The 8-year-old boy wanted a plastic action figure toy.
"Not a PS3, or an iPad or the latest phone," Rusty Boruff said of the unaccompanied, unbathed and apparently homeless child he encountered in the thrift store basement of Davenport's King's Harvest Ministries on a Saturday morning earlier this year. "Just an action figure."
"I took him to the toy section, which had already been plundered," said Boruff, a 24-year-old native of Aledo, Ill., with a homeless history of his own. "He didn't find anything, and the look of his disappointment cut deep into me. This kid didn't choose his lifestyle. He was a victim of it. And all he wanted that morning was an action figure."
Boruff said his heart breaks daily from
similar encounters, yet he forges ahead undeterred along the frontline of the fight to help less fortunate Quad-Citians.
Friction at home caused by his involvement with drugs and alcohol forced the former Aledo High School golfer to make a home of his van at age 18. And soon after he resorted to burglary to fund a Valentine's Day date, Boruff said his home was a jail cell for nine months.
There, he said he found God in the person of a 90-year-old Christian who took the time to visit.
"He wasn't the most exciting preacher in the world," Boruff recalled. "He would even fall asleep during his own sermons. But it showed me that someone cared."
In that cell, Boruff, then 20, decided he someday would become that caring someone.
Within two months of his release, he said, "I was back ministering in those jails."
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By age 23, working as a 501c3 charity under the umbrella of the Calvary Church of the Quad-Cities in Moline, Boruff had opened the 180 Zone in Moline.
The 12-bed home is a privately funded residential shelter for homeless adult males, many fighting addictions, many fresh out of jail. It is where Boruff, a single father, sleeps most nights, but it is only one front in his ongoing fight to bring comfort and to show his faith to Quad-Citians who need a home, a meal or a friend, he said.
Working out of an office at the Moline church and drawing a salary from a shoestring budget of between $60,000 and $70,000 that also funds the 180 Zone, Boruff has devised a multi-faceted outreach program. It is staffed by a corps of 200 to 250 volunteers culled from a base of 10 Quad-City churches.
Boruff and his volunteers distribute donated clothes and hygiene items monthly at King's Harvest and regularly minister in jails in and around the Quad-Cities. They serve a twice-monthly Dinner on the River meal at LeClaire Park in Davenport as weather permits and reach out to homeless and at-risk teens during visits to the Centennial Park skatepark near the Centennial Bridge in Davenport and elsewhere.
"Rusty is a force unto himself," said Mike Weingartz, a third-year Calvary member from Clinton, Iowa. "He's got an anointing from God that I have seen in few people. He's 24 years old, but he has got an old soul. He seems to be able to get things done. People follow him."
Boruff said he found his way out of what felt like a hopeless situation only after being welcomed back into his mother's home. He cannot forget watching a teenage girl with no such option walk out of a Quad-City hotel room and step into a car with a stranger in what Boruff felt certain was an act of prostitution a few years back.
"I could tell she was doing what she had to do to have a place to stay," he said. "I remember looking into that girl's eyes. She didn't say anything, but her eyes told the whole story. They were screaming for help."
Like his recent encounter with the 8-year-old boy, that memory won't soon go away. Boruff doesn't care to let it go.
"You ask me how my heart doesn't break?" he said. "It does. Every day. But it motivates me to make a difference in our community. It's not about recognition or money. It's about loving people to life and sharing the hope of Jesus.
"Last week, there was a homeless kid, maybe 9. He said he loved my necklace. I ended up giving it to him, and you would have thought by his smile I gave him a million bucks. It's moments like that that inspire me, the ministry, the group around me, to keep going forward."