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When A Game Is More Than A Game

6 Oct

CETS stops ACE defender at Worcester World Cup 2017.

On a sunny Saturday in August, I find myself totally absorbed as Togo wins a thrilling soccer – OK, real football ­– match over Myanmar on the second day of an international competition featuring teams from five continents. Only this showdown isn’t the World Cup most of us know, but the Worcester World Cup, now in its 12th year. And as clichéd as it sounds, the winners won’t be limited to Togo, or eventual champion Italy – victory at Foley Stadium could be found even in the youth exhibition game.

Which, in fact, is what I’ve come to see. African Community Education, where I’ve often volunteered, was playing the kids from Cultural Exchange Through Soccer – which, in the spirit of Cultural Exchange, also featured some ACE kids. Therence, my friend and mentoring partner at ACE, is defending for CETS, while Jemal, the adoptive son of my friends Joanne and Chris, is his normal fleet self at the opposite end of the field, putting pressure on the ACE defenders.

One of the hidden victories, of course, was that they are there at all. As refugees, they have seen their share of impoverishment and danger in Africa, as well as all the hurdles of adapting to life in a new country. Much of the work of their young lives lies simply in closing the gap between themselves and native English speakers. Often kids I meet at ACE came to the U.S. knowing more languages than I ­– who didn’t even take a foreign language course until I was 36 years old – and many a day I feel linguistically inadequate by comparison with the students I’m supposedly helping. But English isn’t one of the languages most of the ACE kids happened to know before they arrive here. Every day offers challenges in both doing written work and in decoding the language and culture swirling around them.

Therence stop

Terence thwarts a shot on goal.

But this is soccer, a physical language they know by reflex regardless of whether they speak the verbal languages of their opponents – a poetry of physicality offering its own richness of rhythm and rhyme. Here their actions are fluid and easy as they work the ball back and forth toward a common goal.

Which is a lot like Cultural Exchange Through Soccer itself – an organization that, from the beginning, was about much more than a sport.

“The original CETS vision was to unite neighbors in a diverse and seemingly divided neighborhood,” one of the organizers, Laura Suroviak, will tell me later via email. “Soccer came first for some of us. Community organizing/building for others. We found the perfect balance.”

Over the years, the program has evolved in surprising ways, with plenty of success stories along the way, according to Suroviak. One surprise was the emergence of a youth program to go along with the adult competition.

“CETS has become a successful youth leadership development organization over the years, without that having been an original intention. Our evolution has been very organic, which makes it successful to the core.

“Every time a young person who had joined simply to belong or to play soccer takes on a leadership role in our organization, it’s a success in the eyes of CETS. The success stories are innumerable.”


If success stories ­are measured by lives changed for the better, they extend beyond all of the immigrants on the field  to the fans in the stands. I’m a mere mentor to Therence, a strong and confident student who is blessed to have both parents and all his siblings with him here in Worcester, but when he shuts out the opposition for his entire half as a goalie, I still feel a surge of pride and joy as I click away with the camera on the sidelines. I can’t help but feel blessed – as if undeservingly invited to be part of a community, and a world, so much larger than myself.

Meanwhile, I’m lucky enough to be sitting with Joanne and Chris when Jemal, nimble and intuitive, take a shot from the side.

Sitting almost directly behind him, we follow the seemingly impossible arc of the ball he kicks – looping by first a clump of defenders, then the desperately reaching goalie twice Jemal’s size, before curling into the far top corner of the goal. We exclaim our disbelief over the sheer physics of the shot while teammates congratulate Jemal – who flashes his quick smile, then immerses himself again in the flow of the game, patrolling the field where he is, as much as any soccer player, a master of his own destiny.

Jemal kick

Playing for CETS against his ACE friends, Jemal takes a shot.

The African Community Education Fall Fundraiser is coming up Thursday, October 12th; learn more at (Or consider volunteering at either ACE or any of the other wide range of non-profits working with immigrant populations in the diverse community that is Worcester, among them Ascentria, Southeast Asian Coalition, Worcester Refugee Assistance Project, Training Resources of America, and more. To learn more about CETS, including a list of high school matches involving athletes in the program, click here.

Marching With Pride

12 Sep

Marching down Salisbury on a Saturday morning.

I’ve never been much of a marcher.

