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Houston dog walker's business plummets during pandemic, but one family stepped in for their neighbor in need

When the Spencer family heard Doug Willis was in need of some help, they didn't hesitate to step up to the plate in a big way.
Credit: Spencer family
The Spencer family helped Doug Willis get back on his feet after his business was ruined by the COVID-19 pandmic.

HOUSTON — From shopping locally and ordering take-out from your favorite restaurants to donating money and delivering supplies, there are so many people who are Standing For Houston by helping their neighbors during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Doug Willis' story might inspire you to consider what it truly means to make a difference.

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He lives a quiet life. He majored in history before turning to a career as a professional dog walker. He has no family connections and he prefers to keep to himself.

"This pandemic, with all this isolation and social distancing, was almost tailormade for me," Willis said.

In March, when he started to lose much of his business, Willis began messaging clients for an advance. He said families did what they could to help him. $20 here, $30 there.

The Spencer family pitched in what they could afford.

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"We have two German Shepherds -- Zeke and Luna. We didn’t know him personally. We knew how much he loved our dogs," Helen Spencer said. "And then, I believe mid-October, he sent another note, asking for a little bit more help because he didn’t have anywhere to stay. We just said, 'Well, why don’t we invite him to stay with us?'"

Willis couldn't afford to turn down the offer. The 61-year-old was hopping from motels to room rentals for a place to stay.

"I might happen to fall asleep at a Metro Transit Center," he said.

The offer from the Spencers was a lifeline, albeit a bit out of his comfort zone. Without a phone or a car, he really needed the help.

"I was a little shocked," Willis said. "They stepped up to the plate."

The family offered Willis their converted shed and provided him access to technology and the Spencers' knowledge. Jason and Helen Spencer work for Harris County.

CLICK HERE FOR A LIST OF HARRIS COUNTY RESOURCES

During Willis’ three-week stay with the Spencers, they helped him create a resume and shared application links and free resources with him. They showed him how to search for jobs.

"We didn’t do anything to get him preferential treatment," Helen Spencer said. 

The guidance led Willis to West Houston Assistance Ministries, where he got a gift card that paid for a new phone. He then applied for and was approved for $1,200 through the CARES Act.

The Spencers gave him a ride to renew his driver's license, which he needed to get a job.

Sometimes all a neighbor really needs is direction.

"There was a period when I was almost beyond hopeless. I could not see anything coming together. It was just ... blah. I even thought about, briefly, thought about suicide. Which is, as a Catholic, I can’t do that," Willis said.

Instead of walking down that path, he reached out for help and was greeted by a willing community.

Willis is in a safe place now. He has found shelter at a group home as he rebuilds his life.

"I’m grateful to the Spencers and all the other wonderful people that have helped me," Willis said. "There’ll be a time when I’m able to repay, if not them, then someone that I can help."

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story mentioned that the Spencers gave Doug a ride to the Texas DMV to renew his driver's license. It's actually the Texas Department of Public Safety that issues drivers licenses.