A dozen or so parents — mostly moms — sit in a wide circle on the grass at El Dorado Park in Long Beach.
As the adults chat, their kids do whatever the spirit moves them to do.
This could be flipping through one of a handful of educational books in the center of the circle. More likely, it’ll be an improvised activity of some sort, perhaps working together to produce an impromptu play. Or playing a game of touch football — an all-ages, low-stakes game in which, at some point, an older kid might carry a younger kid clutching the ball across the goal line.
It’s a typical Wednesday afternoon for the Dragon Tree Home Learners, a group of home-school families who meet once a week so their children can socialize and play.
Mind you, this isn’t recess; Dragon Tree takes playtime much more seriously than that. To them, playing in the park for as many as five hours or more at a time is an important part of school.
“Those long hours of uninterrupted play — nobody ringing bells and telling them to stop right in the middle of something — lets them develop very elaborate things to do,” said Pam Sorooshian, a founder of the 18-year-old group who shows up every Wednesday even though her own three daughters are now college-educated young adults.
Sorooshian herself subscribes to a form of home schooling known as “un-schooling,” which rejects the highly structured approach taken by public schools and many private ones. She argues that the public school system has actually become more cookie-cutter than ever, which in turn is driving record numbers of people to educate their children at home.
“Back in the ’80s, you had whole language, constructive math, multiple intelligences,” she said. “With the advent of things like (the federal) No Child Left Behind, that all went out the window. Now it’s all about being ready for standardized tests.”
The Dragon Tree group is definitely a nontraditional crowd. Some of the boys in the group wear their hair long. Every summer, the group celebrates the birthday of Harry Potter with a potluck and wand-making party.
But in the years since the group’s 1995 inception, most of the students have wound up attending four-year colleges and obtaining their bachelor’s degree, Sorooshian said.
Why home schooling
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, several parents at the park shared their reasons for home-schooling their kids.
Laura Jane, a yoga therapist from Long Beach, said traditional schools can have a way of squeezing the passion out of learning.
“I love the idea of my kids just loving learning,” she said. “To come out of it loving writing, loving reading, loving math. It’s a really exciting idea. Perhaps that can happen more easily if it wasn’t something that was forced or structured or judged or evaluated.”
Jane herself has a bachelor’s degree from San Diego State and a master’s in psychology from Pepperdine University. Although she all but disavows it.
“Now I can see how that system got me off track,” she said. “I spent another 10 years trying to figure out what really was my way.”
Angie Williams, a hairstylist in her late 30s who colors her own tresses pink, didn’t like high school until she was allowed to complete a year at home through independent studies.
“I didn’t like learning from books,” she said. “I didn’t like being cooped up in a classroom. I didn’t like being told what to learn and when to learn it.”
It was then that she decided she would like her own children to learn at home someday. Now they do. Williams says she plans to home-school her 10- and 6-year-olds all the way through high school, unless they request otherwise.
“My son knows that he has that choice, and he is not curious about school at all,” she said.
In part, that’s because his friends who do attend traditional school have all that homework.
“He gets perplexed by the idea that they can’t come out to play until 5 or 6,” she said. “He’s like, ‘My gosh, they go to school all day and have to come home and do more school?’ I’m like, ‘Yep.’ ”
Some home-schooling parents opt for more structure than others. A parent named Melinda — who declined to provide her last name — said she and her two children don’t divvy up the day by subject area.
“When we’re home schooling, we’re not really focused on whether it’s math or history or social studies,” she said, noting that the kids do occasionally attend classes for home-schoolers. “But they get math and history and reading and language — it could be all coming from one source. They like to watch YouTube videos. They like to play video games. They don’t know it, but they really do like math and logic. Puzzles and games.”
Conversely, another parent, an anthropologist from Sweden who declined to share her name, joined an independent charter school called Sky Mountain that provides some curriculum. Every 20 days, an education specialist from the charter school pays a visit to ensure the students are on track.
“We like to start off with that, to make sure we are not completely losing our way,” she said.
The Dragon Tree parents tend not to fret much about college.
Melinda said that because her son wants to be a pilot, a four-year school might not be necessary.
“We kind of live in a day and age where college may not be as important as maybe going to a tech school,” she said.
Her husband, she adds, is a successful network engineer who never finished college.
Jane feels the same way, although she said her 12-year-old daughter has already expressed a strong desire to go.
“Not because she thinks she should or has to and won’t be a success if she doesn’t, but just because it sounds fun,” she said. “Which is kind of the way we like to live.”
Imagine walking into class on the first day of high school and learning that your teacher is 50 Cent. Or Oliver Stone. Or Suze Orman. Or David Arquette. Or Jesse Jackson.
That’s what really happened to a group of high school dropouts from around Los Angeles in “Dream School,” a soon-to-begin reality TV series that prominently features Steven Keller, superintendent of the Redondo Beach Unified School District, as the principal.
The premise of the show: Fifteen wayward students are given four weeks to pass four tests and earn 10 credits in what amounts to their final chance to graduate high school on time.
How Keller got involved with a production that has no ties to his suburban school district is one of those things that can happen only when you live and work in close proximity to Hollywood. Keller was minding his own business when he got a call from an old boss, whose daughter is a producer on the show.
“I chuckled at getting the call,” Keller said. “I haven’t been a principal for 15 years. My first question was: Do I have the ability to get back on the bike?”
He decided to go for it. And so it came to pass that Keller became a key character on the cast of a six-part, unscripted series that premiers Oct. 7 on the Sundance Channel. The veteran educator stresses that he took vacation days or weekends to work at the school, whose classes took place in a mansion in Eagle Rock this past spring.
In addition to capitalizing on the everyday dramas of high school life, “Dream School” aims to shine a spotlight on how, for millions of students across the nation, staying on the path to graduation is like trying to walk across a greasy balance beam a mile long.
Nicole DeFusco, a vice president of original programming at the Sundance Channel, said the aim is also to convey a message of hope.
“One person can make a difference,” she said. “I hope the audience remembers how to be awe-inspired and to remember that people can overcome rough starts. People can overcome being given not a great chance.”
The pilot opens with a flash on the screen of the number 26. To wit: So large is the dropout rate among U.S. high schools that one student gets the boot or calls it quits every 26 seconds.
(The nation’s dropout rate — that is, the percentage of 16- to 24-year-olds who are not enrolled in school and have not earned a high school credential — has actually improved in recent years, from 12 percent in 2007 to 7 percent in 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Education.)
Regardless of the veracity of the 26-second statistic, the struggles of the 15 students are all too real.
There is Mary, a single, teen mom who has lost too many friends to violence. Alan, born Alyssa, a transgender teen who was once a good student until bullies chased her out. Devon, who dropped out after eighth grade to care for his cancer-stricken mother before she succumbed. Tyla, who has been kicked out of seven schools for fighting. And Mike, who was expelled for punching a principal.
Not all of them are poor. Sam was kicked out of a private school for smoking.
