As most of us prepare for the Fourth of July, with its fireworks, barbecues and picnics, vacations, and joyful gatherings with friends and loved ones, perhaps we should take a few moments to set forth some prayers for those who have not yet fully gained or even partially gained their freedom throughout the world.
Frederick Douglass had it right when he delivered a famous speech on July 5, 1852, in Corinthian Hall, Rochester, New York, addressing the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society. The speech, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” In the speech, he brought out the contradictions to a celebration of liberty, citizenship, and freedom as an offense to the black slaves, who had none of those things. The Fourth of July was supposed to be directed to ALL citizens of the United States.
The times have changed, but the inequality has grown out of proportion. Today, as we prepare for the Fourth of July, let us offer a prayer for those living under modern slavery, which encompasses more than some nearly 30,000,000,000 enslaved people (as of 2013) – adults, children and babies alike – no longer black slaves alone, but all colors, races, political, religious or spiritual or other beliefs – in every manner of slavery imaginable. The highest number of enslaved people is in Asia, but the United States has a huge number as well. No matter where these human beings are located or how many of them there are, we cannot blindly celebrate without remembering those who are not as fortunate as we are.
“Oh Lord, thank you for this freedom that you have bestowed upon me and those I love. I know how precious it is when I see how many people in this world are suffering every day because they have no hope. I have difficulty understanding this inequality, and I honestly don’t know what I can do to help except to offer this small and perhaps inadequate prayer. But what my soul cries out is WHY? Why must innocent people suffer in this manner when you have provided enough for all of us? I have no answers, Lord. I want to believe that there is some power in this world that is good and that can nourish and care for people who have done nothing to deserve what they are suffering. Thank you.”
This is who I am. I love to recycle things that have meant something to me. I found these shoes in a thrift store years ago. I fell in love with them because the shoe brand was something like Sam and Jane and they were about the most comfortable shoes I ever had with a soft sole and leather that seemed to breathe. The original shoes were brown, not gold. But one day as I went to get my shoes to go someplace, the sole of one was literally falling off of it. Of course I was heartbroken, but then I had this idea to make a play on words and to give one of the shoes a whole new life, so I came up with this idea.
The “wings” are on a base which is made from the sole of one shoe, and I found the most wonderful colored organiza with a nice stiffness to it that allowed me to cut out the little leaves. The leaves seemed appropriate to me because shoes wouldn’t tend to go up in the air (except for the kids who throw them over the telephone lines). And I remembered in the compass of my soul how much fun it was as a kid (and ok, I confess, as a grownup too) to jump in a pile of leaves). And I had to make her a happy and bright color full of life, for that is how I remembered those old comfy shoes.
It’s so many years later since I made her, “My Shoe’s Got Soul.” She’s still with me, and I imagine that she will still be when I take my last jump into those leaves. And it’s funny because she led me to write a story called “Tenshoes and the Skittyfoot” about ten orphan shoes who live in a trash dump, and every Saturday, the animals up in the meadow above hear “sootspeak” because the dump is putting out ugly smoke and it is mixed with the angry and sad words from the ten orphans arguing because they were just thrown away like they never mattered after living lives with adventure. They were never appreciated for who and what they were, and the dump is a horrible place to live.
The Skittyfoot is a little boy with red (really red) hair who comes to visit the creatures in the meadow every day, and the little boy can talk to them and they to him. They tell him about the Tenshoes, and that they want him to go and rescue the Tenshoes from the ugly dump and bring them up to the meadow where they can live safely. But before they can come up to the meadow, they have to find things and fix themselves up as best as they can. Just because they are orphans doesn’t mean they cannot have pride in themselves.
So the Skittyfoot goes down to the dump, and ultimately gets the tenshoes to clean and fix themselves up, and help each other, which they do. Ultimately they go to the meadow with the Skittyfoot, and the little creatures in the meadow all make them welcome and they will have a forever home where they are loved and treasured.
No, I never published Tenshoes and the Skittyfoot though I guess I could have. Some things just live on in our hearts and in the compass of our souls. I’ve been a sort of orphan too, and it took me awhile, for I didn’t have a Skittyfoot or other orphans like me to help, but I fixed myself up nice and clean (there is not and never has been anything related to drugs or other similar things but a transformation from being a childhood orphan), and now I can make things like “My Shoe’s Got Soul” to help others to feel good about themselves too.
Isn’t it strange how life brings little things into our consciousness to help us learn to grow and to care for ourselves, even if we were a kind of orphan in our younger lives? And using art to fix up an old shoe that brought happiness to a life can be a symbol of that. We don’t have to find fancy things or to do anything special to make it up to the meadow from the dump. The recognition of value in little things is what brings a true transformation to us in our lives. Your life, no matter how small you may think it is, is a miracle. Live it like the true gift it is.
