The Invisible People

Thelma Smith, “Capoeisitera”

My good fiber arts friend of many years, Thelma Smith, made this series of homeless people she met up with when she was searching for her son, Norman, who suffered from mental/emotional issues probably stemming from a developmental challenge. She generally made the quilts bigger than real life, painted them and then stitched them. She also put very few facial features on them in one way giving them dignity, and in another way showing them as the invisible people in our society. This series of quilts always held great appeal for me and I always wished she could have put it out into a public gallery where a lot of people could see it and realize how important and unaddressed this problem is today.

Left Turn Lane Series Quilt by Thelma Smith

I think of the homeless people all the time. I have had young people show up in my classrooms, and when I offered them food that I used to bring for my teens who were in my study class, they would come back everyday just to get a breakfast/lunch though they were not actually in my classroom. They would come during a break when the other children were gone and always would talk to me. I remember one boy who told me his folks and he and his sisters and brothers were sleeping on the floor in a store owned by someone who knew them. I always made sure he took extra food. I cannot begin to imagine what a child who is homeless must go through emotionally, having to keep it a secret to prevent being bullied, and arriving at school hungry in the morning. The homeless are “cracks in the pavement.” We see them, but pass right by them as we would step on those cracks.

Thelma Smith – Left Turn Lane Series

I’ve seen and tried to help a lot of homeless people in my life. Sometimes the people are clearly suffering so much, I could not possibly help but cry. How sad is it to see an elderly woman in barely enough raggedy clothes to protect her from the cold, pushing a recycled wheelchair likely from a garbage throwaway, with her husband in it, and the only blanket covering him as she tried to protect and push him to the free clinic near where I used to live. But the saddest thing is how others turn away from them, pretending they don’t exist.

Left Turn Lane Series by Thelma Smith

All of these people at one time or another were probably just like you and me. It may have been only for a very short time when they were very young, but we need to remember that they are human beings just like us. We cannot know what happened in their lives to make them into homeless people, but it had to be dramatic. No one wants to live out in the rain or snow, and to sleep on concrete or on the cold ground, to have to find food in trash cans, or to go to the bathroom out wherever they can find a place, and have no way to clean themselves at all. And no one wants to get hurt, tortured, raped, or murdered perhaps for as little as the blanket they are using to keep warm.

Wild Bill, Thelma Smith’s Left Turn Lane Series

Their need to communicate is no different than ours. I remember when I was out of work from one of those jobs with a big title, and could not find a job, not because I was not qualified, but I was overqualified. I too had a short period of semi-homelessness. Luckily I had a lot of friends who would let me stay a night or two at their home and feed me and my pets, and I did find another job quickly. The time was never wasted. I was working as a volunteer at Harbor UCLA Medical Center, a teaching hospital, and if I worked four hours, I got a free lunch in the doctor’s cafeteria, which had the best food. I would get a salad, a full meal, and dessert. So I would eat my salad for lunch, wrap up my dinner and desert and have that later. I could go to the free clinic and get in quickly since I had my volunteer vest on, and I could also get needed shots downstairs in the hospital. I quickly taught myself how to go in the library and do my own medical research to determine pretty much accurately every time what I had, and the doctors in the free clinic always looked forward to treating me because I saved them time and always made the correct diagnosis. It is a habit that has followed me thru life, and I have made the right choices every time by doing my research.

I had the priviledge of working as a volunteer in the Neonatal Section of the hospital, where we treated hundreds of women with all manner of issues – homelessness, drugs, poor prenatal care, etc. I was responsible for the Newborn Hearing Screening, and I did my job well. The people I worked with actually wanted to hire me, but as hospitals tend to do things, they decided to hire a service instead so that they would not have the expense of an employee (i.e. benefits, etc.) to deal with. I also taught the women in the Neonatal Section about the benefits of breastfeeding when it was possible. The drug addicts could not nurse their babies, and it was heartbreaking to watch the babies shaking and crying all the time from the damage done to their tiny systems.

One night a Hispanic young lady came in and had her baby. It was premature, and would have to stay in the hospital, but she wanted to breastfeed her baby. I suspect she came over to the U.S. as a mule, or person who came over with drugs inserted somewhere in her body, a very common thing. We fixed her up with the equipment to pump her breasts for the baby, and she left for the group home she was staying in. She was NOT one of the drug people at all, and a very sweet and very young woman. I doubt she was older than 17, and possibly younger. She never came back to to the hospital, and we suspected that she was picked up again by the men who watch out for the mules, or some other form of human trafficking. So the problem was that the police could not look for someone they knew absolutely nothing about. She was literally an invisible person. Now a child will potentially grow up without ever knowing its mother, and a mother somewhere might be mourning her loss, or perhaps be even dead. We will never know. I send prayers for the homeless, and I am glad that Thelma Smith gave them dignity by not painting their faces, and making them bigger than life.

Heroes

When I saw the photo of this beautiful and diminutive lady in the newspaper, I was inspired to create her likeness in a quilt which is still not finished. There is something about finishing it that reminds me of her life, for her goal is unfinished, and her country of Myanmar is still unfinished in the sense of gaining freedom for her people, so in a way it seems appropriate to be unfinished. I will finish it I am certain, but I have to make some adjustments to it in the direction she is facing and the overall size, etc. of the quilt. Giving it texture will enhance the quilt greatly just as giving texture to life enhances it as well.

I love people who make a commitment in life that they will pursue despite whatever challenges or dangers they face in the process. Called “The Father of Democracy” by the people of the country, her father was assassinated when Aung San Suu Kyi was just two years old. Despite such heart-breaking challenges, she steadfastly stuck by her beliefs even though she was under house arrest for years and has faced unbelievable circumstances. Her husband and two sons had to move outside the country. When her husband was stricken with cancer, she was told that she could go to be with him in his time of need, but that if she did, she could never come back. What a heart-rending decision had to be made and what incredible sacrifices the whole family made.

Yes, she is one of my heroes. No matter how much I might believe in something, I am not sure I could ever have given so much to such an immense cause.

It is good to have heroes in this life as I have noted before. We all need to know that when we are called to do something difficult, there are others who have made a path for us to follow. Perhaps those in her country who are against her are just waiting out the time when she too will pass on. Although she won the Nobel prize during the time she lived under house arrest not much has changed in Myanmar to this day.

If the time comes that I have to stand up and fight for a cause in my lifetime that I too will have the courage to stay strong and be brave until my last moments on this earth. I long for the all of earth’s people to learn to work together for our mutual benefit, and to realize and respect that we are all sacred and here on this earth by some great design.

An Angel Among Us

pexels-newborn baby 2

Photo Courtesy Pexels

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.

Garden of Angels Cemetery at Desert Lawn in Calimesa

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.”

Forsale

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.

The Dog

My Sweet Bunny 8052013

Bunny, by Anne Copeland

I was filled with grief

When I discovered the poor dog

Lying outside in the mud, rain pouring down

An empty jug where the dog was chained.

Ribs and hip bones standing out as if you had been months without food.

Sacred being, how could they defile you in this manner?

How could they forget that you needed love the same as everyone?

How could they simply treat you as if you were no more than a rock.

I wanted to go and bang on their windows until they came outside,

But instead,

I worked on the collar that the chain was attached to

Until it was open

And I picked you up

Carried you home

And loved you every single day

Through the last day of your life.

You are sacred, you are loved

Forever.