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'I KNEW I HAD TO... PAY THIS BLESSING FORWARD'

'I KNEW I HAD TO... PAY THIS BLESSING FORWARD'

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After having her prayers for her father answered with the incredible gift of an organ transplant, Ashley Benton has devoted her life to giving back to those most in need and doing what her father taught her — loving people.

GREENSBORO

Ashley Benton reached out to shake the hand of former NFL player Chris Henry's mother, Carolyn Glaspy.

It was 2010 and a year earlier, Glaspy's 26-year-old son had fallen off the back of a truck that his fiancee was driving down a winding residential street in Charlotte and suffered massive head injuries. Glaspy donated her son's organs, which went to four people, including Benton's father, who needed a liver.

Now standing face-to-face with Glaspy, Benton's own memories came rushing back:

Her long-suffering father on life support.

The doctor saying he might not make it much longer without an organ transplant.

The prayers to God from a "daddy's girl" that he get just a little more time.

The call that an organ with the same blood type had been found.

"I touched her hand, and it was almost like a spark that went from her to me," Benton, 41, said about the connection with Glaspy, who was being followed by CBS television cameras as she met the families who benefited from her son's organs.

"I knew I had to do something to pay this blessing forward."

So this past Sunday, Benton's white sedan pulled into the first level of the city parking garage on Davie Street, where the homeless and the needy already were lining up.

"We never know what she's going to have, but she's somebody caring what happens to us," said James Roseboro, who is among the first in line.

They know she will be here.

Since 2012, Benton has made the downtown her sanctuary on Sunday mornings, giving out the items she has been able to collect that week and making the people who often live in the shadows part of the conversation.

Oprah Winfrey recently tweeted''Ashley ROCK ON!" about an after-Thanksgiving meal Benton is planning for this Sunday at Center City Park that will include a hot plate of food and gifts.

"This is the only way I know how to pay it back," Benton said. "We were given the ultimate gift, from one human to the next."

• • •

Benton, who is easy to spot each week wearing her green eye shadow and similarly colored "Green Team" T-shirt, is far from the only one out in Center City Park or other spots downtown on weekends, providing items for the homeless and the needy.

Many of the individuals and maybe a half-dozen groups have the same call: to do what they can.

But not everyone takes "selfies" with people in the crowd, "friends" many of them on Facebook and other social media sites, and shares an infectious laugh that echoes through the block.

"Any one of us can make a difference, in our own way, just being who we are," Benton, a Grimsley High graduate, said earlier in the week while putting together the "blessing bags" she hands out each week.

For the contents of her bags, Benton depends on a loosely knit group of family and friends and businesses, who give everything from day-old bagels to gloves and hand warmers, purchased by someone who spotted them on sale and who had a few extra dollars.

There's no building, no employees, no budget.

Much of it emanates from her living room, where supplies are often stacked throughout the week.

"She makes you want to do something," said Carmelita Strawder, a friend and Green Team volunteer.

People press a few dollars in her hand, and she's off to Sam's Club.

"What happened to my dad changed my life," said Benton, who works at a baked goods company while she pursues a degree in social work.

"I said I'm going to do what my dad taught me to do, which was to love people."

James Benton always had been the one to give people from the neighborhood — even the ones who got in trouble — a second chance, by encouraging them to apply for jobs at the mattress factory where he worked and then vouching for them.

She recalls as a youngster riding to the store with her father and asking if she could have a pack of gum.

"He said yes, and looking back, I think he probably had brought with him just enough (money) for what he was buying," Benton said.

But when they reached the store, he noticed a man asking for spare change outside.

Benton never got the gum.

"He never had to think about it," Benton said about her dad giving the man money.

At 62, her dad was on oxygen and barely able to get out of bed. He was on the transplant list when Henry, a wide receiver for the Cincinnati Bengals, was rushed to the hospital Dec. 16, 2009.

Henry's accident made national headlines. No charges were filed in the accident.

The Bentons weren't sure whose liver they got until a year later. They found out at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte in November 2010, when they met Carolyn Glaspy as part of a CBS Sports special about Henry's life and his mother's decision to donate his organs. They were a teary-eyed bunch.

James Benton, married to her mother, Debra Benton, for 42 '/2 years, died of a massive heart attack 17 months later. But it was a good life for those 17 months, a thankful Benton said.

"He was able to cut his own grass," Benton said through tears and a smile. "He went to school to have lunch with his granddaughter. We thought he had also gotten some of Chris Henry's DNA because he was talkative, and my daddy never talked much before."

• • •

On warmer days, the line might wrap around Center City Park.

But a cold rain was falling last Sunday, and the regulars know the parking garage is the go-to spot in bad weather.

Those who began showing up even an hour earlier are here in the hope that they can get something they need.

"It feels overwhelming at times," Benton said of the responsibility. "So every Monday, you start out hopeful that it will come together."

Some of the men get out of line to help Benton and other members of her Green Team ministry assemble tables that soon will be covered with bags holding snacks and the 150 turkey and ham sandwiches Benton made that morning.

"I'm diabetic, and I really don't have anything at home till I get my check," said one woman, who pulled a grocery tote on wheels.

Benton tells them she didn't bring clothing this week, but there's a big bag of washed, second-hand blankets.

"I don't care if it's hot pink if it keeps me warm," Robert Lowery, 35, said, grabbing one.

There is a lot of joking and good-natured ribbing going on, and momentarily, it's easy to forget the plight of those standing around her. Benton is more somber as she steps aside to talk about the ones who will go to tents in the woods, under bridges, wherever they can to get out of the rain.

"My ultimate goal is, I'd love to have my own place to feed from the inside of a building, a place of shelter against all of the elements, where they can feel comfortable and just 'be,'" said Benton, who has been honored locally.

Her work recently caught the eye of Winfrey, a heroine of hers since childhood.

"I was crawling and then I took the baby steps, and now I'm at the point where I feel something big is going to happen," Benton said about the effort.

Benton signed up as an OWN ambassador — people who in their communities are making a difference in the lives of others — and recently was featured on the Oprah Winfrey Network website.

At a recent gathering in Houston, each of the ambassadors got the chance to meet Winfrey and take a picture with her. Since then, Benton's enthusiasm has drawn in other OWN ambassadors from across the U.S. and in Canada and Mexico.

She has a map she's been filling with hearts acknowledging donations that have been coming in to help with the special "blessing bags" for Sunday.

"My son was a giver," Glaspy, Henry's mother, said earlier this week. "I watch what she's doing, and it brings back so many memories."

This past Sunday's gifts were lighter, in anticipation of a huge after-Thanksgiving dinner and giveaways Sunday.

Benton tells them to expect some big surprises — she doesn't want to give it away but says it will include more than the hot plates of food.

"I think both my dad and Chris Henry would be proud of what's happened because of them," Benton said.

Contact Nancy McLaughlin at (336) 373-7049, and follow (wnmclaughlinNR on Twitter.

WANT TO GO?

What: Green Team Ministry Thanksgiving meal with giveaways and surprise guests

When: 12:30 p.m. Sunday

Where: Center City Park

Information: www.greenteamministry.com or Ashley Danielle Benton on Facebook

WANT TO HELP?

What: Green Team Ministry Thanksgiving meal

How: Donate or volunteer

Information: www.greenteamministry.com or Ashley Danielle Benton on Facebook

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