You want me to like you? I can do that.

Posted: September 11, 2012 in jail, Uncategorized
Tags: , ,

I got the call that I didn’t want to get. It was from a woman who heard about the work we were doing in Juvenile Hall and she wanted us to come to her place and work with her kids. Her name was Mama Betty. I didn’t know who she was but that didn’t matter. She wanted our help and insisted we show up. She gave me the directions and told me what time to be there. She got my name from my friend Denise. After I wrote down what she said, she hung-up.

I called Denise to find out what was going on. Denise had run into her on something else she was doing and they got to talking.

Mama Betty was from the South Pacific. She found a place to rent and started grabbing South Pacific Islander kids out of jail and having them live with her. How she was able to do this was something she never explained to us.

The problem wasn’t what she was doing. The problem was where the location was. It was in East Palo Alto which, at the time, was one of the top 10 worse ghetto’s in the United States. No, not in the Bay Area; in the United States. Everyone stayed away from there. My cousin had been a fireman and they would not go to a fire there without a police escort. He had been shot at several times before retiring. It was a place that was scary to see as you were driving 75 MPH down the freeway.

I didn’t want to go and I told Denise that. It was a very dangerous place and based on what she said, we were going to be walking into a situation without any security. A bunch of white people going to that part of town was a very bad idea.

Denise convinced me to go meet her and at least see the place. She said she would go with me, so off we went one afternoon.

The place we ended up was an abandoned store that was rundown on the outside. It was located in a tiny strip mall with a few other empty stores. I was nervous getting out of my car. There were lots of teenagers standing around on the street, all staring at us. Some called out to us. We kept our heads down, walked up to the door and knocked. Some of the kids were starting to circle around my car. The door opened and that was the first time I met Mama Betty. She looked up at the teenagers and they quickly ran.

She was short, very large with piercing brown eyes and dark skin. She looked us up and down, held the door open further and told us to come in. As soon as I stepped through the doorway, I was transported to the South Pacific.

Everything was spotless with lots of plants and furniture. The floor was bare. We walked into what looked to be a huge dance floor with couches and table all around. There were at least 10 teenagers sitting on the furniture, reading and talking. She took us into the kitchen and made us eat. The place smelled like heaven and I was suddenly starving. Before we could say anything, we each had a plate of food piled high. She looked down at me with a very stern look and said “You need to eat and get some meat on those bones. Eat and then we’ll talk.” I nodded and dug in. I was overweight at the time, but not to her. You just knew to do exactly what she said.

After eating, we sat and talked. She worked in the criminal justice system and was able to work with judges and probation officers to get the kids released to her custody. No warden was ever as tough or as kind as her.

She wanted us to run our program and was very clear that she couldn’t pay us.

“What makes you think we want your money?” I asked. “Don’t worry about it.”

“No, I pay my debts, but I want to make it clear that I will pay you. I will feed you when you come.”

I smiled. “That’s very nice of you. I have to be very honest with you. I am going to have a very tough time getting anyone to help. The neighborhood…”

“Then you must meet the children and after you do, then you come back to me and see what you think.”

With that said, she brought them in and had each one sit down and talk. They had all been in jail, they all had their stories and they were the politest kids I had ever met. I asked one a question and when he gave me a smart ass answer, she actually did smack him on the back of the head, made him sit up straight and apologize to me.

All was good until she brought in the last young man. His name was Timothy. He was very tall and large. He sat down and never once took his eyes off the floor. He would not respond to me. I waited for her to nudge him, but she did not. She stood back and when I looked up, I saw a tear run down her face.

Then I knew. This was the one she wanted help with. Whatever had happened to him was bad. He would not speak or look at anyone. I thanked him and he stood up and walked away with his head down.

I told Mama Betty I would see what I could do. I was not hopeful I could get anyone to help me, but she was right; after meeting all of them, I wanted to help.

It took a lot of work and quite a bit of pleading, but two weeks later I had a group of five additional people. Four women and one man. Driving up there that evening, we were nervous. We pulled up and they didn’t want to get out of the car even though the building was ten feet away. Just as I was opening up the car door, five of the young men from Mama Betty’s came out and escorted us in. Mama Betty had arranged the furniture so everyone had a place to sit at the tables. Food was brought in and so we began.

Timothy was there but sitting off to the side by himself. No one would go near him and he scared my group. I asked Mama Betty what to do with him.

“If any of you can get through to him, that would be enough.”

Over the next few weeks, we developed a routine. We would arrive, be escorted in and someone would stand by the car. We would be escorted out after hours of eating and teaching. It was difficult not to fall asleep on the way home from the work and the food.

Everyone had tried to get Timothy to talk and I started to see that the more they tried, the further withdrawn he would become. He also made them nervous and I was certain this made him more reluctant to talk. It was his size that was scaring them.

One night, I turned to class over to someone else and went and sat next to Timothy. I said nothing, I didn’t look at him or try to get him to talk. I just sat there. I did this every week and on the fifth week, I put my hand on his hand, very gently. He reached over, squeezed it and held on. We sat like that for over an hour. I still said nothing and didn’t look at him. When the class was over, I got up and left.

The next week, I did the same thing. This went on for three more weeks until one night, right after I sat down, he reached over and held my hand. I looked over and he looked up. He smiled. I smiled back. He then mumbled something.

I nudged him and indicated I hadn’t heard what he said. I was not going to speak to him until he spoke to me first. Until then, I would sit and we would hold hands.

“Do you think you could like me?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“That would be good,” he said and smiled. Mama Betty saw the exchange and was smart enough to leave us alone.

That’s what we did throughout the program. We sat and held hands. He would say something once in a while and I eventually started to see how bright and intelligent he was.

One day, I decided to ask him something.

“How come you don’t talk much?”

He squeezed my hand harder. “Because I don’t have anything to say to people who don’t listen.”

I chuckled. “That makes sense to me.”


I now smile every time I drive through East Palo Alto. I miss Timothy.

  1. Paul says:

    Jesus! What can I say? I’ve taught about “meeting people where they are” – being sensitive to their situation and mindset, but that’s just incredible!

  2. Paulissa says:

    Absolutely beautiful and those final lines- well they make so much sense to me. You are such a blessing in this world and I am honored to call you friend.

    I often feel as though because I am perceived to be and for the most part, am – strong that people don’t listen to me enough to take care of my needs. That leads to anxiety, panic attacks and depression for me.

    • Susan Lewis says:


      Yes, I run into the same thing. Talk to your friends. It’s OK for us to need them. It is what makes us strong.

      Plus you can always find me! 🙂


  3. singlewhitefemaledating says:

    Susan… your stories are so touching; it is hard to imagine what is like for the truly disadvantaged. Thanks for sharing your inspiring life experience. SWFD

    • Susan Lewis says:

      Thank you so much! I am glad you enjoy them.

      We all have bad days or weeks at times. When that happens to me, I try to keep it in perspective. I deal with what I have to deal with and then think about all the people who suffer and then my problems are no longer important.


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