This four-year-old boy discovered that compassion for the less fortunate can produce superhuman results.
Austin Perine is not your typical superhero. Oh, sure, he looks the part, with his signature cape flapping against his blue shirt. He has an arch nemesis, as all good heroes must. He even uses a catchy name for his heroic alter ego: President Austin.
But two things set this caped crusader apart: His adversary is not confined to the pages of a comic book—President Austin’s foes, hunger and homelessness, are very real. Also, he’s only four years old.
Our hero’s origin story started this past February in the Perine family living room in Birmingham, Alabama. Austin and his father, TJ Perine, were watching a program on Animal Planet about a mother panda leaving her cubs. “I told him that the cubs would be homeless for a while,” TJ says. “Austin didn’t know what homelessness meant, but he was sad and wanted to know more.”
Seeing this as a teachable moment, TJ took Austin to the Firehouse Ministries, a local shelter that provides housing, food, and other services for chronically homeless men. As they drove by the redbrick building, they saw a group of 25 homeless men standing on the street corner. “Dad, they look sad,” Austin said. “Can we take them some food and make them smile?”
That day, Austin used his allowance to buy each man a Burger King sandwich and handed the food out himself. Seeing what their presence meant to the men at the ministry, Austin and TJ returned the next week. Austin again dipped into his piggy bank to buy sandwiches, which he handed out along with his new catchphrase,
After he returned every week for five weeks, word of Austin’s acts of kindness spread through social media and national news outlets. Burger King jumped aboard, agreeing to donate $1,000 a month for an entire year toward the cause. Soon, churches and shelters across the country began inviting Austin to come distribute food in other poverty-prone areas. He’ll have visited at least 15 locations by the end of this year, including Skid Row in Los Angeles and parts of Puerto Rico affected by Hurricane Maria. Whereas before Austin and TJ could feed 25 to 50 people at a time, now, thanks to corporate and community support, they can feed 800 to 2,000 people at once.
But Austin isn’t just filling bellies. He’s improving the lives of those he meets. On that first trip to Firehouse Ministries, TJ and Austin talked to a man named Raymont, who was estranged from his family. The respect Austin bestowed on 41-year-old Raymont touched the man, and he shared with TJ just how grateful he was to be treated so considerately by a four-year-old stranger. Raymont and TJ kept in touch. With help from TJ’s mother, Audrey Perine, who worked at the Alabama Department of Transportation at the time, TJ helped Raymont collect all the credentials he needed to get a driver’s license. The license helped Raymont get a job. And with money in the bank, he was able to rent his own apartment. All that was made possible because a little boy took the time to care.
Austin’s passion has now become his family’s calling. After raising money through a GoFundMe page, Audrey established the Show Love Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to fighting homelessness. She now serves as president, and TJ left his job as a project manager for a hospital chain to oversee public relations for the foundation full-time. He’s in talks with the city of Birmingham to secure the redbrick building where it all started—Firehouse Ministries is moving—as the site of their own shelter, which would offer medical and mental health care as preventive steps against homelessness.
As for President Austin, he continues to give out food, smiles, and his inspirational message of love. “It makes me feel like I’m saving the day.