Sure, I like to WALK. I’ve even been known to HIKE. In extreme situations, such as when meeting with one student made me late to teach a whole classroom of them, I might even RUN. But this business of massing with other humans to march, to call out the same chants that have been used for decades – only plugging in the names of the latest enemies, who are just the faces of the same enemy (our general inhumanity to other humans, our selfish indifference to the impact of our actions on the most vulnerable, human and otherwise – is something I’ve avoided, partly out of despair.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve always admired the people who do march – at least, the ones on my side, and even the ones who aren’t. For one thing, they clearly get up earlier on a Saturday morning than I do. They are better at the arts and crafts aspect of the banner and costume-making process.

They know where to park.


On a much deeper level, I’ve always admired marchers for the way they value the communal connection of walking side by side with fellow believers, and the faith they place in the power of public statement, even when the protested injustice does not disappear overnight. My call to community participation has been more result-oriented. For years, it was Habitat for Humanity, which gives volunteers the gratification of a physically tangible product, a home for someone who needs one. Now it’s tutoring with African Community Education, where I can at least see that kid has finished his/her homework.

Marching, though, is something I’ve been sneaking up on. I almost pulled it off last year in San Francisco. I returned there to attend the Pride Sunday service at Glide Memorial Methodist Church – a radically inclusive church with deep roots in the LGBTQ community, as well as the homeless and a wide range of other people who often have been marginalized by churches. I rode the buoyant emotion of Glide’s blend of pass-the-mike personal testimonials and soulful gospel and R&B music, congregation swaying and holding hands during a prayer that openly explored the grief after the Orlando shootings less than two weeks earlier.

Moved by particular passion after the Florida tragedy, the defiantly joyful congregation then flowed out across downtown to the staging area of the parade – while I blew it by going back to the hotel to check out, only to succumb to the temptation of the computer, my need to pour out of mind all the observations sweeping over me from the service. By the time I got down to the route, the parade had commenced. I told myself it was easier to take in the spectacle of the parade if I weren’t in it. So I stuck to the sidewalk on Market, taking notes and photos as the very people I’d just met with went by – once again I was the stereotypical observer, one step removed from the action.


“Y’all means all” – the peddlers of Pride must’ve known I was coming.

So last Saturday in Worcester, I set out to remedy the situation at Worcester Pride. I overcame the practical obstacles – rummaging for the one shirt colorful enough to be Pride-worthy, trusting that someone would be selling on-site merch to make up for my distinct lack of rainbow clothing, that I’d find a group to insinuate myself with even though I was going alone, and that the eternal question that defines our lives in Worcester (“Where to park?”) would work itself out.

And, of course, it did. I made it to the staging area near Institute Park plenty early. There I mingled with a broad range of people from different eras and zones of my life, drawn to the parade by a variety of institutions and causes – united by the need, in these often intolerant times, to make a stand for kindness and inclusiveness, for love and grace, for a commitment to open-heartedness and open-mindedness that transcends human reflexes to the contrary. Plus, for the same reason I love New Orleans, I delighted in all the goofy colors and costumes of Pride – the Corgi-corn, a dog wearing a unicorn outfit – was one of the winners.

It was overpoweringly positive – friends and strangers defiantly making a serious statement while daring to laugh and to love. Meanwhile, others gathered along the route – in front of churches and one restaurant/bar, Armsby Abbey, that I attend more often than church – and cheered. I saw a half-dozen students and ex-students, and, in the spirit of the occasion, the professional handshake was discarded for the affectionate half-hug. Despite my 6-foot-5 height, as hugged at eye-level – for they were on the curb and, for once, I was not.

See the Worcester Telegram story and photos about Worcester Pride 2017 by going to this link.



Awe, Altruism, and Close Encounters

4 Sep

I think they’re actually standing on the deck of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Alabama in Mobile Bay, but in my heart they will always be at Devil’s Tower.

After an up-and-down first week back at work, followed by more ups and downs in my attempts at interior re-decorating, I slipped off to the movie theater Sunday. But the movie I chose won’t be up for any Oscars this year. It was Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the Stephen Spielberg classic, now back in theaters to celebrate the 40th anniversary of its release in 1977 – when I was a 19-year-old absolutely enthralled by what I saw, heard, and felt unfolding in the theater.

Of course, I could never feel the same way now, I cautioned myself as I drove to the theater. For one thing, I’ve seen the film, or parts of it, on television dozens of times in the four decades since. For another, I’ve made the mistake of teaching film, and as anyone who has taught anything they love knows, that’s always a threat to ruin the entire damn genre. You can become so hyper-aware of aesthetic criteria, dramatic conceivability, filmic technique, and other haughty intellectual concerns, you’re about as likely to enter the experience with an open heart as an atheist at a tent revival.