Oh God, today I looked out into the hail and the sleet and the thunder, And I felt safe and warm inside with my animals. But then I thought about all those who are without homes or shelters. I thought of all the people in this world who go to bed hungry and cold, Or without something to help their thirst. I thought of the little children, who live in rags, dirty, and perhaps without shoes. And I felt ashamed, God. You created this world full of people of every color and culture, every language, every political and spiritual or religious belief system. You created all the creatures on this earth, and all the plants, and everything including the tiniest grains of sand. And it was good. We were all meant to be on this earth and to help it survive, or we would not be here. But instead, we hate those whose languages we cannot speak, whose cultures and spiritual or religious beliefs are not ours, and we seek ways to overcome every enemy, when in fact, our worst enemies are those in the compass of our hearts and our minds. We want to destroy those whom we believe are against us, and worst still, we create people who are invisible to us. They cry out in the streets, and in the bare spots along the train tracks. They look up with hope, but instead find empty stares, or people who don't even look at them. God, we have done shameful things to our fellow human beings, and to the creatures and the plants, and perhaps even the tiniest grains of sand. As we looked past the invisible ones, God, we looked past you. We go to churches and cathedrals and to our places of worship, and we proclaim loudly that we love you and we praise you, but we look right past you as you sit in the street with an empty cup, or we turn away in disgust at a mother with nothing to feed her child. We perhaps throw a rock at a stray animal, and God, you are in all of us, so we cannot say we love you when we have made you invisible. You created us ALL in your image, and so God, you are all the people who live on this wonderful earth, and you never told us that you loved everyone but the invisible people. Help us to truly open our eyes, God, and to open our hearts and our minds. Help us to see that every human being, every creature, every plant, and even the tiniest grains of sand are you, God.
My heart work is with special needs children which I did for some 15+ years. Sometime in the early 70’s or late 60’s my younger brother and only sibling came home from Vietnam 100% disabled with a TBI, a spinal injury, and permanent PTSD. It gave me that heart to work not only with the children, but with people with all forms of challenges – physical, developmental, and emotional. I have done that for the rest of my life to this day.
I was a Regulatory Compliance Specialist at 64, working for a major pharmaceutical manufacturer of plasma derivative products. I had done quality assurance for some years in my own business. I was a certified quality manager/certified quality auditor, so I knew what to look for wherever I went and whatever type of business it was. This would be to my detriment when the company decided to to sell to a company in Spain to get out from under a FDA action against the company for fairly major quality issues. When the company in Spain decided to purchase the company I was working with, I got laid off along with 400 others.
At 64, on unemployment and with no prospects of a job because of that title, I founded a very tiny and penniless nonprofit to assist physically challenged fiber artists with getting exposure and sales for their work and to assist them with professional development. I did this successfully on the side, always as a volunteer with the other volunteers for some 10 years. Shortly after I founded the nonprofit, I remembered that I had a certificate that would allow me to work with special needs children. I became a substitute for two different school districts, and I absolutely loved all the work I did in school. Life was good in those times. I had just enough to live on very modestly; spirit does not need a lot of money.
These were truly some of the happiest days in my life. When I was not at work with the children, I was providing assistance for the physically challenged artists with two other people – my paraplegic best friend, Barbara Williamson, who lived in Paradise, CA, the secretary of the nonprofit, and her caregiver, Rob, the treasurer, whose job was easiest of all since we had no money in the treasury. I had figured out how we could do a lot with nothing and so we did that for more than 10 years until we both suffered worse physical and mental challenges that made it difficult to continue that work.
We did write a book on the subject to get good closure. Last November, Barb and her caregiver had to escape with their lives from the horrible fire in Paradise that destroyed their home, the entire town and all of her art. I will never regret any of that work because she now has skills and knowledge to help her rebuild her life from what she learned during those years.
Most of all for me, there were the children. Some of the children I worked with were not only developmentally challenged; they had such major challenges as MS and childhood arthritis. There is something so special and beautiful about these children. If I had been married then and had an adequate home and finances to do it, I would have adopted as many of them as I could. Raising special needs children is no easy task nor a romantic one. Not only do they provide challenges throughout the days and nights; most of the time they will be in the care of the parents one way or the other for the remainder of their lives.
Special needs children often require bathroom assistance into and through their teen and even adult lives, as well as things like “failure-to-thrive” children, who must be helped to eat enough to help keep them alive. This is not a psychological issue; it is one that they are born with. I have had children I had to give enriched milk or other liquids to through a tube in their stomachs, and others who had to have a bucket accompany them to their lunch so they could throw up in it after eating a little. And then there is the physically reactive child. Some of them are runners, and will run off the playground if they can (and not even because they are unhappy, etc. but just because it is part of their makeup, and they are not running to a specific place, but just needing to run). And there are those who can deliver a huge punch; I was punched in the face and had my glasses broken, was bitten, had my hair pulled, was kicked and painfully pinched and slapped, pretty much all without warning. Some of the children are very strong for their sizes. If a child’s routine is broken in any way, or the child is unable to express his/her needs, you can expect that the child will react, sometimes violently.