The students agreed to participate in the show knowing only that they would be on TV, and that their teachers were highly successful in their fields. So when they arrive fresh off the bus to meet Keller on the steps of the school, they appear merely curious, maybe even a little eager. But it isn’t until Keller introduces them to their first teacher — Curtis James Jackson III, aka 50 Cent — that they become visibly amazed.
At the cue, out of the school’s front door and down the steps hustles a sport-coat clad Mr. Jackson, creator of such mega-hits as “In Da Club,” whose video features him shirtless, covered in tats and grinding with women on the dance floor.
(Jackson is also one of the show’s two executive producers, the other being celebrity chef Jamie Oliver.)
“How many of you like money?” Jackson asks, prompting a chorus of affirmation among the teens. “If you don’t actually graduate, chances are you’ll make a million dollars less than someone who does graduate in your entire lifetime. … Whatever you’re passionate about, this is your opportunity to get to it.”
Celebrities or no celebrities, it wouldn’t be reality TV if the drama didn’t kick in quickly, and on this score, the pilot doesn’t disappoint. The first hint of it occurs not long after the ringing of the first school bell.
Jackson — who counts among his youthful indiscretions the selling of crack cocaine — finds himself thrust into the unfamiliar role of rule enforcer when trying to collect the students’ cellphones. One of the students, a tough-looking dude wearing earplugs, claims not to have one, putting the “teacher” in a position of having to assess the validity of the claim.
“How about you buy me a phone and I’ll give it to you,” the kid cracks.
One theme that emerges: no matter your level of fame or success, teaching is not easy.
Students, for instance, are initially wowed to meet one of their history professors, Academy Award-winning director Oliver Stone. But halfway through the first lesson, which Stone delivers in conjunction with American University historian Peter Kuznick, the students are snoring.
With a wink to the euphemistic syntax of the education world, Keller refers to the teachers’ history lesson as “content rich.” Putting a finer point on it, he adds: “They can finger-point all they want, but honestly, they’re both failing.”
A school that is filled with disadvantaged students means the teachers, too, start off with a disadvantage. The students in Stone’s history class appeared to be starting from scratch, unaware of some of the most basic givens. One student thought World War II was fought during the 19th century. (“No, that’s the Civil War,” corrects Stone.)
DeFusco said watching the masters of certain domains learn the ropes of another — teaching — is part of the show’s appeal.
“Some of them came out of the first day sweating,” she said, but she noted that those who stumbled also adjusted their approach. “We didn’t have one teacher who failed to really reach the kids.”
Sadly, not all of the students earned the right to participate in a graduation ceremony at the end. DeFusco said the production company put those students in contact with resources to help them continue their studies.
As for Keller, if the pilot episode is any indication, “Dream School” kept him plenty busy. Over the course of it, he chases down underage students smoking on campus, deals with a difficult parent over the phone, consoles a student after the death of two friends and sternly addresses a girl who made a fantastical excuse for playing hooky. (“A hawk kidnapped my dog.”)
“I’m one of those people who tends to be more on the critical side,” he said. “But I believe (the show) is pretty authentic. … People might be critical and say, ‘They know there’s a camera on them.’ You ask any kid, after the first day, the cameras become just window blinds. They blend in.”
“Fame, the Musical” is a tale about an eclectic mix of high school kids — some from hardscrabble backgrounds — who find family and purpose on stage.
So who better to cast in the production than an eclectic mix of high school kids, some from hardscrabble backgrounds?
That’s essentially the reality of a summer theater troupe for teenagers and young adults in San Pedro that will perform the show this weekend at the Warner Grand Theatre.
Much as the singers, dancers and actors who attend the fictitious Performing Arts High in New York City grapple with learning disabilities, weight issues or drug addiction, some of the real-life California kids portraying them come from families that have faced the hardships of poverty, abuse, neglect — even murder.
“We are living what we do,” said Marcia Barryte, director of the show made possible by a nonprofit group called Scalawag Productions. “It’s been a really strange experience.”
One of the leads is played by Isaiah Barrett, a newly graduated senior at Narbonne High whose mother nine years ago held him and his siblings captive in closets for four days until they escaped and turned her in to police.
Another, 18-year-old Tarah Wells, was only 6 when she witnessed the shooting death of her father in a dispute over a campsite parking spot. While the immediate aftermath was difficult, Tarah said the loss really didn’t hit her until her teenage years.
“I started to realize my have friends all have dads,” she said.
Around her freshman year, Tarah began to find refuge in creative pursuits.
“I started writing music and started to find ways to just let it out and not be so sad,” she said.
Financed largely by corporate groups and local donors, Scalawag Productions is a nonprofit founded in 2011 that offers summer theater training for students ages 14 to 22.
Tuition for the five-week program is $395, but company sponsorships are sometimes available for the those who can’t afford it. The size of the troupe is kept small, around 25, to better ensure one-on-one training and coaching.
Although some of the students come from the school of hard knocks, a disadvantaged background is not a requirement for participation. This year’s cast includes sons of single moms who struggle to make rent and daughters of CEOs who live on the Palos Verdes Peninsula.
“It’s a lovely mix of kids,” said Gale Kadota, the producer of the program who co-founded Scalawag with Anthony Pirozzi. “They come from all walks of life.”
One young actor, Michael Mesias, also a senior at Narbonne High, lives in household so strapped financially the family was nearly evicted last month. Because his mom has a disability, it became too difficult for him to get to school for the last three months of this year and he had to be home-schooled.
Michael, an aspiring ballet dancer, portrays the fictitious Jack Zackowski, an aspiring ballet dancer from Russia.
In other cases, the similarities between actors and character aren’t quite as parallel.
Isaiah portrays Tyrone, the rough-around-the-edges dancing phenom who struggles to hide his dyslexia. Isaiah is far from dyslexic; he just graduated from Narbonne with a 3.8 GPA and this fall will head to UC Santa Barbara.
But Isaiah said he relates to Tyrone.
“I can see he’s going through struggles,” he said. “He’s not the richest guy.”
When Isaiah was 8, living in South Los Angeles, his drug-abusing mother not only locked him and his siblings and cousins in closets for multiple days, she warned that she’d kill anyone who escaped.
“She had weapons,” he said. “Me and my two brothers managed to get out and save my little sister and five of my cousins.”
The children ran to the nearest police station and turned her in.
Growing up, Isaiah lived with a variety of adults — his grandparents, an uncle, foster parents, his biological father — but learned early on to fend for himself. Even though he’s just 17, he rents his own apartment.
Isaiah is also an athlete — last year he played cornerback with Narbonne’s state championship football team — but he says he finds the most camaraderie in theater.
“You really make families on stage, it’s crazy,” he said.
The adults at Scalawag Productions look out for the students, he said, noting how Kadota gives him a ride every day to rehearsal from his apartment in Lomita because he doesn’t have a car.