To make matters worse, the showing began with a short documentary interviewing Spielberg, his younger current-day counterpart J.J. Abrams, and Denis Villeneuve, the director of the deeply intelligent Arrival – so deeply intelligent and profound, it’s practically Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind. But several things were pointed out that actually enhanced the viewing. One was that Spielberg, for all his tendencies to overdo emotional manipulation in some films, genuinely had yearned to make just the connection his characters do in the film – to the point of repeatedly driving out to the desert to study the clear night sky, hoping to see a UFO. But that yearning in the film – so optimistic and idealistic in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate – is juxtaposed with ordinary people leading ordinary lives, raising children in modest and cluttered homes, with all of the normal family tensions and conflicts – as J.J. Abrams points out, the reality of those households immediately resonated with the people sitting in the theater. We were all invited to follow the characters played by Richard Dreyfus and Melinda Dillon into not one, but a series of close encounters that had to disrupt their lives before transforming them.

Such is the soundness of Spielberg’s psychological progression, I found I was still able to override the cognitive dissonance of the dozen or so times things happen that make no damn sense. Such quibbles, after all, are beside the point. I found myself moved almost to tears, even as I was the first time, sitting with my friend Joyce – who, after drying her eyes, said that Richard Dreyfus’s boarding of the alien spaceship made her “want to go with him.”

How can four decades of well-earned curmudgeon-hood be wiped away so easily? I pondered this afterward, while getting in a quick power walk on a paved hike-bike path next to the intersection of three highways.

The first thing that came to mind was a blog I had read only two days earlier. Friend and author Sarah Cavanagh, whose own research centers on positive psychology, had suggested that my essay about hiking in the Utah desert would be enhanced by checking out the “awe research” done at Cal-Berkley by Michele Shiota and Dacher Keltner. That led me, eventually, to Keltner’s essay on awe and altruism in Slate.


Seeing as a child sees.

Keltner defines awe as “the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your understanding of the world.” He notes that the attempt to articulate is “at the center of the world’s great spiritual traditions” (as well as, I’ll go ahead and add, some great films, or even some so-so ones).

Nothing surprising there. But then he cited Berkley studies that suggest that when people are exposed to awe, they’re more likely to show altruistic tendencies. In one experiment, subjects were asked to complete the sentence, “I am ________”; those who did so while facing an awe-imposing replica of a Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton were more likely “to define their individual selves in collectivist terms.” In another experiment, subjects asked to face a grove of Eucalyptus trees – the tallest in North America – were more likely to help a passerby who dropped his or her pens.

The implication?

In Keltner’s words, it’s this: “… being in the presence of vast things calls forth a more modest, less narcissistic self, which enables greater kindness toward others.”


As I walked, I wondered if the causal relationship works in reverse. Can our acts of kindness lead to connections that produce awe, that affirmation of being part of something larger you must respect? I don’t know the answer. But on my post-film stroll, I saw something for the first time. Forty years later, one of Close Encounters’ most defining traits – one that separates it from any other cinematic human-alien encounter before or sense – is the movie’s complete lack of physical violence. It’s an amazing trait for a film with plenty of wide-open chase scenes, conflicts, and visual spectacle. But there’s not a gunshot, not a stab, not a punch. (Sure, the aliens have this habit of borrowing one’s children without permission, but, hey, they have the manners to return them.) The only living things to come to a violent end are the shrubbery.

Not a soul in the film – even the mysterious network of scientists and military men who are often the villains in these stories – expresses any desire to presume some malicious attention, to pre-emptively attack those they don’t understand. Instead, they long to understand, and to be understood – and as a result they emerge with a different perception of their place in the universe. In the hate-ridden and violence-torn times in which we live, in so many ways mired in dichotomies that disrespect the deeper possibilities of connection, perhaps what we could all use are a few more Close Encounters with those different from ourselves – and more shared experiences of awe and altruism are good places to start.

And it doesn’t take a flying saucer to get you there. Amidst my power-walk reveries, two deer bounded onto my path, then disappeared into the foliage. I followed them through the rain-soaked brush, grass and reeds, fumbling after the deer with my iPhone camera at the ready, craving another dose of awe.

These days, we need all we can get.

