She first noticed Mr. R. last summer, when he started appearing regularly at the Millville Subway.
“He came in every other day at about 3:30 or 4 o’clock,” recalled Elizabeth “Ellie” Cordoba, store manager.
At first, he came alone, and then he started bringing his wife along. Cordoba quickly realized his wife was struggling with Alzheimer’s disease. She knew, because she had watched her own grandmother’s decline due to Alzheimer’s.
“I understood what it was,” Cordoba said.
She wondered why the couple never sat down to eat but soon realized that Mr. R. didn’t feel comfortable dining out with his wife, due to her unpredictable behaviors.
Over the next few months, Mr. R and his wife continued to come regularly to the Subway. One day, though, he didn’t get out of his car. Cordoba soon learned that he had injured his leg in a serious car accident and was having difficulty getting around. No problem — even though the Millville Subway doesn’t officially have a drive-up option, Cordoba would make the sandwiches for the couple and deliver them outside to his car.
Mr. R. became a friend, more than a customer, and after Thanksgiving he confided in Cordoba that his wife’s erratic behavior had derailed his attempt to take her out for a nice Thanksgiving meal.
“If I had known that,” Cordoba said, “I would have taken him dinner.” It would not have been a problem, since Cordoba had prepared a holiday feast for employees, family and friends at Subway this year.
While some scoffed at her plans to stay open, selling sandwiches for a few hours on Thanksgiving and then to serve the traditional dinner, for Cordoba, the fact that a family had come just looking for sandwiches and she was able to invite them in to join her feast made it all worthwhile.
Meanwhile, she kept thinking about her friend Mr. R., and very quickly those thoughts turned into plans.
“I said, there’s got to be something else we can do for him,” she recalled. All the while, though, she was also wondering about her other customers — those whose stories she didn’t know, yet. “We have no idea who they are or what troubles they might have been through,” Cordoba said.
A 2007 graduate of Indian River High School who was “born and raised in this area” — and the first in her family to graduate from high school — Cordoba said she has become more and more of the idea that everyone has a story, and everyone deserves compassion. For her, it’s simply a matter of serving her community in the best way she can. Cordoba has a keen sense of how helping one person, or one family, can help an entire community.
“When someone looks at one family, they’re also looking at all the other families,” Cordoba said. She wondered at how so much need goes unaddressed. “How do you not notice that?” she asked. Learning about Mr. R and his struggles, she said, “makes me want to pay attention to the other customers that come in.”
Cordoba has started by reaching out to her community via that invention that has redefined “community” — Facebook. She posted on a locals’ page that she wanted to ensure that her friend and his wife had a good holiday in December. She planned a meal and a few gifts for the couple, but she didn’t stop there. Cordoba also organized a caroling group and a Christmas party for area children, complete with small gifts.
Subway patrons can now see Cordoba’s plans taking shape. A list of donations of gifts and food, placed next to the cash register, grows by the day. A small tree just inside the store is almost dwarfed by the pile of presents for children that she hopes will attend the store’s Dec. 23 Christmas party.
As of early this week, 39 responses had been posted to her request for help making Christmas merry for her friend Mr. R. One poster said, “In all my life, this is the most beautiful thing I have been witness to as we move towards Christmas Day.”
Cordoba is already thinking past the holidays.
“I want this to be more than Christmas,” she said, adding that she feels drawn to helping Mr. R navigate whatever the future brings with his wife’s illness, because she knows the toll it can take on caregivers. Although she said her work schedules made it difficult for her to do much more than sit with her grandmother once a week, it made her appreciate what full-time caregivers must endure.
“I can’t really give him a break, but I can talk with him,” Cordoba said. “Everything I learned when my grandmother had Alzheimer’s, I can share with him.”
Cordoba said she relishes the activity the holiday brings, especially her efforts to help one customer-turned-friend.
“I like being busy,” she said. “This Christmas is going to be my biggest Christmas yet.
Whether it’s her new friend Mr. R, or parents whose load is lightened a bit while their children attend the children’s party at Subway, or hearts that are warmed by the caroling group she has formed, Cordoba said, “I want to help as many people as I can.”