Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

High school football player helps reassemble a ruined team after everybody walks

High school football player helps reassemble a ruined team after everybody walks

April 6, 2013


For Jason Ferguson, captain of the varsity football team at St. Bernard High in Playa del Rey, the first day of this past season was pretty normal: everybody showed up, ran some laps and went home. But that was the beginning and end of “normal.”

When the powerhouse football team at St. Bernard High School in Playa del Rey quit en masse this fall and its members scattered to other schools, Jason Ferguson, the captain, stayed behind. He later helped recruit a large group of boys to assemble a new junior varsity team from scratch. St. Bernard High recently honored Jason with a leadership award for his team spirit.
When the powerhouse football team at St. Bernard High School in Playa del Rey quit en masse this fall and its members scattered to other schools, Jason Ferguson, the captain, stayed behind. He later helped recruit a large group of boys to assemble a new junior varsity team from scratch. St. Bernard High recently honored Jason with a leadership award for his team spirit.

Later that night, Coach Larry Muno, upset about a contract calling for him to fundraise for his own salary, walked. It was a bombshell. Within a week, nearly all the players on the varsity squad had scattered to other schools. Suddenly, what had been a 10-0 team the prior season was dust. Vanished, too, was the junior varsity team.

The teams were gone, but not all the players. Ferguson, captain of the varsity team and an outside linebacker, stayed on.

“St. Bernard is pretty much a family to me,” said the soft-spoken high school senior, who next year plans to study computer science at either Northern Arizona University or the University of Arizona. “I couldn’t really leave it behind.”

It was a painful decision. All summer long, Jason had been looking forward to a final year of football, and now that senior dream was dashed. Or was it? A new coach was soon hired. That coach, John Bibb – nicknamed “Bama” for his Alabama upbringing and faint accent – solicited Jason’s help in recruiting some guys to assemble a junior varsity squad.

Jason took this calling to heart. He hit up five senior guys who weren’t already on the team. Using Facebook and Twitter, he gently cajoled the waverers.

Jason also gave tours during freshmen orientation with an ulterior motive in mind. If a group contained an unsuspecting big guy, Jason made sure to take a detour through the courtyard, where Bama was lying in wait. The coach gave a quick spiel and let the kid know what time practice would be.

“They were like, ‘OK,'” Jason said. “They pretty much kind of got tricked into it.”

Eventually, they’d cobbled together a team of about 30. About half of the players had never before suited up for the gridiron. The junior varsity squad canceled its first couple of games so it could get up to snuff. But the Friday night of the team’s first game on Sept. 14 was soon less than a week away, and Jason was pumped: He was going to play football again after all.

That Thursday, the day before the game, Jason and the five other seniors were summoned into a room by Coach Bibb. The school’s two principals, Cynthia Hoepner and Mike Alvarez, were there. They had bad news: The Del Rey League had rejected the team’s request to allow the seniors to play. (CIF rules allow seniors to play JV football, but divisions within the statewide league can override the rule.)

The room fell into an awkward silence. The boys choked back tears, as did the adults.

“We’re still gonna need you,” Bibb said. “You’ve been good role models. ”

Jason was the first to speak up.

“I’m in, coach,” he said.

The others followed suit. That first game was against Washington Prep High. Jason and the five seniors graced the sidelines in jerseys and jeans – fetching balls, calling plays, offering water, but, above all, providing moral support.

Jason doesn’t remember the score.

“It was a blowout,” he said.

A blowout in favor of the St. Bernard Vikings.

And so it would be for the next six games, each of them won by the Vikings, most by a wide margin. The team finished 7-0.

In one of those games – the nonleague game against Marshall High from Los Angeles – Jason and the seniors were allowed to play. On defense, Jason made a tackle. On offense, he ran the ball for a 20-yard touchdown.

After securing the league championship, the team celebrated in the locker room with pizza and fizzy apple cider, which they shook and sprayed like champagne.

Last month, at a gala celebrating the school’s 55th anniversary, Jason was feted with a leadership award for his loyalty to the team. The other person so awarded at the March 16 event was the school’s most famous alum, Kevin Chilton, who, after graduating in 1972, went on to become a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, a four-star general and an astronaut who piloted the space shuttle Endeavour on its maiden voyage in 1992.

