By Lynn Farquhar | Photo by Jesse Borrell
The first time I met Rodney Woolfolk was at the Rise & Thrive fundraising breakfast for the Denver VOICE last fall.
I met up with him for an interview while he was selling the paper. It was evident that his easy smile and respectful approach were winning people over quickly, and very quickly he was out of papers. Once we had a chance to really talk, he attributed his stick-to-it-ivity to the guidance of his parents who raised a large family while holding down jobs. He grew up with seven brothers and two sisters, and sorely misses his oldest brother who passed away recently. A Denver native, Rodney was born in 1964, attended Park Hill Elementary School, and graduated from George Washington High School in 1982.
At 19, fresh out of high school, Rodney joined the Navy and was deployed to the Persian Gulf during the Iran-Iraq War. Today he looks back on the Navy experience as a mixed bag; on the one hand having the chance to meet people of different cultures was character-building, and on the other, it was an awful lot for a 19-year-old to process. He was serving on the USS Waddell, a guided missile destroyer, when an Iraqi jet fired upon the USS Stark, killing 37 Navy personnel and injuring 21 others. News coverage was pretty scant for his parents about his safety, so to allay the fears of his family he wrote frequent letters about the confusing complexities of what was going on. He met his former wife, Yolanda, after leaving the military. They had two sons and a daughter.
This is where Rodney’s life becomes more complicated. Like many who have seen horrific sights in the military, he began drinking in his 20s and had post-traumatic stress issues that still haunt him to this day. Rather than try to describe the chronology of what led up to his first experience of homelessness in his 30s, Rodney steers our conversation back to the present. It’s clear that he prefers to focus on the positive rather than to dwell on past hardships, and he stresses that his involvement with the VOICE has been a life-changer for him.
He first started with the paper after meeting some folks who were vending after he’d badly mangled his knee when a car hit him in 2007. Even with his leg in a hip-to-ankle brace, he felt this was something he could do, and he soon became close with several other vendors and would travel up to Boulder and all around town in Denver vending the paper. For awhile he was in San Francisco, and worked as a vendor selling their Street Sheet, but found himself missing his hometown. Returning to the VOICE, he felt as though he’d never left. It’s meant a great deal to him to be able to rekindle old friendships here. Former vendor Manuela Shaw would kid around with him, saying “You make me nervous... You look like Prince!”
He says the money earned from selling papers is helpful as a dignified way to stay on his feet, but it’s really the relationships formed through vending that he appreciates even more. “It’s a conversation-starter that shows so many things that we all have in common,” he says. He takes it seriously as his job and strives to be a good model for other vendors new to the VOICE.
What keeps him going is his belief in God and those who surround him. He considers his kids (and one grandkid!) a huge blessing and hopes each will thrive and stay strong and that one day they will all be together again. He’s also a carpenter by trade and would love to get back into carpentry.
Maybe I haven’t looked at Prince closely enough to really get the resemblance Manuela spoke of. (Though last time we talked I did find out that Rodney is a singer and has recorded backgrounds in Las Vegas and in Denver.) To me, he just looks like an unstoppable force of nature. Whether by bike or on foot, though his knee still troubles him, Rodney gets out there every day he can to connect with his customers and fellow vendors with an infectious enthusiasm and sincere sense of fellowship with others. ■