There’s a reason that during my book project, The Whole Service Trip, Jill Wallerstedt, an advocate for the homeless in Santa Barbara, California, merited virtually an entire chapter for herself. Just as it’s not surprising that when I present stories about many of people I met while driving coast to coast talking to people about their causes, she winds up being one of the ones audiences take to most. A person who lives the social gospel, Jill is also as adept as anyone I know at seeing past the boundaries and labels that limit so many of our efforts to help others; she engages as easily and matter-of-factly with homeless clients as she does with anyone else in her life, while at the same time taking a hard line when a client needs a course correction. Along the way, she pays close attention to what’s being said between the lines of conversation.
She’s always stated this makes her no different than most people who work with homeless populations. The below story – told directly by Jill – underscores how patient diligence on the part of both Jill and others made, in Jill’s words, a “miracle” happen right before her eyes earlier this week. The story serves as a reminder to all of us that, even amid all of the justifiable moral outrage and outright despair those who care about the less fortunate are feeling these days, we still have diligent, caring people out there, achieving victories that, even if they don’t change the course of national politics, make a huge difference in the lives of particular people.
Jill’s story, as told by Jill:
Yesterday I witnessed a miracle. Here is my story about it.
Her smile brightens her whole face and yours too. She has literally nothing we count for happiness, but she shines from within. If you knew her you would agree she deserves a miracle. Today she got hers.
I first met Mary on the steps of the Santa Barbara Public Library two years ago. I was looking for her but I didn’t know what she looked like. She fit the description I was given at the Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital Homeless Roundtable meeting – small, thin, blonde hair, bright blue eyes.
“Mary?” I asked, sitting down next to her.
She smiled in reply.
“My name is Jill. I work at the Santa Barbara Rescue Mission. I hear you are living here at the library. I thought I’d stop by and see if there’s anything I can get for you or help you with.”
It’s a direct approach, but one that works with homeless people.
Mary thought a cup of coffee would be nice, so we went across the street to a café and got to know each other. She was indeed living outside the library, sleeping under a statue, and she spent her days inside doing research when she wasn’t walking the streets of our beautiful city. We found out we had some things in common, and she began to trust me.
What makes Mary’s story unique is that she has amnesia from an accident 11 years ago. She cannot remember her real name, her social security number, or any identifying information. This means, for all legal intents and purposes, she does not exist. She cannot get an ID card, Social Security card, Medi-Cal, or Food Stamps, which are some of the first steps homeless people can take to get back on their feet. More importantly, she cannot apply for housing. Even her memories before the accident were affected, like being able to recall her children’s or parents’ names or where she most recently lived, so contacting family was impossible.
A cup of coffee bloomed into a two-year friendship that started with once-a-week meals for six months until she agreed to come indoors at night at the Rescue Mission. She stayed with us intermittently, as she loved being outdoors at night in good weather. We kept in touch at the Rescue Mission’s Drop-In Center when we could.
Other outreach professionals from the Santa Barbara Police Department’s Restorative Court, Doctors Without Walls, Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital and PATH Santa Barbara have also tried various ways to help her. The name Mary Roberts with her birthdate did not trigger any identifying information in any police or legal database. Live Scan fingerprinting brought up only information since her accident. Every turn became a dead end.
However, the art of conversation is a powerful healer. As we went out together, we often talked about our pasts and compared notes. Sometimes an anecdote I shared would trigger a memory for her. She would get an “Aha!” look in her bright blue eyes and say, “That reminds me…” I learned she is an intelligent, spiritual person, who was raised on a farm and worked with her father outdoors. She had several good jobs and was married, but could not remember factual details about these things. She told me she accepted her amnesia and homelessness as a blessing in disguise. Even though she owned only a sleeping bag and a few clothes when I first met her, slept outdoors in all manner of weather, and had no money of her own, she appreciated the freedom of being without society’s pressures and demands.
For the past year, Mary has been safe in the PATH Santa Barbara shelter, with a roof over her head and three meals a day. But still, no closer to having any options for the future.
In February, I realized that I had not seen Mary in about 3 months. I wrote a letter to her at PATH asking if she wanted to go out for lunch. She called a few days later and we went to eat near the beach. During our lunch, she mentioned that she had some numbers floating around in her head that might be her Social Security number. I encouraged her to go to the Social Security Office and see if the number corresponded to her records. Even though she did not remember her first name, she thought she knew her last name. I told her that Social Security can ask questions from your work history and various addresses to confirm your identity, so it was worth a trip there.
Mary went to Social Security a few days later, and she had the representative call me and put me on speaker phone. I was able to explain her situation to him. With her birthdate, the social security number, her last name, and the questions, he was able to verify her identity. Surprisingly, at first she did not recognize her real first name, Kayannette. As close as she was to getting her social security card, she could not remember her mother’s maiden name. The representative was unable to help, except to give her a letter of denial and request for a photo ID to take to the DMV.
On Friday February 17, I talked to her at PATH and offered to take her to the DMV. It was the worst rain storm in recent history here, and she declined. However, I asked if she remembered ever having a California ID. She said she had, and she would try to remember details.
Fast forward to yesterday. I got a phone message from Mureen Brown of Restorative Court saying they had found Mary’s family! Mary – now Kayannette – had gone to Carmen Uribe, a staff member at PATH, to provide her Social Security number, her actual name, and the fact that she had remembered she had a driver’s license in 2000 in Cambria, CA (before her accident.) Carmen called Mureen who searched DMV records to find a Driver’s License in that name and birthdate. Looking at the photo, she was sure it was the same person. She then searched the missing person’s database and found that her family had filed a missing person’s report 10 years and 10 months ago. Kayannette was found!
In unbelievably fast time, Maureen contacted one of Kayannette’s three children, a son. He then contacted his other brother and sister, and they all flew to Santa Barbara today for a reunion.
I was incredibly blessed to be invited to meet them and to see my friend Kayannette experience the miracle that we all wished would happen for her, but didn’t expect. There are no words for the joy and tears and awe of that family in the same space together for the first time in 11 years, making plans for a future together. She will be living near one of her sons for a while here in California. She will also be traveling to Colorado to reunite with her 91-year-old father!
Truly, this is the stuff of dreams, as they say, a true dream that will warm the hearts of everyone who knew Kayannette and now know her children. I’ll always treasure this day, especially remembering the smile on her face. Indescribable.