Sunday, August 17, 2014

Give a Hand to Homeless: Bring Back Community Spirit to Silicon Valley

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           I work in a high school that is located essentially across a swanky shopping center from a homeless shelter. The InnVision Opportunity Center is a local resource for families, and sometimes single individuals. Palo Alto is a magnet for people in need of shelter, with the train close by and more services available than the neighboring towns. If you were a woman in need, and could get no response from the folks at the shelter, what would be your next alternative to ask for help? Maybe Stanford Hospital, the police department, or even a nearby school?

            One late spring evening I stayed late to catch up on my work. It was the day after our school-wide service day, one of my signature efforts for the year. A former student poked his head in the door, introducing me to his girlfriend whom he was touring around his old alma mater. Then he said in passing, “And, oh, by the way, did you know there is a homeless lady down the hall in the kitchen?” The entire building was closed, except for a door leading from the staff lounge/kitchen to the lacrosse field where our team was playing. I took my time, because I wrongly felt that I had already done my duty by orchestrating the Service Day activities for hundreds of students and dozens of nonprofit organizations.

            But “the meek shall inherit the earth,” and I had no right to discriminate between this woman's situation and the needs of the organizations our students had worked to benefit. The thought that there was someone with no place to sleep that night haunted me out of my office and into the hallway of the Tower Building.

            “Hi, are you looking for someone?” I inquired of the unkempt middle-aged woman sitting at a table in the staff lounge.

            “Hi, I’m Colleen. I got turned away at the shelter and I’m looking for a place to stay tonight.”

            I stepped out of the kitchen, into the doorway looking onto the lacrosse field. Nightfall brought unusually crisp temperatures tonight.

            “I’m not sure if I can help, but I’ll try. Do you have any identification? A cell phone?” Colleen showed me the contents of her purse, which contained a passport, comb, and other items that looked of little use. “Hang onto that passport, it’s like gold for you right now.” Colleen told me she knew that it was her only worthwhile possession. She also explained that the reason she had no belongings was that she had gotten mixed up with a bad person and she had to flee. We talked about whether she needed to go to the hospital. She told me she had already been, and they had discharged her. At this point, I could tell she had mental health issues and I knew I was way out of my element. Colleen needed to get to a place where there were professionals who could counsel and guide her—not a high school staff member.

            In the end, I rallied two students, Audrie and Claire, by Facebook alert, as they just happened to be over at the lacrosse match. Claire is a regular volunteer at the shelter, so between her and the friend, and myself all calling shelters around town on a Friday night and wishing for someone, anyone to answer the phone—we finally found a place for Colleen. We loaded her into a taxi with instructions for the driver to call us when he had safely delivered her to the shelter downtown San Jose.

            We had given this tender woman our cell phone numbers, email addresses, but never heard from her after that chilly springtime evening. I was grateful that she didn’t have to spent that particular night outside—but regretted her problem wouldn’t be relieved with one taxi ride. There are others like Colleen, such as Cathryn, who came to the very same hallway exactly one month later. I have a story about Cathryn too, rolling her suitcase through the Tower Building. I tried to shy away again, but knew this situation was staring me in the face for a reason. By connecting mentally challenged and middle-aged Cathryn to a couple of fellow shelter seekers, I watched the spirit of community facilitate good works as the more seasoned pair warmly offered to escort Cathryn to the shuttle that would deliver her to a warm bed for the weekend in East Palo Alto.

            It’s a season away, and I think about these two ladies a lot, and the profound message affecting me, as with other experiences helping others from the shelter-seeking population. Silicon Valley didn’t used to be the way it is, with every man (woman) for himself or herself. I grew up here when we were buoyed daily by true community spirit.  I wish for that former sense of care, when the valley wasn’t driven by manic entrepreneurs in search of the next big idea. The first concept that helped us grow into what we’ve become started with welcoming all and taking care of each other. 

NEWS FLASH Fall 2014: Board of Supervisors takes action

Palo Alto's Downtown Streets Team Success Story!