Hoepner, one of the school’s co-principals, said Jason is all the more deserving of the award for his humility.

“I don’t know that Jason fully understood what his heroic efforts did for the morale of the school,” she said. “I don’t know that at the time he fully comprehended or even wanted the attention. … He’s a kid. He did what he felt in his heart was right to do. ”

Indeed, Jason is reluctant to take so much credit. He cited another senior who stayed on, Gilberto Cabuto, as well as two other seniors who’d done the same last year, during a strangely similar series of events with the school’s basketball team.

As for Hoepner, this fall was almost as traumatic for her as it was for the players. A new principal, she hadn’t been on staff for a month when Muno quit.

During that first week of practice, she would stand in the library, looking out the window facing the football field at the dwindling number of players. On Day Two, there were 30 or so, sans Muno. By Day Five, the roster of varsity and junior varsity players had withered to a measly eight.

“Eight players on this huge field,” she said. “You’re going, ‘That doesn’t even make an offense.’ ”

That imagery led to a rallying cry that has stuck all year at the school – one emblazoned on school-spirit T-shirts: “From Eight to Great. ”

Over the months, bonds among members of the hastily assembled team grew strong. “They’d go to the chapel before every game with Coach Bama,” Hoepner said. “They were a family. ”

She vividly remembers a celebration in the jam-packed faculty lounge after the team won the title.

“One freshman said, ‘Go hard or go home!’ The whole team, in one roar, said, ‘And home is not an option!'”

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

47-year-old teacher back from the bloody front lines in Afghanistan

47-year-old teacher back from the bloody front lines in Afghanistan

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.
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.

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.”

Colorful Characters Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Palos Verdes Peninsula High School Teacher Heads off to War

Palos Verdes Peninsula High School Teacher Heads off to War

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.

 U.S. Army Reserve Sgt. Jonathan Stamper is also a Physics and Chemistry teacher at Peninsula HS. He just received orders that he is being deployed to Afghanistan. He returned from a tour of duty in Iraq last spring. Stamper in classroom at Peninsula. (Robert Casillas)
U.S. Army Reserve Sgt. Jonathan Stamper is also a Physics and Chemistry teacher at Peninsula HS. He just received orders that he is being deployed to Afghanistan. He returned from a tour of duty in Iraq last spring. Stamper in classroom at Peninsula. (Robert Casillas)

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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Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Orphaned teen embraces new start

It was the beginning of May, and Heavynle Ceasar’s senior year at Leuzinger High School in Lawndale was shaping up to be an unqualified success.

Heavynle (pronounced “Heavenly”) was captain of the cheer squad, her grades were good and prom was just days away. She’d been accepted at a slew of universities, including San Francisco State and three others out East: Howard, Clark and St. John’s.

Heavynle Ceasar in front of Leuzinger High School in Lawndale. Her father killed her mother then himself. She is getting ready to attend San Francisco State. Chuck Bennett/Daily Breeze
Heavynle Ceasar in front of Leuzinger High School in Lawndale. Her father killed her mother then himself. She is getting ready to attend San Francisco State. Chuck Bennett/Daily Breeze

But on May 5, in an instant, the charming year was marred by a nightmare. On that afternoon, in her parents’ bedroom, Heavynle’s father aimed a gun at her mother, Lisa Brown, and pulled the trigger. Carlton Ceasar then turned the gun on himself and fired again — as Heavynle was struggling to open the locked bedroom door.

The apparent murder-suicide put an instant end to the after-school clubhouse feel of her home on Rosecrans Avenue, located across the street from Leuzinger High School. Nearly every day, a handful of her friends came to the town house to hang out — not only with Heavynle, but also her parents.

“They were pretty close to my friends,” she said of her parents. “My friends called them mom and dad.”

But Heavynle isn’t letting the tragedy derail her college plans. In the fall, she intends to head to St. John’s University in New York City, where she’s never been. She’s looking forward to getting a fresh start in a new setting.

“I’m excited, but I’m kind of scared because I don’t know too many people there,” she said. “It’s going to be a change.”

She plans to major in communications and dreams of having her own talk show one day, like Oprah Winfrey. Money, though, is a bit of a problem. Tuition at the private university runs upward $33,000 a year. Heavynle believes about a third of that will be covered by federal financial aid. She’s believes she’s on her mother’s life insurance policy, but said she doesn’t know much about it.

