Posted: September 12, 2012 in Uncategorized

For the previous post on this, go to this link and then come back here :https://idisagreecompletely.com/2012/09/11/you-want-me-to-like-you-i-can-do-that/

He and I spent the program sitting in the back, holding hands and listening. Cheryl had taken over for me on teaching the program and was doing a great job. All the kids were responding well to her. They were quite interactive, constantly raising their hands, discussing what they thought and challenging her.

And laughing. People learn best in a fun and silly environment. I strongly encourage laughter while teaching. We did have a few food fights during the program, which is completely against our policy. I think we enjoyed it as much as the kids.

Timothy and I would sit in the back and watch. He would often comment to me what he thought. He wasn’t missing one thing and was sharp as a tack.

One day Mama Betty approached me after class. Timothy had soon become one of our guards on getting us in and out of the building. The kids were always quite kind to him and no one hassled him. They accepted him just as he was, which is something I think many adults need to learn.

“I need your help for something. Thanksgiving is right around the corner and I would like to feed everyone.”

I assumed she meant everyone at her center.

“Sure. How many kids do you have now?”

“No, I mean East Palo Alto. I want to feed them and I’ll need your help…”

And off we went on another project for her. We all jumped into it, got others to help and made the necessary apologies to our families for not being able to show up for dinner on Thanksgiving.

Spending the day serving hungry and homeless people is something I was never quite prepared for. It was a tremendous amount of work for all of us and we ended up running out of food, but to watch children and adults line up for food broke my heart. All of them were grateful and most of them turned around and pitched in to help after they fed their families. We had more help than we knew what to do with.

Timothy helped carry heavy boxes, unloading the cars and moving tables around. He never spoke but just worked. He kept close to me and Mama Betty and stayed away from everyone else. When one man I was serving food to said something inappropriate to me, I saw his eyes grow large as he looked behind me. Timothy had heard him and stepped up close and was looming behind me and glaring at the man.

The man shut-up and left. I looked up at Timothy and nodded. He looked at the ground and stepped back.

After the New Year and our break from the program, I got a call from Mama Betty. “They’re shutting me down and I need your help.”

Long discussions ensued but the bottom line was this – she had been funding her program herself when the government money ran out or wasn’t quite enough and we had done some fund-raising, but there had been budget cuts and she lost all of her funding. This was a huge blow to her and all of us. We had become family. She was not worried about herself. She was worried about her kids.

She was just like the rest of us; poor as a church mouse and yet we always managed to figure something out.

Not this time.

“What happens to them?” I asked.

“We lose them to the system. They go back until they are 18 and then they are on their own.”

We were going to lose Timothy. The others would be fine, but not him.

Over the next few weeks, we tried everything we could think of. I had no idea what to do. She had many contacts and none of them would help her. These were “throw away kids” though no one ever had the guts to say that to her. She couldn’t get one damn public service employee to listen to her, and this was a strong and loud woman who took no crap from anyone. People often complied with her because once she set her mind on something, there was no stopping her.

She made me look like a timid and scared wallflower.

She was shut down the following month and the kids were taken into custody and farmed out. They all ended up all over various facilities in California.

I went to her house one evening after she called me. We sat and drank coffee. She was heart-broken but had been in touch with all of the kids and they were hanging in there. I started crying and she told me to knock it off.

“Timothy is in Juvenile Hall, awaiting placement. He doesn’t have anyone who can take him in so there’s no place to send him. He will most likely go to the ranch and stay there until he turns 18.”

“How old IS he?” I asked. He was so tall and big, it was hard to tell.

“He’s only fifteen years old.”

“I can’t do this anymore. I just can’t…”

She grabbed me, pulled me out of the chair and put her hands on my shoulders. “You can and you will, just like the rest of us. You know what your problem is?”

I shook my head.

“You’re a guppy, swimming with the sharks and you don’t even know it. That’s your problem,” she said. “You think you’re a shark and you’re not.”

She was right.

I would like to tell you that I saw him again and we held hands and laughed. I would like to tell you that everything turned out just fine and life always has a happy ending and he and I walked off into the sunset, sharing private jokes and throwing food at each other.

I would like to think that there are people who truly feel that crime needs to be stopped and criminals can be rehabilitated.

But I don’t think that. I think that empty prison beds must be filled to keep the money flowing and people employed. There is no profit if “throw away kids” are helped and loved. Where is the profit if someone never re-offends? There isn’t any.

All it would have taken to save the program and these kids was ONE person in the entire system standing up for us and demanding it. That’s all we wanted and no one did it. Why? Because it wouldn’t have helped them upon re-election. That’s the reality that I know.

Yes, there are many of us that do this work quietly and steadily. And though I may write about it, never forget that my stories include so many nameless people who helped. My stories are only from my point of view and my experience. Most of them wish to remain anonymous. I will always respect that wish.

But it’s about time someone talked about what it’s really like to walk into an intentionally created snake pit and come out alive from it. Barely alive, but I still have a pulse.

I made the fatal error after this of becoming known for the work my group did in two counties. It was a fatal error because we were viciously attacked, personally and professionally. That story can never be told due to the vested interests that crime continue. We hit too close to the pocket-book. But it was well planned and executed. None of us saw it coming and we all paid a heavy price for the work we had done. Mine is only one of many stories.

We were all guppies and the sharks knew it.

I believe that people are good and are often misguided. I will never subscribe to the notion that anyone is natively bad. People do bad things but there is a basic rightness of the individual and all you have to do is get them to see it. Punishment only re-enforces more badness. Focusing on the goodness gives you more goodness.

As long as people are further punished for their misdeeds and have no safe haven to go to, the badness is reinforced. It will continue and I believe that our system is set-up to make sure the vicious cycle continues. It’s not accidental.

I have refused all requests to come back. I now only help on a one-on-one basis and never tell anyone about it. I am under the radar and will stay there for as long as I live.

  1. Wow, Susan this is so powerful and spot on. God bless you and what you do. Continue to speak your truth and do your work. Rehabilitation and change are possible; if it weren’t what purpose would there be for redemption? Keep believing in the basic goodness of man. I have longed believed that everyone carries some good within and if were aren’t seeing it, that just means we aren’t looking hard enough or have not waited long enough. Much love to you, my friend. Paulissa Kipp

    • Susan Lewis says:

      Thanks Paulissa.

      This was probably one of the hardest and emotional posts I’ve ever done. When I think about what happened, what was done to us, well…I’m not as forgiving and understanding that I normally am.

      But we now do our work quietly and effectively, so don’t tell anyone, OK?

      Many hugs to you my dear friend.