Tarah, who considers herself reserved, plays the role of Carmen Diaz, a brash firecracker who makes an ill-fated trek to Hollywood with a sketchy agent in search of fortune and fame.
“She’s kind of the opposite of me — she acts on impulse and is very attitudy,” Tarah said. “She’s just spunky, and really fun to play because I’m just sweet. I think about things a lot and try not to do stupid stuff.”
Whereas Carmen’s struggles come as a result of her own choices — she became a stripper and a drug addict — Tarah’s troubles were thrust upon her by cruel fate.
In 2001, when she was 6, Tarah and her family were in an RV, looking for a place to spend the night at Morro Bay State Beach. The campground was packed, and the family noticed a van was taking up two spots.
Tarah watched from a window of the RV while her older brother and a cousin — both 11 at the time — went to knock on the door of the van to ask if the driver could make room for them. The driver, 42-year-old Stephen Deflaun, became belligerent. Tarah’s father, Stephen Wells, ran out to the van to scold Deflaun for being so rude to the children.
Wells and the two boys headed for the ranger’s station to report the man. Deflaun took out a handgun and started firing. A bullet hit 11-year-old Jerry Rios in the head, killing him instantly. Deflaun then took aim at Tarah’s dad and fired. Stephen Wells went down.
Enraged, Deflaun stormed into the Wells’ camper.
“He pointed a gun at us,” Tarah said. “He said, ‘Why did you have to F with me? Do you have a gun?’ ”
Deflaun, a paranoid schizophrenic, didn’t go to prison. Instead, after being found incompetent to stand trial, he was committed to Atascadero State Hospital.
At Narbonne High, Tarah, a singer who writes songs and plays them with her guitar-playing brother, discovered another form of artistic therapy: acting. She took a class in theater arts, and was struck by something the teachers said.
“They would talk about being different people, and getting into imaginary minds, and playing that character,” she said. “I remember thinking, when she was telling me that, ‘Wow, that’s cool.’ Trying to be somebody else might make you feel better about what your life really is.
“Plus it’s fun and it’s a good way to stay out of trouble.”
Not long ago, Alex Carrera was killing time at a yard sale when she spied a book that caught her attention: “The Trouble With Boys. ”
The fourth-grade teacher at Felton Elementary School in Lennox fished a dollar out of her purse and made the purchase.
The message of the book by Peg Tyre jibed with Carrera’s classroom experience: Girls are outperforming boys in academics, and the gap is growing.
Inspired, Carrera came up with the idea for “Diego’s Dudes,” a reading club that involves her, a handful of boys who struggle with reading and Diego, the mascot of the club and the calmest of Carrera’s three Chihuahuas.
This fall, the small group began meeting three days a week, sitting on the floor of the empty classroom while the rest of the boys and girls romp outside during recess. For 15 minutes, the four boys read out loud passages from books of their own choosing while Carrera moderates. (Then they join their classmates for the second half of recess.) As for Diego, well, he tends to just lay on the floor and blink.
“He’s a good listener, and he doesn’t judge,” Carrera said. “He just wants to hear a good story. ”
The voluntary club is merely a drop of medicine in an ocean of need, but it sure made an impression on the SoCal Honda Dealers Association. Recently, the organization selected Carrera among five teachers in Southern California to be honored for Teachers Appreciation Week.
Carrera was nominated for the award by her principal, Scott Wilcox.
“It’s boys, and it’s Hispanic boys and minority boys, who are dropping out of high school,” he said. “You stop kids from dropping out of high school by intervening with something out of the box like this in the early grades. ”
Felton Elementary serves a high-risk population. Nearly 95 percent of the students are Latino; about 70 percent of the students are native Spanish speakers who are still learning English.
One of them is Edgar Vera, a member of the club. At the beginning of the year, Edgar not only felt shy about reading, but he also refused to speak English. Now he’s an eager participant during reading time.
“This club made me think that reading is fun for me,” he told a reporter during a visit. “I learned words and now I like a lot of reading. ”
Another student in the club, Charles Allen, said the group has helped with his comprehension of certain words, like “embarrassed. ”
“I used to say ’embraced,’ ” he said.
The gender gap in reading is a phenomenon that transcends ethnicity. A 2010 study by the Center on Education Policy found that boys lag behind girls in reading in all 50 states.
Males also are increasingly outnumbered by females on college campuses. It is widely reported that women in the United States now earn 57 percent of all bachelor’s degrees, 60 percent of all master’s degrees and more than half of all doctoral degrees.
Taking a page out of “The Trouble With Boys,” Carrera decided that the key to getting boys excited about reading – especially those who are “reluctant readers” – is to let them choose the materials.
With this in mind, Carrera was careful to recruit one of her most rambunctious boys, Miguel Tuznoh, to select the books for the group.
“He’s had trouble in the past with behavior,” she said. “He’s considered a leader. I picked up on that, and so rather than using his leadership skills in a negative way, I decided, ‘OK this is going to be my ringleader.’ ”
Miguel shared his criteria for book selection: anything “Gooey, disgusting, worms, sports … ”
“Boy stuff,” Carrera chimed in.
The reading list thus includes books like “How to Eat Fried Worms,” “Tales from the Crypt: Diary of a Stinky Dead Kid” and “The ‘Air’ Apparent: Kobe.”
The group is currently reading a book by Ellen Potter called “Slob,” about a fat kid who is a genius inventor but gets picked on. Carrera suggested that because she is female, she might have been subconsciously out of touch with the kind of selections more appealing to the male gender.
“They want to read biographies, irreverent humor, comic books,” she said. “Girls want to read about superstars. Right now Taylor Swift is big in my class. ”
The boys not only selected the books, but they also came up with the three rules of Diego’s Dudes.
“The only thing I say is ‘Give me three rules that have to do with character,’ ” Carrera said. And so they did.
Rule No. 1: Treat the books and mascot with care.
Rule No. 2: Come to the club meetings on time.
Rule No. 3: Respect our friends when they’re reading out loud.
“Mind you, they came up with that,” Carrera said. “We can’t laugh, we can’t make fun. And you see, they are helping each other out. ”
Next year, Carrera wants to add an element to the program in which male role models come to the class to read out loud to the boys.
“A lot of boys who struggle with reading don’t really have a male role model who they see reading,” she said. “I want to include male role models to come in and say, ‘This is my favorite book. Check it out.’ “
In an instant, the library at Lincoln Elementary in Torrance went from calm to semi-chaotic as the students of a first-grade class spilled in for their weekly visit.
In a 30-minute flurry of activity, the kids sought help from the three women in the library to locate, check out and return books – as well as to settle up on any nickel-a-day late fees they might have owed.
At one point, a little boy looking for a book about grasshoppers grabbed the hand of a library lady named Amy Ota as she was helping another student.
“Hi Mom,” he said.
She turned around and smiled.
“Hi sweet pea. ”
In the Torrance Unified School District, it takes a village to run an elementary school library.
For decades, all of the libraries in the district’s 17 grammar schools have been entirely operated by parent volunteers.