In any case, covering all the expenses in a strange new land is bound to be a struggle.

Heavynle has since moved in with her maternal grandmother in South Los Angeles. She tried returning to Leuzinger, but everything had changed. The halls were filled with well-meaning people who overwhelmed her with sympathy. And seeing the house across the street brought back a flood of wrenching memories.

She will, however, walk the stage for Leuzinger’s graduation ceremony on June 23.

“I’m really excited about it, but kind of sad,” she said.

Heavynle is a petite and bubbly 17-year-old girl whose easy smile reveals two rows of braces. She has not allowed the tragedy to sap her sense of humor, and delights in good-naturedly rib-jabbing her young-looking grandmother (age 61) about being old.

Her popularity at school extends to her teachers.

“She’s the kind of student that makes my job worth it,” said Brian Yoshii, the school’s longtime ceramics teacher. “Very appreciative, very pleasant. Every day says `Hello Mr. Yoshii,’ when she comes in, and `goodbye’ when she leaves.”

To illustrate Heavynle’s graciousness, he relayed a story. Shortly after the shooting, like many teachers at the school, Yoshii felt a strong urge to help her in some way. He gave her $100 to cover her expenses for grad night on June 16 – $85 for the trip to Disneyland, and $15 for the picnic. Later that day, she learned that the school would be picking up the tab for those expenses. She returned to his classroom and handed him the rolled-up cash.

Heavynle’s mother had worked at Hamilton Adult Center, an adult-education school in Torrance. She’d been attending California State University, Dominguez Hills, in Carson to become a special-education teacher. Her father, Carlton, was not working, in part because he was on disability. Lisa, her mother, had recently left him.

May 5 wasn’t the first time violence had visited the family. In fact, Carlton’s disability status was the result of it. Several years ago, a man tried to shoot him in the face near their home. The bullet struck his hand as he raised it in self-defense.

Also, two decades ago, before Heavynle was born, her mother’s brother died in a drive-by shooting at age 15. Lisa’s recent death means that Heavynle’s grandmother, Patsy Warner, has buried both of her children.

But despite the devastation wrought by Carlton’s actions, both Heavynle and her grandmother insist that he was a good man who was never violent toward his wife until the fateful day.

“My girlfriend had two boys, and if she had any problems with them trying to gangbang, I would call him,” Warner said. “He would try to put them on the right track.”

The apparent murder-suicide has not torn one side of the family apart from the other. While Heavynle’s maternal grandmother has provided her a place to live, her paternal aunt has been serving as a liaison between Heavynle and St. John’s.

“I’ve been explaining her situation to the counselors, so she doesn’t have to do all that legwork,” said Susie Fuller, Carlton’s sister and a human-resources manager at LAUSD, who has a master’s degree from Dillard University in New Orleans. “I’ve been through it.”

Fate can be cruel to victims of catastrophe. A couple of days after the incident, a thief broke into their home and stole three computers and a television.

Hardships notwithstanding, Heavynle’s grandmother has sought to ensure that she not miss out on the joys of senior year.

“That’s the way my daughter would have wanted it,” she said.

Prom took place on the day after the funeral, and it was Warner who insisted that the prom party proceed. About 100 people showed up. Heavynle maintained a brave face at the party, but finally broke down on the way to the dance.

Lisa was not only a mother, but a close friend. It wasn’t uncommon for her to accompany Heavynle and her friends on trips to the mall or to movies.

“There were like eight of them – they’d do everything together,” said Lisa Mims Wyrick, the mother of one of Heavynle’s friends.

Also living with the family was a foster child named Gloria. She, too, is a student at Leuzinger and now lives with Heavynle and her grandmother.

On the day of the incident, Gloria was at home and heard the parents fighting. She called Heavynle’s cell phone. Heavynle ran to her home from the school across the street, accompanied by her cheer coach.

While the coach waited outside, Heavynle went inside the house and tried to open the bedroom door. It was locked. She took a knife from the kitchen to jimmy it open. It worked, but when she pressed on the door, it was blocked by something. She heard a bang like a firecracker and ran back outside.

An hour or so later, the premises were crawling with police and the apartment was taped off. