From the window of her Hickory Stick ice cream shop in Perkasie, Bucks County, last spring, Laura Devlin watched John Gaskin trudge along the grassy shoulder of busy Route 113, day and night. She wondered who he was.
One day in April, Gaskin stopped at the shop for ice cream. Turns out, he was looking for a job. But Devlin, a married mother of two, could see that Gaskin needed so much more.
“We sat outside and got to talking, and I realized what a great guy John is,” Devlin said. “And I saw how I could help him. How we could help him. There was a reason he stopped in for ice cream that day, and I knew then that I had to do something.”
Gaskin, 35, had moved into a nearby apartment in February. Diagnosed with schizophrenia and learning disabilities as a child, he doesn’t drive. So, when some of his social services, including local transportation, were curtailed in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Gaskin took to hiking the eight-mile round trip to and from downtown Perkasie for groceries and in search of work.
“I had to walk to look for a job,” Gaskin said. He also felt isolated. He had moved to Perkasie after feeling unsafe in a rooming house in Sellersville.
Devlin, 34, was moved by Gaskin’s story that April day, and his constant smile and friendly determination made it easy for her to reach out. She offered him some unofficial work at The Hickory Stick, which she owns with her husband, Tom. The shop is located just two miles from Gaskin’s apartment. Devlin and her husband drove Gaskin to and from the shop, and on other errands, too.
As their friendship deepened, Devlin realized that Gaskin needed more than she and Tom could deliver. So, when Gaskin got a job as a dishwasher at Perkasie Pizza and Pasta in August, Devlin reached out again, this time to the entire Perkasie community.
“I knew John needed rides to and from his new job, so that’s all I hoped for,” Devlin said, referring to the trips to and from town that took him nearly three hours to walk. “I just didn’t feel it was safe for him to walk all that way, especially at night.”
So, on Sept. 12, using the Perkasie Community page on Facebook — it has more than 3,500 members — Devlin described Gaskin’s need for transportation. She also created a GoFundMe page called “Rides for John,” and listed a goal of $100.
“He just needs good direction!” Devlin wrote of Gaskin on the GoFundMe page. “Anyone that can offer rides ... money will go directly towards Uber and items for John. Thank you Perkasie!”
The response floored Devlin, who has lived in Perkasie for five years. Within two days, people from all corners of the community responded with offers for rides, gift cards, food, clothes, a bicycle, and more than $1,300 on the GoFundMe page. All for someone most of them had never met.
“My heart became so full when I saw that my community had backed me up. And I saw they were backing me up for John," Devlin said.
Recently, Devlin expanded her call for assistance, adding items on a personalized Amazon.com gift list that Gaskin could use to upgrade his wardrobe and apartment. She posts photos on Facebook of gifts Gaskin receives, and what she buys with donations. She keeps receipts of how she spends the GoFundMe money. It all goes directly to Gaskin, she said.
Jennifer Phillion, 37, is one of those who helped. She dropped off toothpaste, toilet paper, and other personal essentials for Gaskin at the Hickory Stick because she knows how it feels to be a newcomer in need of connection. She moved to Perkasie a few years ago, drawn by its small, tight-knit neighborhoods. The warm welcome she received back then inspired her to do the same for Gaskin.
“I needed the aid of others at one time,” Phillion said. “So I pay it forward.”
Gaskin’s mother, Barbara, lives in Warminster, and, like Devlin, is amazed and inspired by Perkasie’s community outreach. He is the youngest of her three children and has faced racism, she said, and been ostracized due to his disabilities. Yet he carries on, she said, due to his big heart.
“He wants friends. He wants to be around people. He wants to fit in,” she said. “But he can be taken advantage of. I am so thankful, so grateful, for that community and how Johnny found a spot in Laura’s heart.”
Gaskin has all the rides he needs these days. Folks have signed up to drive him to work at 4 p.m., and fellow employees drop him off back home at 9. He and the Devlins hang out at the Hickory Stick as often as possible, and donations continue to pour in from his new community. Devlin said Gaskin will spend Thanksgiving with her family.
“She’s a good friend, a good person,” Gaskin said of Devlin. He said his faith helps him look for the good in people he meets.
“She is very supportive. She gives me advice," he said. "This is a good community. Jesus uses people to reach out to each other.”
For Devlin, Gaskin is an example of receiving through giving.
"He taught me so much. He’s always smiling, always grateful,” Devlin said. “He’s made me look at my life and how grateful I am. Our community helped him. But, in disguise, John has helped us. He’s like part of our family now.”