Valentine’s Day is nearly here, a day to show love with flowers, candy, jewelry and cards. But Austin Perine believes that every day is a great day to show love — and the 4-year-old from Birmingham, Alabama is coming to Gaithersburg to show us how it’s done.
“This is the first-ever #ShowLoveFest,” explained Monica Harwood, Program Coordinator for the City of Gaithersburg.
“Last year on Valentine’s Day, everyone seemed kind of down in the dumps,” she observed. “It’s such a commercialized holiday and the only thing to do is to go out to a restaurant.” Looking for something “to make people feel happy during this frigid time of year,” Harwood and her City of Gaithersburg colleagues came up with a novel idea. They would have an animal video festival, and partner with local charities to create an event that would give back to the community.
“At the same time, I saw this video of Austin Perine, who’s been leading his ‘caped crusade’ around the world to help the homeless,” Harwood said. Austin, who has appeared on CNN, CBS, Access Hollywood and the Steve Harvey Show as well as on YouTube, is a little kid who hands out chicken sandwiches to the homeless with an admonition to “Show love!” and a brilliant smile.
“I was just so inspired by this child,” Harwood said. “So I contacted his father to see if he would be interested in coming to Gaithersburg and talking about his campaign.”
The Perines gave the idea a big thumbs-up, and Harwood put together a pre-Valentine’s Day event at the Arts Barn that will feature funny animal videos plus representatives from the Montgomery County Humane Society and the City of Gaithersburg’s Homeless Services Division, along with therapy dogs from Pets on Wheels and local artists selling Valentine’s treats and pet gifts.
“We’ll have speakers, and resources to let people know how they can contribute,” said Harwood. “Austin and his dad will be there — he’s going to do a Q&A — and we have an emcee, Grant Paulson. Your ticket includes a free wine tasting before the show, a ‘Canine Kissing Booth’ with therapy dogs and local vendors, and a portion of the proceeds will go to the Montgomery County Humane Society.”
There’ll be a lot going on at the Arts Barn on Sunday evening, but at the center of it all is the child who decided he didn’t like the idea of homelessness — and made up his mind to do something about it. “Austin’s always been a caring, nurturing kid,” said TJ Perine, Austin’s father. “He has an older brother with autism, so he’s had a lifetime of practice. Compassion has come naturally to him, ever since he was able to comprehend.”
Perine credits his wife for instilling a sense of caring in Austin, although he himself and his father before him have performed community service with inner city kids in Birmingham for years. “The service thing is something that Austin has inherited,” he explained. “But he’s taken it to another level.”
Perine said that most of the people who meet his son, whether they’re homeless or not, are inspired by him. He offers hugs, high-fives and smiles along with the lunches he hands out —food that was at first funded by the boy’s allowance, and now comes from money raised by his nonprofit Show Love Foundation. It’s been just about a year since Austin’s crusade began, inspired by a TV nature show about pandas.
“We were watching television,” Perine recalled. “There was a mother bear that was leaving her cubs, and Austin became concerned about it.” To reassure his son, Perine explained that this was normal for pandas, that they’d be OK even if they were homeless for a while.
“He stopped me and asked me what was homeless,” Perine said. “And I told him that sometimes when you don’t have a mother and father around, you don’t have a home and food.” Soon Austin asked to see a homeless person, and when his dad showed him the boy wanted to do more. “He wanted to execute a solution — that’s the beautiful thing about it.” Austin, his father noted, “didn’t see gender, he didn’t see race: he saw a problem, and he wanted to be the solution.”
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, on a single night in 2018, roughly 553,000 people were experiencing homelessness in the United States. Jimmy Frazier-Bey, Information Manager for Homeless Services at the City of Gaithersburg, is in the trenches every day, working with clients whose mental illness, addiction and other issues have led to homelessness. The Gaithersburg native sees an event like #ShowLoveFest as a chance to draw attention to the problem of homelessness and its possible solutions.
“I try to get involved every time there’s an opportunity to inform and educate, to make the community aware of existing problems and how they can help,” said Frazier-Bey. “Fortunately, Gaithersburg has always been very supportive and active in addressing the needs of the community.”
From an outreach team that locates people in need of assistance to the Wells/Robertson House where homeless men and women in recovery from addiction can find transitional housing to case management and service coordination for formerly homeless people, the city works (often alongside the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services) to provide solutions to homelessness.
At the #ShowLoveFest, FrazierBey will say a few words about what is happening in Gaithersburg to help the homeless — and he’s looking forward to meeting Austin. “The child has taken the lead,” he said. “And I personally believe that that’s going to be part of our salvation: looking forward to what the youth do in our community. It’s a real uplifting thought for me.”
And for Grant Paulson, an Austin Perine fan who will act as the event’s master of ceremonies. “When I heard what they were doing, and that he was involved, I wanted to jump at the opportunity,” said the D.C. broadcaster, a host on NBC Sports Washington who serves as the Redskins insider for Fox 5 DC and whose “Grant & Danny” show can be heard weekdays on 106.7 The Fan. “I find his mission inspiring.”
Paulson first heard of Austin through social media; he and his wife became fans. “He’s so adorable,” Paulson said, “and it’s amazing: to be that young and be so aware of the impact you can have.”
A lot of us think about trying to make a difference, he added, “but to see someone doing what he’s doing is really amazing. And the more of a spotlight I can shine on someone who’s doing such amazing work, the better.
“We focus on the wrong things way too often,” he said. “It’s great to have the opportunity to accentuate the really incredible work that someone is doing at such a young age. He’s such an inspiring young man, but he’s also this cute little kid, and I don’t think people can get enough of him.”
And, as if Austin’s cuteness wasn’t enough, #ShowLoveFest will also feature some of the cuddliest working dogs around, courtesy of Pets on Wheels, the nonprofit that brings therapy animals to facilities and events across Maryland — hospitals, libraries, assisted living facilities, domestic violence shelters — to show love.
“Our work changes lives,” said Gina Kazimir, executive director of Pets on Wheels. “We have one veteran who, literally, started speaking again because of his interaction with our therapy pets. There’s an incredible power in the simple act of unconditional love. I am blessed and lucky to do this work, with some of the most amazing people on this earth.”
And the most amazing animals, of every kind. We have no breed or species restrictions,” she said. “We have a therapy alpaca, we have therapy tortoises, guinea pigs and ferrets; we even have a therapy macaw.”
The majority of the Pets on Wheels animals are dogs and cats, “and they’re all very special,” according to Kazimir, who said the organization’s volunteers bring their pets — all evaluated and chosen for temperament and energy level — to places where they can uplift the people they interact with. “The animal really has to want to be around people,” she said, “and to be comfortable in a variety of situations.”
One situation will be the Smooch-a-Pooch booth at #ShowLoveFest, where attendees will be able to cuddle with therapy dogs as part of the evening’s events. It’s all about showing love, raising awareness and bringing Austin Perine’s quest to alleviate homelessness to a broader audience.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that Austin has played an instrumental role, and it’s a beautiful thing,” Perine said. “People are conscious; people are coming up with a solution. The thought that Austin spearheaded it is like a dream come true.”
#ShowLoveFest will place Sunday, Feb. 10, at the Arts Barn, 311 Kent Square Road, Gaithersburg. Doors open at 6 p.m.; the show starts at 7 p.m. Tickets, $12, are available at https://artsonthegreen.ticketfly.com/event/1786667. Call 301-258-6394 or visit www.gaithersburgmd.gov.