By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
In 1967 she skipped town to Dallas with her best--and only--friend, Woody, who even then was pushing 400 pounds. "He was like my personal army," Hendrixson says. "I always used to think it was cool to cause people pain, and Woody agreed with that 100 percent." The two raised as much hell as they could, pushing the limits of drugs and alcohol and spending a year in Mexico. Hendrixson later found a job at the Greyhound Bus print shop and eventually bowed to an illegal immigrant friend's incessant requests for a birth certificate, which soon became a steady sideline.
"I didn't care," she says of her mindset at the time. "I didn't care what happened--but I didn't think that would happen." What happened was a year in prison that began two days after Christmas in 1982. Her family disowned her, her female housemate at the time sold her house out from under her, and she emerged with a convict's survival instinct and not much else. "My world outside had collapsed," Hendrixson says. A post-office rampage somehow became her most appealing option.
But as she reached for the doorknob that day, a voice began speaking out of the darkness, clearly audible and emanating from just over her left shoulder. "The voice sounded like my father," she remembers. "Not my real dad, but speaking to me as if it was my father."
"You listened to man, and you ended up in prison," the voice said gently. "Listen to me, and see where I lead you." It went on for nearly 30 minutes, Hendrixson recalls, telling her it needed her help with young people. It said she would have to make 1,000 pieces to a puzzle, "and once I've made enough pieces I'll begin to see the picture."
"This is weird, right?" Hendrixson asks, breaking off her account. "This is sounding really weird." Hendrixon is no Bible-thumper: Her speech is often laced with profanity, and she regards organized religion with disdain. Yet she has no doubt that the voice speaking to her that day was that of God and that the mission it gave her is a holy one.
Even so, Hendrixson's life didn't change overnight. She originally conceived of Bajito Onda simply as a way to keep herself sane. "My program was just a safe place in society to cling to, to keep from careening into the black hole that I was in mentally for so many years," Hendrixson says. "I know it works, because I'm the first person it worked on."
When she walked into Woody's house in 1993 and found him dead on the floor, his heart no longer able to sustain his by then 600-pound bulk, she determined to take Bajito Onda to the next level. To that point it had been little more than a struggling printing business where her Latino gang friends knew they could take their lowrider art and have her put it onto T-shirts for free. She incorporated as a 501(c)(3) charity in 1994.
One of her earliest supporters was a fellow printer, Raymundo Sanchez. Hendrixson took in a rebellious son he could no longer handle. "She had a way of controlling him," Sanchez says. "Her words were strong but not rude. They caught your attention." Sanchez was soon helping Hendrixson become an accomplished printer. "He must have come and rescued me a hundred times," Hendrixson says. In turn, she straightened out the junior Sanchez, who is now married with his own business in Dallas, says his father.
Hendrixson alternated living with various benefactors and crashing at her shop. Her circle of supporters expanded, but as fast as money came in, she would give it away. Then in 2001, she got an e-mail from Beth Gilbert, a midlevel employee for the Maine highway department. Gilbert, a serious, heavyset woman with short, dark hair, was looking for a life change after a divorce. The two quickly struck up a friendship, and Gilbert, who had worked for 16 years in a world of flow charts and feasibility studies, became painfully aware of how badly Hendrixson needed organizational help. Gilbert packed up her truck and drove the 1,900 miles to Texas. "I really had faith in Del," Gilbert says. "I really believed she had a plan and would make things work."
She found a daunting task ahead of her. "The very first day I came in to work they were pulling a five-foot black snake out of the warehouse," Gilbert says. Hendrixson had no place to stay and no money to pay Gilbert a salary. They lived in a wooden shed that sat on the print-shop floor. Gilbert donated her truck to Bajito Onda, and her $35,000 retirement fund from the Maine highway department soon followed.
Things grew tougher when the agencies that had been supplying Bajito Onda's workers decided to pull out. "We had heard of [financial] improprieties," says Dwayne Fisher, the Community Supervision and Corrections official that handled the case. "We checked them out, and they appeared to be legitimate." Hendrixson says the agency hinted that she had been taking money in exchange for signing off on community service hours. "Let me tell you something--every probationer that walked through that door offered money," she says. "Did I take it? No." But she couldn't prove it, and the agency adopted a better-safe-than-sorry policy. As Jim Mills, the interim Dallas director of the agency, puts it, "We've got plenty of places out there that aren't having allegations made against them, so let's send our people to them."