It’s a unique setup. Although tough economic times have left most area school districts bereft of the full-on certificated librarians who operate on the same plane as classroom teachers, the vast majority in the South Bay still employ technicians or special-projects teachers to run their elementary school libraries. (Library technicians also run the show in the middle and high schools of Torrance Unified.)
Contrary to what most might think, the grass-roots library system in Torrance’s elementary schools isn’t the product of the latest statewide budget crisis. Rather, it’s a tradition that began more than 20 years ago in Torrance, when the libraries of most elementary schools in the district were boarded up – victims, perhaps, of that era’s great recession.
At the time, Torrance school board member Terry Ragins was a PTA member at Yukon Elementary. She was among the first group of parents to breathe life back into the mothballed libraries.
“This was an area where (the PTA) saw a dire need and came forth and said, ‘This is a void that we can fill,’ ” she said. “They’ve filled it so ably over the last 20 years that we’ve never revisited it. ”
Perhaps because the libraries were closed, the district was able to get around a law prohibiting paid employees from being supplanted by volunteers. If the jobs didn’t exist at the time the volunteers started doing the work, then paid employees were not technically replaced.
It’s a distinction that makes Mario Di Leva, executive director of the Torrance teachers union, a little uneasy.
“We totally value volunteers, parent volunteers and community volunteers, and only want that to continue,” he said. “However, we need to define those roles when it crosses into the gray zone of doing unit work. ”
He added: “If all of a sudden you have all the neighborhood dads mowing (school) lawns on Saturdays, it would put some people out of work, and there would be no guarantee the lawns will be mowed. ”
It is perhaps for this reason that many of the elementary school libraries in the Los Angeles Unified School District are unmanned. There, the last wave of budget cuts swept away the technicians in all but a fraction of the elementary schools, said LAUSD spokeswoman Gayle Pollard-Terry.
She added that the law precluding volunteers from supplanting those jobs prohibits parent volunteers from assuming those duties. Rather, that work is performed by the classroom teachers who take their classes to the library.
In Manhattan Beach Unified, the district has been blessed to have a mighty fundraising arm in the Manhattan Beach Education Foundation, which provides funding for paid media specialists to serve in school libraries. Those specialists also manage small crews of volunteers.
District spokeswoman Carolyn Seaton said there are educational benefits to having a paid staff member who can give the children a kind of customized library experience. She specifically mentioned such a specialist in Manhattan Beach who makes a point to know the main interests and reading levels of each child, so as to better pair them with a book accordingly.
“When students develop love affairs with particular genres or authors, it influences their ability to read and write,” she said.
At Lincoln Elementary in Torrance, parents even did much of the grunt work involved with a library renovation a couple of years ago. (The project was bankrolled largely by the school’s corporate partner, Providence Little Company of Mary Medical Center.)
Ota said she climbed a ladder and helped repaint the walls, which were once a bleak brown and are now a sunny yellow. She also went around town comparing notes on pricing for carpet. The school eventually went with a vendor who lived down the block. “It wasn’t very inviting,” she said of the old library. “It was really kind of dirty and neglected.”
Ota says she was happy to do the work, inspired in no small part by a principal she admires.
“She makes you want to do more for the school,” Ota said of Katherine Castleberry.
Some library volunteers wouldn’t stop coming if you paid them to. Laura Hamano’s three children all are in their 20s, but she still shows up to the Lincoln Elementary library every day to perform her duties.
“It’s fun, and I get to know the kids,” she said after the students had left on a recent morning, while checking in a stack of the books they’d left behind: “Cinderella,” “Aladdin,” “Monster Trucks,” “Diary of a Wimpy Kid. ”
She also enjoys watching them grow up, through their elementary years and well after, seeing as how she occasionally bumps into a former student in a grocery store or other public place.
“Sometimes they come over and say, ‘Oh, Mrs. Hamano – you remember me?’ ” she said, “and they look totally different, since they are in high school. “
San Pedro High School English teacher David Crowley was going about his business Monday morning when he was told there was a distraught student in the multipurpose room who badly needed his counsel.
Crowley didn’t think much of it. After all, he’d been the adviser of the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance since founding the club 12 years ago – his first year working full-time at the school. Being there for kids who felt like outcasts was second nature.
But when he entered the room, he was greeted by a small swarm of news cameras and a cheering crowd of students, faculty, friends, family and a handful of young adults in blue T-shirts bearing the Honda logo.
“What’s going on here?” were the first words out of his mouth. He repeated the question at least once before taking a seat in the front row and getting his answer.
Crowley is among five teachers from San Pedro to Simi Valley being honored for Teachers Appreciation Week by the SoCal Honda Dealers Association. The association is recognizing one teacher per day through its Helpful Honda program, a seven-year-old campaign of community goodwill that includes other events such as surprising people with complimentary roses on Valentine’s Day and paying for gas at the pump when prices skyrocket.
Monday was the day for Crowley, who’d been nominated by his principal, Jeanette Stevens.
“Thank you for being a catalyst for change,” she told him, prompting more cheers.
In addition to starting theGay-Straight Alliance, Crowley this fall helped students launch a glee club, a singing club at a school bereft of a choir due to budget cuts. He also became San Pedro High’s first-ever social media teacher, creating the school’s Facebook page, YouTube channel and Twitter feed.
He organizes an overnight retreat with students involved in a program called Advancement Via Individual Determination – known better as AVID – whose main purpose is to prepare disadvantaged students for college.
But fellow teacher Anthony Saavedra said those accomplishments only scratch the surface of Crowley’s abilities.
“When it comes to the controversy of testing, Dave’s motto is ‘Bring it on,’ ” he said, speaking into a mic before the audience. “His students consistently do well. ”
As Crowley sat down in the front row, still dumbfounded by the attention, a student holding a mic on stage began singing a song, ABBA’s “Thank You for the Music.” It crescendoed to include a chorus of kids. Crowley dabbed tears as he watched, and somebody brought him a box of tissues. At some point, Crowley’s 10-year-old son, Caden, sat in his lap.
Other students later took the mic to express their appreciation.
“You care for students – you understand,” said Jesse Gonzales, a junior with a streak of green in his long hair, shredded blue jeans and painted nails. “That’s very hard to come by these days. ”
Aundrea Fizer, a sophomore, said that thanks to the glee club and Crowley, school no longer feels scary to her.
“I’ve opened up to new people, met new friends – I never thought I’d have something like this,” she said.
In addition to the accolades from students and colleagues, Crowley was awarded $5,000 worth of gear from Helpful Honda that included several iPads, a karaoke machine, a digital camera and a MacBook computer.
“Gosh – I don’t think I’ve ever felt this appreciated,” said Crowley, a tall and slender man with wispy blond hair and dark-framed eyeglasses.
Crowley still remembers the first meeting of the Gay-Straight Alliance. Students crowded around the door – not to go in, necessarily, but to see who was going in.