But we become good at dealing with these issues, and most of us who work with them can see the beauty of the children and the wonder of their lives through all of the challenges. Sometimes their own parents cannot cope with them, or the parents do things that are not beneficial for the child such as over/under or irregularly medicating them or putting them into group homes when they become overwhelmed. It is one of those great societal issues where it is difficult to place blame, for anyone who has to deal with these issues day AND night every single day of the week without a break is going to have a true challenge.
As caregivers for special needs children, we are all referred to as mandated reporters, and it is our duty and legal obligation to report any type of abuse of any child. I honestly can’t tell you how many of those reports I filled out over the years for things I personally witnessed. And I can’t tell you how many of them were “shelved.” The schools in California at least are financed by children being in school, not when they are out sick or parents refuse to bring them to a specific school because of the behaviors of teachers or aides or others. I am pretty certain that most people reading this will understand the implications of this policy.
There are a lot of really wonderful and dedicated teachers, aides and others who work with special needs children. But there are also a lot of horrible ones, and I am not certain that situation will ever change in reality. There IS training available for how to work with such children and young people, but not all of those who work with them get that training or learn from it if they do get it. Most of what we learn to deal with well is learned from real-time experience along the way, and if a person’s heart is not in it, it will at best be mediocre.
At home, as I noted, parents are often stressed to the breaking point and there is no one generally to spell them or for them to talk to regularly – even support groups are very far and few between. The first sad thing too is that some children are labeled special needs because perhaps they are slow to learn to read or write, etc. Once they get such labels, they will have them through their entire lives. For me, that ensures that even the children who might otherwise have done well will just give up and not try to much.
I have long since realized that children grow at different rates, just as some walk really early, learn to use the potty really early, etc., and some take a long time. It is just the nature of life in this world. My daughter was potty trained when she barely started to sit up, and that was her own doing. She would put her tiny hands together and clap any time she was successful in her efforts. She could read well and talk well at age two, and she could memorize her storybooks too. My two sons were very different from that – slow to learn to do everything and slow to read. It is normal for children to progress at different rates.
One of the things that happens from the stress and other issues parents face is that special needs children are more often abandoned, abused, and even murdered than regular children. They are also very highly bullied. The problem however, is that the tallies on these crimes are all thrown in together with those of children who are not special needs, so as a result, no one knows the true figures. But some people who have studied and worked with the children have long thought that the figures are higher and it makes total sense. And if a special needs child ends up being institutionalized because of abuse or abandonment, there is little chance that the child will ever do better in this life. And the people (if parents) who do these things to special needs children, at least in the past, often did not get severe jail sentences if any at all. There used to be a young man who likely had Asperger’s, a high functioning level of autism, who wrote posts regularly about these issues. These young people can be and often are highly intelligent, but are unable to deal with socializing and interacting with others.
Even the best of parents with special needs childrens do not know all they need to do about what happens when their children grow up. Not all parents with older special needs children know about estate planning for the children. There are three very specific and important reasons that this needs to be addressed.
First is the fact that these children will need special physical and mental/emotional services all their lives, even the most proficient of them. This will involve very careful financial planning to ensure that the parent can provide such services.
Secondly, a special estate plan is the only way to ensure that the child can be provided for without having them become ineligible for government and private benefit programs.
And finally, if the parent is no longer alive or available, without such planning, the child can end up in an institution, or worse, can become homeless and at the mercy of every transient out there. I have actually witnessed such cases, and I am pretty certain that no parent would wish this on any child of theirs.
The best way for parents to plan for a special needs child is to set up a Special Needs Trust. In this instance, the parents appoint Trustees to manage the Trust for the child’s benefit. This person needs to be trustworthy, and someone who is capable mentally and emotionally, as well as financially to direct and manage the child’s care through the remainder of his/her life.
I am retired from working with the special needs children now since I was diagnosed with severe PTSD from heavy-duty traumas followed by cancer (cancer-free following surgery in 2016), but I still tutor privately, often as a volunteer these days with special needs or ESL (not always Spanish either) children and adults. I completed a degree later in 2016 in Criminal Justice with a minor in law, but could not work as a mentor/advocate for juvenile delinquents because of my age and the PTSD. I always keep trying to do what I can and I have been happy for whatever I have been able to contribute to the lives of special needs children as well as others with special challenges. It is not going to change what they go through overall, but it does help them for a moment in time and I am not sure what more any of us can do.
