Facebook redemption

- Fair to say Billy Poole once had the world by the tail - good job, plenty of friends, physically fit.

But on Christmas morning seven years ago, life turned mean on a dime and the one time football standout got blindsided.

"As soon as I went to the emergency room they knew I was having a stroke. They rolled me right back. I was 35. They said he's having a stroke," said Poole whose been advised sleep apnea triggered the attack.

And it did damage, the permanent kind. Billy couldn't work, couldn't do a lot of things.

"I felt like I was nothing after the stroke, like I was no use to anybody."

There would be no let up. As Billy struggled, cancer claimed both his parents and a marriage failed. Scraping by on disability, his descent proved steady, deep and painful.

"Depression put me where I didn't want to be here," said the father of two sons.

Billy drew some comfort keeping up with old friends on Facebook.

Perched squarely on the brink of self-destruction, the digital bridge would prove a path to self-preservation.

"I had to get busy doing something, because I was just wasting away," said Poole.

For Billy, a new millennium epiphany followed. 

What if instead of merely scrolling through their pages he actually tracked his friends down for some genuine, honest-to-goodness Facetime, preserving the newly made memory with the posting of a selfie?

"I thought it was a stupid idea at first, but everybody seemed to embrace it." That has proven an understatement.

Like a relentless bounty hunter, Billy Poole has followed more than 300 trails in search of friend, after friend, after Facebook friend, reconnecting heart to heart with people on which he hadn't laid eyes in years and sometimes decades, shedding his depression with each embrace.

"They get a hug and I get a smile." And when you've been where Billy's been, that's no small thing.

"I'm a big tough guy, but I'm also a cry baby," said Poole, now 42. From a plane high in the North Texas sky to a helicopter hanger on Ft. Hood, there's no friend too far flung to discourage Poole's pursuit.

Each successful re-union recorded via selfie and posted on his page.

In the close knit community of Mont Belvieu, where Billy's lived much of his life, word of his outreach has resonated rapidly.

"This is going to help him and I'm so proud of it. He smiles all the time. And I want him to smile on the inside now," said longtime friend Alisha Anderson. 

"Before I had to hunt them down, but now they are telling me where they are," said Poole with a smile.

And many are just stopping by. Billy's known Chris Sapp since kindergarten, same with Christi Broadway.

Close once, with adulthood they drifted apart. Billy's battle, his vulnerability, has brought them back.

"I can't believe all the good he's doing from it. It's just making other people think," said Broadway.

"It makes you say, hey we need to hangout more. We need to be in touch more. We need to lift each other up and that's really what life is all about," said Sapp.

For Billy Poole, a phone camera, a friend's address and a tank of gas have delivered far more healing than any pill.

These days, re-engaging with people for whom he cares is the sole component of his prescription.

"People have invited me into their houses and into their lives. I'm seeing something you can't see on Facebook," said Poole.

His hashtag, #projectselfiesdefeatdepression.

At Barbers Hill Elementary, where Billy once spent many a day, four more friends emerge. They are now among those steadily filling that empty spot, one hug, one selfie at a time. 341 down and a life worth living to go.

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