“The first meeting was met with a lot of curiosity,” he said. “Hundreds and hundreds of kids showed up. I think they wanted to see who was gay. ”
Crowley had actually been coming off a tough week. Due to the school’s declining enrollment and his place on the faculty seniority list, Crowley had just been informed he is due to be displaced next school year.
Because the school’s headcount is expected to shrink by about 230 students, he is among six teachers slated for reassignment to other schools within the Los Angeles Unified School District.
“I don’t want to leave,” he said. “This is my home. ”
Asked what it takes to be a good teacher, Crowley said it is important to talk to kids, not at them.
By this, he means treating them more like colleagues than underlings.
For instance, Crowley has a method for discussing classroom rules on the first day of school.
“I just stare at them,” he said. “After a while, I go, ‘What are the rules? I mean, there’s a lot more of you than there are of me. So you guys could easily kick my butt if you wanted to. So I guess we better figure out how we’re all going to get along.’ And then they start suggesting rules, and then I slowly guide them to the ones that I’m OK with. “
Not many people experience combat for the first time at age 47.
But Jonathan Stamper, a science teacher at Palos Verdes Peninsula High School, tends to write his own rules.
Stamper joined the military at age 41, inspired by a newly enlisted student who came to class in uniform. Since then, he’s logged three tours, one in Iraq and two in Afghanistan.
During those first two expeditions, Stamper was lucky enough to avoid getting shot at or witnessing violence, death and bloodshed. Not this last time.
He returned to the classroom last week after a six-month deployment in Afghanistan. One day last week, his colleagues cut cake for him in the teachers’ lounge. Like last time, he told some stories. But while his previous yarns of making a difference in the villages had an uplifting quality, “this time, it was like, ‘oof,’ ” said Peninsula Principal Mitzi Cress. “I guess that’s kind of how things are going over there. Very scary.”
For his part, Stamper seems eager to share the stories, in part to keep from suffering psychologically. Talking, in fact, is a prescription from the company chaplain.
“If it fades away, and you can talk about it, clinically, that’s good,” he said, recalling the chaplain’s assessment. “If it comes back to haunt you at night, you got yourself PTSD.”
Stamper’s return comes at a time when violence in the war-ravaged country is escalating, with Afghan soldiers increasingly turning their weapons on the Americans who trained them.
It also comes on the eve of an expected drawdown of American forces, in hopes that the Afghan government and its fledgling military will be able to uproot and fend off the Taliban on its own.
Stamper’s assignment dovetailed neatly with that broader mission. As a sergeant with the Civil Affairs unit, he’s an emissary, not a warrior.
But this is a land where those aims blur together. So rather than taking an office job, Stamper joined the foot soldiers of a platoon. Like them, he took “showers” that consisted of standing on a pallet and dousing himself with bottled water. At first it bothered him, but it was during these showers that he was struck by the beauty of the desert.
“You can see the Milky Way galaxy, I was able to see the Andromeda galaxy — the planets, the stars and Orion,” he said.
And while he carried dolls, harmonicas and other trinkets for the kids, he also toted an M-16.
The mission, this time around, was to repopulate a ghost-town village of 40 families in the notoriously dangerous province of Kandahar.
The people had been shooed from their homes by the Taliban and were living out of lean-tos in the nearby desert. Their village, Jogram, was littered with improvised explosive devices, commonly known as IEDs.
The aim: Clear the IEDs, repopulate the village and persuade the people to notify the authorities of any Taliban efforts to move back in.
Sweeping for IEDs proved the most harrowing task. It involved a single-file patrol led by a soldier with a metal detector. He marked a path for safety using the white powder from a can of Ajax cleaner, but it was easy to stray. One man did so by a footstep too far, triggering an explosion.
The next thing Stamper knew, he was holding a white sheet to provide relief in the 120-degree heat for a frantic team of medics as they applied tourniquets to the bloody legs of a screaming Afghan soldier, who was about to become a double-amputee.
Stamper then helped hustle the stretcher to a helicopter in the middle of a field, fully expecting to draw fire from Taliban insurgents lurking in the shadows, or, worse, to step on another deadly IED.
“I’m sitting there going, I’m 47 years old, I’m C.A. (Civil Affairs), and I’m dealing with kinetic — they call it (combat) kinetic activity,” he said.
That wasn’t the worst of the IED incidents. Another time, an Afghan soldier became overconfident during a sweep and broke into a sprint ahead of the gingerly advancing platoon. Again, there was an explosion.
Stamper has no memory of trying to help the man, who died. But the commanding officer later praised him for his bravery.
“I didn’t realize I helped out on this, but a surveillance balloon was filming us the whole time,” he said.
In the film, he watched himself wrap the man’s leg with bandages.
“I don’t remember it at all,” he said. “I just remember seeing the guy — his face and the blood and the bones and all that, and thinking, `God this is horrible, but keep your wits about you.’ And I remember carrying him to the helicopter.”
Stamper isn’t always given to following protocol. Sidestepping endless amounts of red tape, he enlisted his church back home — Anza Avenue Baptist — to send along seeds for farmers who struggled to grow anything beyond poppy, a lucrative crop used for producing heroin. Sending seeds amounted to a breach of bureaucracy, but Stamper nonetheless smuggled the tomato, squash, pumpkin and watermelon seeds into the village by getting the congregation to stuff them into a shipment of toys.
He also asked his wife to send him a clump of dirt and some seed for a little patch of grass. He initially feared it could get him in trouble. On the contrary, his platoon leader encouraged the men to walk across it barefooted before every patrol.
Said the commander: “That way you can say if you die today, the last thing you did is step on American soil.”
Ask Alan Hogenauer if he’s traveled to all 50 states and he’ll politely tell you that he has indeed – at least 10 times each.
The 70-year-old professor at Loyola Marymount University is the 15th most-traveled person in the world, according to MostTraveledPeople.com, a website that keeps track of such things. Granted, the travel-and-tourism expert is the first to acknowledge that such rankings are to be taken with a grain of salt, but there is no question that the professor’s travel portfolio is beyond impressive.
So is Hogenauer’s capacity for list-making, which, let’s face it, borders on the compulsive. Consider some of the lists he’s compiled and checked off over the years.
States traveled through by bus: All 50.
Japanese-American World War II internment camps: All 10.
German states: All 16.
Japanese prefectures: All 47.
El Salvadorian departments: All 14.
National Park Service sites: All 320.
For that last one, he made the Guinness World Records, in the early 1980s.
Hogenauer – who is a professor not of geography, but marketing – avoids flying when he can.
It’s not that he’s afraid. It’s just that, in his mind, flying from Point A to Point B doesn’t carry the same bragging rights as driving.
This holds true for overseas trips. Largely for the sake of compiling what he refers to as “unbroken surface travel” lists, Hogenauer often exercises a little-known option: traveling by cargo ship. Yes, that would be those trundling barges that span the length of several football fields, stacked with thousands of shipping containers.