Refugee Road

19 Aug

Many refugees who fled their home countries are now, under the hostile atmosphere of the Trump era, fleeing the U.S. for Canada – which poses its own legal barriers. In one of the ironies of history, that now means seeking backroads not into, but out of, the United States.

While official ports of entry into Canada will send the immigrants back to their previous country, an exception to the law allows people to apply for refugee status if they enter through country roads like Roxham Road near Champlain in upstate New York. This Associated Press article from August 10th tells the story. Since so many refugees are desperate not to return to the devastating war and poverty of their country of origin, hundreds are making the pilgrimage to Canada in hopes of a finding a nation which offers compassion and hope.

Sadly, at least for these particular refugees, the United States is no longer such a place.

The issues of immigration are complex. But regardless of where you draw the boundary in immigration law, this altered reality, unfolding against the backdrop of blatant racism in our country today, has to sadden anyone truly invested in the notion of America as a compassionate nation. But if you’re one of the ones who read this story linked above and need an outlet to convert negative feelings into positive action, you don’t need to drive to Champlain, NY. Just reach out to refugees who are already productive citizens right here  in our own community.

In Worcester, African Community Education, Ascentria, the Southeast Asian Coalition, and Worcester Refugee Assistance Project are just a few of the places that could use your skills, your financial support – and your compassionate presence, a reminder that, even in this confusing and self-contradictory nation, there are still millions of people who care … and who respect the long road those refugees have taken to be here with us now. And their presence can be even more a blessing in your own life.


Miracles, Even Now

8 Aug

When Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times isn’t providing thorough reporting and devastating critiques of the wrongs of our world, he’s providing plenty of news about altruistic and talented people making a positive difference.

One example is A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity, the book Kristof co-wrote with wife Sheryl WuDunn about some of the hundreds of altruistic efforts all over the world that actually work, as well as some that don’t.


Kristof speaks at World Economic Forum. (World Economic Forum/Monika Flueckiger.)

Another example is reporting about efforts like the one in this piece that appeared in The New York Times last month. (Sorry I am just now posting it.)

As often is the case with the stories Kristof reports, the fact the problem even exists in this day and age may outrage – but the success in overcoming it should inspire. While many are doing wanton and callous damage to the world’s most vulnerable citizens, others continue to take active responsibility for doing generous and even ingenious work to improve the lives of others.

The Service of Nature

12 Jul
Bryce frame 2

The hoodoos of Bryce Canyon greet the dawn.

This blog began as a way of chronicling my 2014 cross-country road trip – a journey devoted to volunteering and interviewing people about their causes. That sojourn of three months and a week became the basis for a book project titled, appropriately enough, “The Whole Service Trip.”

Three years later, I still highly recommend the experience itself – not only seeing so much of the richly varying landscapes and cities of America, but also the kinder side of Americans, giving to something larger than themselves. One of the most affirming phenomena was how those people gave to me – particularly when it came to story ideas for the next day’s journey.

There was just one problem – sometimes all those spontaneous suggestions got in the way of a more selfish, secondary agenda. I promised myself that once I got to the spectacular desert rock formations of northern Arizona and southern Utah, I would give myself over to my inner nature lover.

For 48 fleeting hours, I managed to do just that. I caught a richly colorful sunset from the south rim of the Grand Canyon – followed by a disappointingly gray and cold dawn after a cold front blew through – and made it up to Page for a raft ride through Glen Canyon, where the Colorado River has cut a path so deep, it warps one’s sense of proportion. Only, on that raft ride, I met yet another tourist who told me about another volunteer opportunity a few hours west in Kanab, Utah – Best Friends, the largest no-kill animal shelter in the United States. Duty called. So my days of exploring the Utah national parks became a quick two-hour jaunt up to the edge of Bryce Canyon, where I stared over the edge from a couple of spots for less than two hours … before then heading south to California.

Later it would be one of my journey’s greatest regrets. I told myself I would someday return to Utah. In the meantime, I finally read Edward Abbey’s legendary Desert Solitaire, his account of a year as a park ranger in Arches National Park – as well as two whole Wallace Stegner books and the better part of a third, and David Gessner’s All The Wild That Remains, built around his own road trip, as well as the exploring of, yes, Abbey and Stegner.