Get Involved: Community Working Group with Opportunity Center, Palo Alto

Get Involved: Volunteer at InnVision in the Bay Area

LifeBuzz: They Asked Homeless People To Write Down A Fact About Themselves…

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Mother and Son Good Works Challenge

There are so many stories I could have written over the past six months, but have been a little out of sorts. Last week, my newly-married son, Brody, and I had a really nice conversation over the phone about "transformational experiences." I had told him about a somewhat negative response I received from a twenty-something woman when I tried to inform her that we had almost crashed due to her malfunctioning car headlight. My intention had been to "help her," but she took offense and snapped something out of her window across a couple of lanes of traffic. The rest of the way back to my daughter's home, a half-hour drive in pitch dark, I considered this young woman's defensive response and how I might have made a difference for good, instead of turning the situation negative for both of us.

Brody and I talked about the ideal response to the headlamp situation, based on the teachings from his favorite coach Tony Robbins and on my goal of spreading goodness in the world--especially when things are not easy in my own life. So, here is our exchange, a mother-and-son challenge for each of us to handle an otherwise aggravating circumstance, and make it transformational for the person or people with whom we feel annoyed in the moment. We planned to have such an experience within the week, watching for a situation in which we would go the extra mile to create change.

First, Brody's story of transformation...He's a hip twenty-something, and I'm an English teacher--so I couldn't refrain from adding caps and punctuation. :-)

Congrats momma on a very good experience!!  I also had an experience at Home Depot. We were walking to get into the checkout line and noticed a couple of people that were in line got out of line and went to the self check out. When we got into the isle for checkout there were 3 young children counting change on the counter trying to buy candy. They were each going to make their own purchase with their own money which was admirable but the old familiar feelings wer boiling inside and I began to notice my mind wondering why they were doing this at home depot? why right now? This isn't a grocery store or candy store so why are they taking so long. And they need to be more considerate of people who were shopping at home depot for the right reason. But after noticing those thoughts and remembering our conversation I had two choices, do what the other people had done before me and angrily walk out of the line to the self checkout area or take the more difficult road so I decided to act quickly before I thought about it too much and so I told the cashier to put all of the candy the children were buying on our purchase and I would pay for their candy. It was gratifying to see the look on the kids' faces and I made sure to tell them that the next time they purchase candy they all needed to share the money they were spending because I had gotten there a little late and one of them had already purchased her candy. They were very sweet kinds and thanked Laura and me about ten times before running out the door and returning to their home which I hope wasn't too far away so they didn't cross any major roads. 

And next, Momma/Bina's...

I don't love going to movies alone, but realize I'll miss the good ones if I don't venture out. So, Friday night (date night, for some) I went to the late showing, of "The Hundred-Foot Journey." It was playing at a big complex with smallish inner theaters, and I was very happy to arrive early and spread out across a few seats with my purse and smuggled-in popcorn. The theater seemed like it was filling up, but there was still lots of room below the railing and walkway--closer to the screen.

Just as the trailers finished, a middle-aged couple stood near "my" row and the woman asked, "Would you mind moving down so we can take those 2 seats?" I looked down at all the empty seats below the railing, and looked at her date. He seemed a bit embarrassed that she was asking someone to move--after the lights had already dimmed. He just looked across the theater, and in the direction of the empty seats. She had a very insistent look on her face, and said, "I'll go blind if I sit down there."

I really, really wanted to say "No." But, I thought about our conversation, and knew I had to oblige--and find a way to go the extra mile here. So, instead of grumpily shuffling over, I looked up, smiled, and said, "Sure, no problem!" We all became very cozy in that row, with the guy right next to me wondering what had happened all of a sudden. :)

The next move could have been the real transformation, but I got shy and didn't do it. I thought, to meet the challenge I had with my son, I should offer them some of my smuggled popcorn. I thought about it a few times--so it was the right thing to do. But, no, I chickened out on that part. Instead, I opted for chatting with them at the end of the movie. It was a lot more coziness than I was comfortable with, but surprisingly I did regret not making the food offering. I'll have to try another challenge this week to get to that point, for sure.

Finally, Brody's wife Laura added this inspiring Facebook snippet today. 

I'm grateful to a son who created change within my own heart by talking about these ideas with me, and for being the mature, deep-thinking young man that he is. The challenge of looking for an opportunity set a positive, sweet tone for me during an otherwise difficult week. Thank you, Brody!