“This is an interesting subset of travel,” said the affable Hogenauer, whose voice still carries a trace of the accent he acquired growing up in New York. “People don’t know about it, but it’s available.”
Freighters will typically only take up to 11 passengers, because ships are obligated to carry a doctor once their load of travelers reaches a dozen. He recently traveled via freighter from South Africa to Germany at a cost of $800. Meals were free, and he ate with the officers.
“They really enjoy having somebody else to talk to,” he said.
He added that one of the perks is having 24/7 access to the bridge, a vessel’s version of a cockpit.
“One time they even let me steer the ship for the fun of it,” he said.
Hogenauer’s exhaustive travel diary seems indicative of a man who’s been on the go since a toddler. On the contrary, his worldly exploits didn’t really begin until age 18.
It was 1958 when his father, a traveling business executive, died unexpectedly. Hogenauer’s widowed mother, a teacher, decided she would seize the day and see the world. The following summer, she took Hogenauer on a 50-day transcontinental train trip that took him all the way to California and back.
His eyes were opened, not only to travel, but to the intoxicating world of endless classification.
“That’s when I began to realize there were national parks, there were national forests, state capitals,” he said. “I realized you’d either gone to a state capital or you hadn’t.”
Serendipity conspired with his fondness for travel to provide more opportunities.
In the mid-1960s, while a graduate student studying – you guessed it – geography at Columbia University, Hogenauer signed up for a work-travel program that sent him to Australia. He was in the running for two jobs, both of which he was keen on taking: one with the Hoover vacuum company, the other with the now-defunct Trans Australia Airlines. He landed the latter.
It was a plum gig, essentially paying him to write a thesis on air-freight travel. This led to job offers from other airline companies.
“I took a job with an aviation consulting company,” he said. “I never even knew (such jobs) existed.”
The company allowed him to take night classes toward his doctorate. This led to a thesis on East Africa Airways, an airline company co-owned by the governments of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. Some of these governments were highly unstable.
“Uganda’s leader was out of his mind,” he said. “He used to feed his enemies to the crocodiles. It was self-evident to me that this (alliance) was going to come apart.”
Hogenauer’s thesis – which his employers used in proprietary fashion – predicted the demise of the airliner. It was a prophetic stroke, and the United Nations took notice, hiring him to become a consultant to the African government on aviation.
It’s because of jobs like these that Hogenauer can say he has worked in 59 countries. But he still finds opportunities to travel at LMU, where he has worked since 2000, when he was named director of the college’s travel-and-tourism program. For instance, Hogenauer – a resident of Cerritos – once took a six-week assignment teaching abroad, in Dublin.
“You could go and get polluted in the bar district, but I decided to get to every county in Ireland,” he said. (There are 32 of them.)
Hogenauer insists that he isn’t big on check-list traveling. That is, he usually makes a point to go somewhere only if there is a compelling reason, such as for work or to visit relatives.
But he acknowledges, with some sheepishness, that the lists on which he is currently working are almost comically obscure.
Among them: “A city for each letter of the alphabet on every inhabited continent.”
In other words, 26 cities in each of the world’s six inhabited continents.
Hogenauer has just five to go. These include X and Y in Africa, as well as X in both South America and Australia. (And yes, there are cities that begin with the letter X, such as Xantippe, Australia.)
For the most part, Hogenauer’s adventures haven’t brought him close to danger. But there has been one exception.
It was about five years ago, when he was in Cape Town, South Africa, waiting for the launch of that freighter trip to Germany. He was killing time, walking along the seawall of the port town, when a man held a knife to his throat and demanded money.
“You literally have a flash,” Hogenauer said. “This is the end of the world. I haven’t had a chance to say goodbye.”
On impulse, Hogenauer opted to fight. He muscled himself into an advantageous position and socked the man in the face – hard. Hogenauer lost his ballcap in the recoil. The man snatched his hat and taunted the professor, who responded with an all-American comeback: the double bird.
(The ballcap bore the insignia of the Redondo Beach Lobster Festival, which caught wind of the scuffle and sent Hogenauer a suitcase filled with hats, T-shirts and other merchandise.)
Hogenauer, who has four children, is currently road-tripping with his 11-year-old son, Justin, to Philadelphia, where they will visit his 43-year-old son from another marriage.
They plan to take a circuitous route, hitting as many as 20 states. But Justin has already seen all 50 states, not to mention 80 countries. They travel in a car that bears the vanity plate “Allofem,” as in “all 50 states.”
Justin’s favorite state? Hawaii, no surprise. His least favorite? Iowa.
“It’s all cornfields,” he said. “After 100 miles, it gets pretty boring.”
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Find out more
To see Hogenauer’s check lists, visit www.cheklist.com.
Like many high schools in affluent areas, Palos Verdes Peninsula High School sends very few recent graduates off to war. But next week one of its teachers will be departing for the danger zone – for the second time in two years.
Chemistry and physics teacher Jonathan Stamper, a sergeant in the Army Reserve, will leave behind his Bunsen burners, pencil sharpeners, periodic tables and the safety of his classroom for the exotic landscape of Afghanistan, where he will don his military uniform, bulletproof vest and pick up a rifle again.
His deployment comes less than a year after returning from a 12-month stint in Iraq.
Although he had expected the first assignment, the second one came as more of a surprise. Especially in light of how the United States has been drawing down, not beefing up, its presence in Afghanistan.
But an order arrived just before the holiday break, in the form of a letter from the military. Stamper had felt like he was just getting back into the teaching groove.
“All of a sudden the Army says, `Nope, you gotta go again,”‘ he said, with a sigh. “But the nice part about it is, there’s a greater good. … We might make a difference in some Afghani lives.”
Stamper, 46, did not witness any combat in Iraq. Rather, he served as a member of Civil Affairs, traveling the arid and dusty terrain to talk to farmers and sheep herders, with an eye toward assessing the effectiveness of U.S. and global efforts to help create a sustainable economy.
But he witnessed firsthand the ravages of war: children with missing limbs and eyes, merchants selling goods out of stores with blown-out walls, partially destroyed churches. At all times, the specter of violence loomed. One of Stamper’s friends and counterparts in the Civil Affairs department was killed by sniper fire in a village, shot in the vulnerable patch of space under the arm.
The mile-by-mile base where Stamper stayed was shelled so often that the sound of the alarms – overlaid with a speaker intoning the words “incoming” over and over again – became routine. Sometimes, the explosions were close enough to feel the shock waves inside whatever bunker he’d taken refuge in.
Inspired by a student
Stamper is the rare late-in-life military enlistee. He was inspired in part by the story of Pat Tillman, the NFL player who turned down a multimillion-dollar contract from the Arizona Cardinals to join the military shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and was killed in the mountains of Afghanistan.
But it was a conversation with a student that finally spurred him to enlist in late 2006. The young man had joined a program that allowed him to finish boot camp between his junior and senior years, and had shown up to class wearing his uniform.
