editorial Board member Pamela Atkinson

Mike Terry, Deseret News

When she was growing up in England, her father raced greyhounds and gambled away everything he earned. Eventually, he left and her mom took whatever menial job she could find to support two sons and three daughters.

"There was never enough to eat. We lived in an awful, awful mouse-infested house with an outside toilet," she says. When she took a paper route, all the money went to support the family. At age 15, other girls made fun of her clothes. When she went to a friend's home, she saw things her own lacked, like a table at which to study and indoor plumbing.

But she loved learning. She'd do her homework at the library, where a friendly librarian set new books aside for her to read. And she somehow knew, without being told, that education could change her future.

At night, lying in the bed where she slept heel-to-head with her two sisters, Pamela Atkinson would plan.

"I'll marry a rich man and never have anything to do with poor people," she told herself.

Fast-forward five decades and 4,500 miles, and it is actually her love of those who are homeless or simply poor for which Atkinson is best known.

Most weeks, you may find her offering gloves and socks, sage advice and hugs to those who shelter along the Jordan River or beneath the abutments of underpasses.

She has loved her homeless friends enough to scold them occasionally and to bargain for their better choices. She will pay to kennel a dog to get his owner into medical care. She speaks at the funerals of prominent friends — but she also eulogizes and mourns homeless friend C.J. and Papa Smurf and poor Virgil Robertson, who froze to death one Thanksgiving Day.

A reporter remembers having a cup of tea with Atkinson and one of her street friends in a house made of cardboard, called a hooch, where Atkinson and her host made small talk as a train rumbled yards away, shaking the cups and the makeshift furniture.

She usually has dog food in the back of her vehicle, a nod to her fondness for pets and her understanding that a homeless person may count a dog as his only true friend. Pets are a repository for love, and they boomerang it back to people who may find it nowhere else, she says.

H. David Burton, presiding bishop of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, met Atkinson years ago, when she was organizing a Christmas dinner for the homeless. She needed food and lots of it for Salt Lake City's sizeable homeless population. It would be the first of many humanitarian projects the well-placed Mormon and the elder from the First Presbyterian Church would share.

She is thoughtful as she recounts her first trip to the Salvation Army dining room near Pioneer Park to serve the daily dinner provided for homeless men and women. She was with a church group, and the major running the dining room told her friends to stand behind tables and serve. He sent Atkinson to the front door. "Greet each homeless person, and shake his hand," he told her.

"I learned that when you shake that hand, it may be the first time that day, that month, even that year that they were touched."

She also learned "how easy it is to give, to make a difference. And when I make a difference in someone's life, it makes a difference in mine."

"I love her," says Celeste Eggert, director of development and community relations at the Road Home homeless shelter, who largely credits Atkinson for the overflow shelter that keeps hundreds safe from winter's wrath. "She found us the Midvale location and is instrumental in getting us funding each year. She literally saves lives."

She's also the "point person" you hit up when you're a shelter director surrounded by people who need socks or other items, Eggert says.

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