Friday, November 16, 2001

Dogs, cats, down and out welcome on her farm

Everyone has a story worth telling. At least, that's the theory. To test it, Tempo is throwing darts at the phone book. When a dart hits a name, a reporter dials the phone number and asks if someone in the home will be interviewed. Stories appear on Fridays.

By John Johnston
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Life is good at the Zordel home in Williamstown, where dogs and cats outnumber people but all tallies are subject to change.

        As it now stands, there are eight dogs — “two of them could pass for horses,” Paula Zordel says — and an unknown number of cats. “A lot of them moved over to Art and Millie's,” Paula says, “and that's OK with me.”

        Art and Millie Downing live in a trailer on the Zordel property. (More about them shortly.)

        Paula, who is 60, and her husband, Vern, 64, own the 63-acre homestead. A grandson, 24-year-old Michael, lives with them.

        “My husband and Art collect junk,” Paula says. “I collect dogs, people and cats.” With that, she throws back her head of short gray hair and lets loose a laugh that sounds more like a cackle.

Paula Zordel
Paula Zordel
        Some of the dogs and cats Paula took in were dumped by their previous owners. Some of the people needed shelter, too.

        When a big snowstorm paralyzed Kentucky seven winters ago and shut down Interstate 75, about 10 young men, ages 17 to 22, made their way to the Zordels. They were friends of Michael.

        The snow and ice eventually disappeared. The young men did not. At least not right away. “Quite a few of them were here for a couple years,” Paula says, and there's that cackle again. “They forgot to go home.”

        Truth is, she says, some of them didn't have much of a home to return to. One young man often fought with his stepfather; another couldn't get along with his mother. And so on. The Zordels let them stay until they made suitable arrangements elsewhere.

        Then there was the young woman Paula met at church. Paula had just been up to the altar when she saw her.

        “You all right?” Paula asked.

        She was not. She poured out the kind of hard-luck story from which country-western songs are born. She told of finding her husband with the baby sitter, leaving home, turning to drugs and alcohol, losing her three kids, wanting them back but having no job or place to go.

        Paula brought the stranger home. Then she and Vern converted their garage into a living space.

        The woman stayed about a year and a half, which was enough time to get a divorce, and a job. And most important, get her kids back. At last report the kids are doing well in school, Paula says, and the woman is married again.

        With the garage unoccupied, Paula was able to welcome a young couple she knew from church. They were enduring some tough times and needed help learning to be independent. Shopping and cooking, those kinds of things.

        They stayed a couple of years and then moved on, a bit better-equipped to handle life than before, Paula believes.

        Paula knows some people think she's crazy for inviting people into her home. In reality, she's a woman who knows what it's like to struggle early in life. Her childhood is framed by memories of parents who drank heavily and argued too much before splitting up.

        She figures some of the young people she's helped aren't so different from the troubled teens she sees at the Northern Kentucky Youth Development Center. She's a youth worker at the juvenile jail.

        “A lot of them, their father is in jail, their mother has been in and out of jail. The idea is to convince them that they can change their lives. They just don't think they can do it.”

        Maybe, Paula says, they wouldn't be in that position if someone had offered help when it was needed. Paula has done that for young people. And old.

        Which brings us back to Art and Millie. He is 67. She is 73. They were living down the road from the Zordels until a new landlord gave them only a few days to find a new place. They didn't know where to go.

        “I didn't know 'em, except to see 'em,” Paula says. “I just knew they had cats. If you got cats, you can't be all bad.”

        Another cackle.

        Paula told them she had a trailer being used for storage. They were welcome to use it, she said, if they could make it livable. Art fixed it up, and they've been there some 10 years now.

        Art, who helps out around the farm, says the Zordels don't charge rent.

        “They just got a big heart,” he says.

        Paula looks at it this way: “If you can't use what you've got to help other people, you don't deserve it. So how can you enjoy it?

        “Anyway, I've been having fun. I've had more fun than I ever had in my whole life.”


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