“I told him, `If I had a second chance, I would do it,”‘ Stamper remembers. “He looked at me and he said: `Mr. Stamper, do you know that they raised the enlistment age? … They raised it to 42.’ I was 41 1/2.”
He went to the recruiting office that very day. A few months later, Stamper was in boot camp, getting yelled at, running drills, shooting guns and sleeping in a big room with 60 other guys who were less than half his age. His memories of that particular experience are not fond.
“I’m trying to get it out of my mind,” he said, shaking his head with a smile while sitting at a table in the school library. The biggest challenge wasn’t the physical training or the drill sergeants, but rather the high energy of the 18-year- olds at bedtime.
“Every night, it was like `Be quiet!”‘ he said. “I was yelling at them, `Be quiet!”‘
The drill sergeants – also a good 10 years younger than him – put Stamper in charge of his fellow soldiers as a platoon sergeant.
“I was like their dad.”
Serving in the reserves can be a little like living in an episode of “Quantum Leap.” One moment you’re in a certain setting, completely immersed in a job, and then the next minute, poof! Your stint either ends or a new one begins.
Such was the case for Stamper when he was in Iraq. He was just settling into an assignment that involved learning how to spin wool with a loom. A German company had donated one to a group of widows so they could eke out a living selling textiles. The women just needed to learn how to use it.
“I was just getting ready to teach that – I had classes all set up and ready to go,” he said. “And that’s when (the military) started to do the pullback.”
Just like that, he was back in the classroom, in January 2011. By this December, he was just getting to know a new crop of students. And then, the letter arrived.
Palos Verdes Peninsula Principal Mitzi Cress said her first reaction upon learning of Stamper’s next assignment was one of worry.
“I was like, `Oh my gosh, that’s just terrible,”‘ she said. “But the next (reaction) was `I’m so proud of you.”‘
Last week, the school held a send-off assembly for Stamper in the amphitheater, complete with a choir performance and speeches – despite his reticence to be recognized.
“His colleagues are the ones that did all the planning,” said Cress, who also sent the Daily Breeze a press release about his upcoming adventure.
The letter from the military originally had him reporting to duty on Jan. 9. But Stamper begged his military commanders to delay the start date a few weeks, so he could get his students past final exams, which finished up on Friday. The higher-ups consented.
A native son of The Hill
Soft-spoken, articulate and emphatically agreeable, Stamper – a native son who attended schools on The Hill as a kid – does not exhibit the taciturn nature of the archetypal military man. He is open and easy-going, with a streak of independence that borders the rebellious.
For instance, in Iraq he swapped out the name tag on his uniform for another one written in Arabic. That simple gesture greatly endeared him to the locals. But it went against military policy and he was scolded. He reattached his English name tag, only to quietly swap it out again in the field, though he says the rules are in place for good reason: To ensure safety.
In any case, Stamper quickly learned the code of conduct of the land, internalizing many “nevers” that are foreign to Americans. Never show the soles of your feet when sitting. Never greet somebody with your left hand. Never initiate a conversation with a woman.
Likely he is valuable to the military for a fortuitous blend of attributes, which include a general aptitude for science, an ability to teach and an all- around peaceable nature.
In Iraq, Stamper primarily worked with farmers and spent much of his time inspecting everything from beehives to livestock operations to olive-oil presses.
“He’s a perfectionist,” Cress said. “You just know darn well that when he was over there in Iraq that he did everything right. I bet when he did reports they were A-plus.”
Still, it is not a high-paying gig: Embarking on the mission means Stamper’s normal paycheck will be cut in half. But he said he and his wife Eva, with whom he owns a home in Hermosa Beach, have been saving up.
“We’ll be fine,” he said.
His next mission will actually require several weeks of training on the East Coast. He’ll begin his duties in Afghanistan in March. Stamper said he will probably stay for about a year.
As for Eva, he said she is supportive of his need to serve the country, but will be happy when his eight-year commitment is finished – which won’t happen until 2015.
In his absence, she will take care of their three Jack Russell terriers.
“If she was all by herself, I’d be concerned, but the dogs always help,” he said. “And we have a good support group with the church (Anza Avenue Baptist), we have a good support group with family, and we have good support with friends.”
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For Joseph Martinez, 2012 is already shaping up to be a thousand times better than 2011.
The 14-year-old Torrance resident has missed more than a year of school due to a mysterious disorder that had him writhing 24/7 in chronic pain from head to toe, rendering him bedridden and immobile.
Now, thanks largely to the generosity of South Bay donors and Daily Breeze readers, he is back to riding his bike, walking his dog, kicking a soccer ball around with his cousins and playing video games with his siblings. Soon, Joseph will be tackling his next major hurdle: returning to school.
“I can walk now, I can talk, go around, go outside, I can interact with my family — just a lot better,” he said, during a recent meeting with a reporter at a coffee shop with his parents.
Joseph’s story is an illustration of the maddening complexity and mysteriousness of complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS), which has bedeviled him and up to 1.2 million other Americans. It is also a sort of medical community David and Goliath tale, pitting the methods of an unorthodox doctor against those of an established institution.
As Joseph and his parents describe it, the pain was so severe that the sound of footsteps in the hallway outside his bedroom at home could set off an episode of moaning and crying. The situation left him unable to shower, eat, walk or even play video games without experiencing extreme pain. It also left him addicted to morphine, methadone and other pain-killing drugs prescribed to him by baffled doctors with good intentions.
After close to a year of inactivity, he temporarily lost the use of his left arm, which had atrophied and grown limp. (Now, it is back to normal.)
For a while, it appeared the Martinez family had found salvation in Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital in Stanford, widely believed to be among just a handful of U.S. medical centers equipped to treat children with complex regional pain syndrome.
But in late April, three weeks into their stay, Joseph’s parents made a decision that many found to be ill-advised: They pulled their son out of treatment, which had estimated costs of $17,000 a week that were fully covered by insurance.
The family devised a new plan that involved traveling to Texas to see a podiatrist — a foot doctor — who some have come to see as a kind of chronic-pain miracle worker. That podiatrist, Dr. Donald Rhodes, has invented a contraption that has yet to earn either the respect of the medical establishment or the approval of the FDA, but over the years has turned many patients into fervent believers. In marked contrast to the Stanford stay, insurance covered not a penny of the treatment offered by Rhodes’ little practice in Corpus Christi.
But the Martinez family would not be deterred. Further complicating their predicament was a transportation problem, as Joseph was in no condition to do anything other than lie in bed. They rented an RV, and a seven-person crew – all six immediate family members, plus Grandma and the family dog – made the pilgrimage.
Treating damaged nerves
Unlike Stanford’s treatment, Rhodes’ approach does not require a medical team of nutritionists, physical therapists, psychiatrists and pediatricians. Instead, it requires just a black box, 8 inches by 8 inches, from which protrude electrodes that attach to various parts of the body.