So this summer I finally gave myself that present – I wedged a week of Utah rambling between visits to Alabama family and California friends. I finally walked beneath and even behind a waterfall at Zion National Park and beheld the sunrise over the hundreds of hoodoo spires huddled against the edge of Bryce Canyon. I took a windy walk through a petrified forest. I left the sweeping landscapes of reds and oranges, pinks and yellows for a forest, only to emerge from the far side into even more sensational desert. Near Moab, I survived the hike up to Delicate Arch – as featured on so many Utah license plates – and from the Grand View Point at the edge of the Island in The Sky I felt the same panorama-induced awe I felt years ago when beholding the Grand Canyon.

Arch below 2

Delicate Arch dwarfs its admirers.

So, mission accomplished – if the mission had been the pure tourist drinking in of natural wonder. No interviews on site about people’s altruistic endeavors. No long nights of transcription in motel rooms. No lying awake after the lights were out, wondering how all this would fit into a book.

Yet in so many ways, this trip still felt like an outgrowth of that earlier “whole service trip.” For I went into this trip, well, a little more whole. On that trip I was on a search for a new direction in my own communal life; on this one, I felt compelled to send postcard after postcard to Therence, the teenage friend I work with through African Community Education.

On that trip, too, I might’ve blown through Utah’s big country far too quickly – but the seed of this year’s nature-gawking was planted. And the wonder of staring out at all those ancient geological formations – the rocks that will be here long after us and our problems have come and go can actually can empower us for to return to more communal calling. Yes, we live in dark times – even the national parks which I enjoyed so much are threatened by the crass commercial interests of those who now reign in Washington D.C. – yet it somehow helps to remember our smallness against the grand sweep of natural history.

Girl arch 1

Woman contemplates view from base of one of the Windows at Arches.

Consider my return from this latest, non-service trip – the first full day in my own apartment in more than a month. I made good on a promise to myself by gazing at more nature shows. In less than three hours, PBS shows hit on three highlights of that “whole service trip.” There was The Great Yellowstone Thaw, about the national park I passed through, then Big Pacific, a program on the Pacific Ocean that included the central California coast – where I’d interviewed many a volunteers. Then, most amazing, Travelscope took me to Port Aransas, Texas – where the TV show host was doing the same ride-along that I did three years ago with Tony Amos, the Brit-turned-Texan founder of Animal Rescue Keep – as he conducted another of almost 5,000 wildlife counts he’s done of the same three-mile stretch of Port Aransas beach.

After our dawn ride, during a late breakfast at one of his local hangouts, he told me how his volunteer work saves him from environmental pessimism. “I don’t see doom and gloom when I think of the environment. When I get out there, I see the sun rising over the horizon, I see the waves on the ocean, I see this and I see that … and I know that nature has got an ability to survive some of this stuff.”

And for some of us, at least, nature also has the ability to help us survive – or even, for that matter, transcend – ourselves.

Click here for the blog I wrote about Tony during my “whole service trip.”

Tony points Port A

Tony Amos directing me to come inspect the beach he’d driven almost 5,000 times.



Saint Cyr’s Long Run

15 Apr

Saint Cyr trains for the Boston Marathon. (WBZ-TV.)

On Palm Sunday at Assumption College, conscientious and creative students from Cinzia Pica-Smith’s Principles of Case Management class led scores of folks on a Refugee Walk around campus. At each stop, the students shared another part of the fictional narrative they’d carefully composed to reflect an African refugee’s journey from genocide through the bureaucratic hoops of the immigration process to a new life in the United States. The story and the images were both moving and inspiring.

The next day, in a classroom directly above one of the stops, Saint Cyr Dimanche visited my Life Stories class to discuss his own Refugee Walk – a roughly 2,000-mile journey on foot from war-torn Central African Republic to Cameroon, during which he and boys he fell in with had to avoid being killed by predators, animal and human.

Seeing the awe on our faces, Saint Cyr laughed.

“Ahh, it wasn’t that hard!”

Maybe that attitude is why, one week before he was set to run the Boston Marathon – and a day after he was interviewed for a story by WBZ in Boston – Saint Cyr seemed easy and relaxed as he spoke. He even assured us that compared to the slopes he trained on in the rugged terrain of Worcester, Heartbreak Hill isn’t that difficult.

Of course, Heartbreak Hill is considerably harder when you’ve run more than 20 miles to get there – just as Saint Cyr’s story points to a world of suffering he must have witnessed, and stoically overcome, to flee his home, avoid capture, reach Cameroon, and survive a construction job that put him in a hospital – where an American couple found him and advocated for him, helping push him through the process to have him adopted by Bob and Anne Bureau in Massachusetts. The Bureaus had 15 minutes to make a decision to accept Saint Cyr – who was closing in on his 18th birthday, which would have ended his eligibility in the refugee minors program – and they agreed even though they’d been told they spoke no common language. Thanks to the kindness of the Bureaus and agencies such as African Community Education – and most of all his courage and determination – Saint Cyr made up for missing most of his schooling while fleeing for his life; he’s now finishing his sophomore year at Brandeis University, studying international relations with an eye toward helping those in his homeland.

So one can hardly question Saint Cyr if he seems confident on the verge of Monday’s 26-mile, 200-yard run. After all, he’s seen longer.


Refugees and Redemption

14 Mar
Annunciation Ruben crop

Ruben Garcia in Annunciation House.

In class yesterday, while discussing Sonia Nazario’s Enrique’s Journey, I couldn’t help but quote Ruben Garcia, the founder of El Paso’s Annunciation House, on how the poor, even those in other countries, are intimately connected to us, whether we choose to take responsibility for it or not. I met Ruben back in 2014, on my cross-country road journey for my book project, The Whole Service Trip – and Ruben certainly provided more than his share of strong material. On top of the  economic and political connections our world has to that of the poor, there is the  spiritual and moral connection.  “The God of the scriptures,” Ruben asserted, identifies most with the poor. Thus, he argued, “the poor are our opportunities for holiness. What the poor have to offer us is nothing less than our own redemption.”

This year it seems that as a nation, we’re moving farther from that redemption, at least in terms that Ruben Garcia would recognize. Recent travel bans against immigrants serve as one of many prime examples from the first two months of the Trump presidency. Yet even with odds stacked against them, local individuals and groups keep fighting the good fight, as do, of course, the immigrants they serve.

Kaska Spring 2016 300

Yawo speaks at 2016 ACE Festival

Take Kaska Yawo and his colleagues at Catholic Charities, working to support refugees as they make new homes in Worcester. In today’s Telegram, Kaska and others discuss the challenges faced by refugees and those seeking to help them. Kaska, who came here as a refugee himself, has gone on to become a U.S. Citizen, helped countless people – and co-founded African Community Education, the agency where I happen to volunteer. So I’ve seen firsthand the ways that, even in times when brutal indifference and outright hatred seems to permeate the atmosphere, refugee kids and their families make slow but steady headway in carving out a life in a new country. As does the Worcester Refugee Assistance Project, Southeast Asian Coalition, and numerous other agencies who could our help and, in the process, allow us the privilege of connecting with people who, in all probably, have overcome far more than us.

You can help refugees in far more ways than you know. Obviously, you can protest loudly against inhumane policies. Reading the above link to the Telegram article might make you want to do just that.  But if you’re not inclined toward that kind of confrontation, simply volunteer at one of these agencies. You may not feel you have much to contribute, but I’m betting you do.

Take tutoring. You may consider yourself untraveled and unskilled in other languages, or feel that you haven’t been trained in how to tutor academic subjects. But if you speak the native tongue and knowing the local culture, you can help someone new to this country in more ways than you can probably imagine. Besides, some of the most powerful moments come when a student sees a tutor who doesn’t have all the answers right away – and then works with the tutor to get there together. Not to mention all the times a child from some other country, one who lacks confidence in negotiating anew world, realizes that s/he has plenty to teach us, too.

I’m sure Ruben Garcia would agree.


A Miracle Born of Careful Attention

7 Mar
Jill and colleague 6-18-14

At Santa Barbara Rescue Mission, Jill visits with colleague from another agency.

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.

Merry Shaqmas

21 Dec

While individual acts of charity can’t make up for negative structural changes likely to be pushed by our next President, the current hostile environment also makes individual acts of kindness stand particularly tall – particularly when it’s in the form of 7-foot-1 NBA Hall of Fame center Shaquille O’Neal.

When Shaq’s significant other asked about doing something for 30 kids at an agency in Central Massachusetts, his only condition was that they needed to get more kids.

And organizers did – 400 of them, to be exact.

Read the rest of the story in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette. In this age where there’s so much unapologetically self-entitled greed, it’s good to be reminded that there’s still plenty of affluent people who model a sense of social responsibility to something larger than themselves.

As the paper pointed out, it wouldn’t be a particularly good idea for the behemoth with the size-22 shoes – and what looks to be more pounds than the 325 he played at – to go sliding down anyone’s chimney this Christmas Eve.

Just the same, merry Shaqmas to all, and to all a good night.



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