When I first moved to Calimesa in Southern California, I noted that the Garden of Angels in Desert Lawn Cemetery was located in my city. I had read about the cemetery in 1996 when a wonderful lady, Debi Faris, living in Yucaipa (next to Calimesa) heard a newscast about a newborn baby found dead in a duffle bag that had been tossed out on the San Pedro freeway.
Faris explained how that newscast impacted her life. “He was placed, I assume by his mother, in a pink duffle bag with the word ‘lifesaver’ written on the outside of it. This little child would change the course of my life,” she said.
“When I heard the news report about that newborn baby in the duffel bag … it touched me so deeply that I could not turn and walk away. He was a human being, so innocent and vulnerable. It tore at my heart that his mother could not see the ‘gift’ she had been given.”
Thus Faris began her life-long quest to make sure there would be a place to bury these abandoned or murdered children and she made education of teens and young people her priorities.
Soon thereafter, she contacted Senator Jim Brulte to get the laws of child abandonment changed. The abandonment law passed after some time and in 2001 the Safe Surrender for Newborns law became part of her legacy.
“On August 26, 1996, we buried the first three children in the Garden of Angels. Two abandoned newborn baby boys and a little girl about the age of two, apparently murdered, who had been found floating in a river. I gave them their names, Matthew, Nathan and Dora. Their names all have the same meaning … a gift from God.” She said her dad made wooden crosses and sent them to her from Oregon.
The names were important she said because, “These children had a name now … they would not be just a Coroner’s number.”
There is even one adult buried in the Garden. Grandpa John’s stone cross sits on the edge of the garden amidst the forest of monuments dedicated to the tiny children.
In 2002, Faris had received a call from the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office asking if she knew anyone or group who would take the body of an adult and give him a proper burial. “I said I didn’t and asked why,” she said.
The person on the other line proceeded to tell Faris they had a man who had died and as they were trying to find family to notify them of his death, they learned that as a baby, he had been found discarded in a trash can in July 1936.
The man, legally named John Doe Jr., had suffered brain damage, possibly from being thrown into the trash can and had apparently lived his life in institutions, she said.
“I told them I would take him,” she smiled. “Now he’s surrounded by all these children and he won’t ever be alone again.”
Debi Faris in the Garden of Angels
I attended several of the funerals at the Garden of Angels since I lived in the general area then. The first one I attended was for three babies, all in tiny caskets, and all wrapped in receiving blankets. Two of the caskets were no bigger than large boxes that might contain boots.
Debi Faris would drive from Yucaipa, CA all the way to Los Angeles, where the bodies of babies would be kept, along with every other person who was unidentified and/or unclaimed, and all the bodies would be cremated as one might burn trash. She would get the babies, clean their tiny bodies and wrap them in clean receiving blankets. Then she would sit with the babies for a short time, rocking them in a sort of loving action that a mother would make. And then she would bring them back to Calimesa, CA, to the Garden of Angels, and they would be put in their tiny caskets for the funerals.
The funerals I attended back around 2014 were beautiful ways to acknowledge a life that otherwise might have passed into the netherworld without their lives having been acknowledged. All the babies are given a first and sometimes middle name. They cannot get a last name because of legal issues, I imagine lest someone comes to claim any of them, which has never happened. There is singing. The song I heard was “I’ll Fly Away Home,” and it was truly touching. I know I shed some tears. When the little caskets are taken outside to the burial site, people stand over them and pray for them and white doves are released. They circle higher and higher in the sky over the site, and eventually begin to fly back home. At every holiday, the little graves are decorated with flowers and other gifts brought by different people who visit the cemetery. The Garden of Angels is a special part of the cemetery all of its own right near the front of the mortuary. There is a little pool nearby and birds and ducks come there frequently to visit the pond. It is a beautiful ceremony, and though sad, I think the fact that the babies are honored instead of being thrown away in trash cans, dumped in rivers, left out in the desert, or otherwise thrown away as a life without any value other than perhaps a 20-minute sex act (if that).
I have always been so touched by what this one woman did, a woman who was not wealthy, and who sold her family car to have money to bury the first three babies, that I too decided to do something as well in their honor. So I began collecting blue and white quilt blocks that various women have donated. I will ultimately bind each block individually and put them together horizontally so that the quilt can continue to grow. I had made a list of the babies and their names, and some people have chosen to embroider a child’s name on a block. I think when someone is talking to the young people at the high schools, it is a good visual aid to help them understand the reality of the issue.
Prior to the passing of the Safe Surrender for Newborns law, it is estimated that there were some 500 babies abandoned and/or murdered outright. Today as it stands, there are more than 100 babies in the cemetery. I have not been there lately so I am not sure of the exact number, but one baby is too many. For information on California’s Safely Surrendered Baby Law, go to babysafe.ca.gov.
Footnote: Debi Faris, after working so hard on this issue, actually won the lottery and her payout out of $26,000,000,000 was $9,000,000,000. She contributed some of it to the nonprofit organization that I believe now exists.