Called a VECTTOR machine, the device was invented by Rhodes and is designed to treat damaged nerves through electronic stimulation. Though the machine has not yet been approved by the FDA, Rhodes has told patients that he believes it soon will be.
During a brief interview, Rhodes told the Daily Breeze that Joseph might be the worst chronic-pain case he’s seen since he began treating patients with his machine nearly 20 years ago. He said he’s happy to hear that Joseph is doing better.
“It’s fun to win,” he said.
Justin and Susan Martinez credit the device for saving their son’s life. The family bought a machine for $4,500 and administered treatment twice a day – once in Rhodes’ office by morning, and once in their Texas hotel room by night.
Even though the family eventually learned how to administer the treatment themselves, the parents and Joseph stayed for 4 1/2 months. Joseph’s mother said this is because they needed Rhodes’ expertise in weaning Joseph off of the drugs to which he’d become addicted.
Triggering Joseph’s pain
Characterized by severe and relentless pain due to misfiring nerves, complex regional pain syndrome afflicts somewhere between 200,000 and 1.2 million Americans, according to the Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy Syndrome Association. Its onset is often triggered by a minor injury, such as a sprained ankle.
In essence, the sensory system overestimates the extent of the damage and sends an inaccurate message up the spinal cord to the brain. The result, doctors say, is a level of pain – usually of the intense, burning variety – that is disproportionate to the injury.
Eventually, the condition can cause extreme swelling and atrophy to muscle and bone, leading to permanent damage.
Joseph’s ailments began sometime in September 2010, when the entire six-member family – two parents and four children – became sick from undercooked chicken. Everybody recovered except for Joseph, who seemed only to grow worse and worse.
By October, Joseph had stopped attending eighth grade at St. Catherine Laboure School in Torrance, where he once thrived. When he hadn’t returned several months later, the students organized a fundraiser to help their friend.
The Daily Breeze covered the story in March, and administrators at the school created an account to manage the donations, which totaled upward of $35,000.
At the time, the family’s struggle centered on health insurance.
Their health care provider – THIPA – refused to authorize treatment for Joseph on the grounds that the plan covered expenses only for services rendered within the network, which is limited to the South Bay. But no local medical centers were outfitted to treat children with complex regional pain syndrome. The family wanted to send Joseph to one of the handful of facilities across the nation so equipped, such as the children’s hospital at Stanford.
The donations were initially collected as a means to cover costs that were apparently going to have to be paid out of pocket. But the month of April brought a major breakthrough. Due in part to the persistent prodding of a prominent doctor in the field, Lonnie Zeltzer, director of the pediatric pain program at Mattel Children’s Hospital at UCLA, the health care provider relented and agreed to authorize treatment. Translation: Their costs at Stanford would be fully covered.
Days later, ecstatic family members stood on the runway of Torrance Municipal Airport, hugging and shedding tears of joy as a medical plane carrying Joseph took off for Stanford. But three weeks into Joseph’s stay, the parents terminated the treatment, citing fundamental disagreements they’d had with the doctors and nurses over how best to care for the boy.
They returned to Torrance, with insurance picking up the cost of flying him back. Not long after, a member of their church told the family about Rhodes, and provided a book authored by Rhodes titled “Pain Banishment, Not Pain Management.”
Inspired by the book and desperate over their son’s unremitting pain, the family rented the RV and began requesting funds from the donation pot, which administrators at St. Catherine Laboure School distributed on an incremental basis.
Four months later, the family had exhausted the funds. So in mid-August, Joseph and his father – who himself suffers from spinal disease and is on disability – went to New Mexico to stay with Justin’s mother, who is retired. Susan, meanwhile, returned to her job at Triumph Aerostructures in Hawthorne, where she specializes in inventory management. She’d been gone five months.
“I’m so blessed I still have work,” she said, adding that the company also chipped in with a generous donation. “I was gone for a long time. The job was waiting for me.”
While in New Mexico, Joseph rose from the wheelchair his grandmother had lent him. From here, his progress accelerated, his parents say. He began working out at the YMCA, riding a bicycle and walking his grandmother’s dogs.
Sometime around Halloween, the boy and his father returned to Torrance, surprising Joseph’s older sister by attending her junior ring ceremony at St. Joseph High School in Lakewood. For two months, the parents declined requests from the Daily Breeze to participate in a follow-up story, saying their son had told them he was not ready to relive the experience. But by mid-December, Joseph was game.
To the casual observer, the before-and-after picture of his condition is profound. During interviews for each of the first three stories published from March through May, it was nearly impossible to catch a glimpse of Joseph’s face, as he was always moppy-haired and lying prone in a bed – his parents said this was the only position that didn’t cause excruciating pain. When asked a question, Joseph would respond with a faint moan that only his father seemed able to decipher.
But in mid-December, Joseph had the appearance of a normal kid, sporting a Charlotte Hornets cap, trendy black-rimmed glasses, sweatshirt, jeans and skater shoes. He was soft-spoken, though, and his parents gently encouraged him to speak up when answering a reporter’s questions.
Joseph continues to grapple with sleep difficulties, a final side-effect of the drugs. The family still administers the VECTTOR machine treatment on him twice a day. (Justin, too, has begun using the machine for his ailments, and says he has made progress. So has Joseph’s grandmother in New Mexico, who suffers complications from diabetic neuropathies, a nerve disorder associated with diabetes.)
Although Joseph is up and able, much work remains, as he has missed his entire eighth-grade year.
Easing back into school
A tutor from North High School in Torrance will begin visiting the home this month, his mother said. The family has thus far held off on the tutoring sessions because of his sleeping difficulties, she said, adding that the boy’s father has done some home-schooling. (The family also pulled their youngest child, Emmanuel, out of St. Catherine Laboure School because the trauma of Joseph’s situation left him sleep-deprived. The father has been home-schooling that boy as well.)
The family plans for Joseph to start attending North High sometime in the spring, after the tutor has brought him up to speed. The parents want to send Joseph to a Catholic high school beginning next fall, perhaps Bishop Montgomery in Torrance or St. John Bosco High in Bellflower, where his older brother attended.
Zeltzer, the doctor from UCLA who’d helped the family receive full coverage for the stay at Stanford, said now that Joseph is doing better, it is imperative to get him back into school as soon as possible, perhaps by starting slow.
“It’s very, very hard for children when they’ve missed a lot of school to go back,” she said. “Most children need help with transitioning gradually, rather than going back as an all-or-nothing kind of thing.”
Although Zeltzer remains skeptical of Rhodes’ method, she said she knows from Joseph’s earlier visits to her office that his pain was real.
“Pain can become a disease in itself,” she said. “It’s stressful to be in pain. Pretty soon the pain and the stress and all of that go together. It becomes a snowball effect. There are more and more layers you have to pick apart.”
Joseph, meanwhile, said he is grateful to many.
“I’m like really, really thankful to everyone who donated money, to St. Catherine, to Dr. Rhodes,” he said, in a hushed voice. “Without them, I couldn’t have gotten better.”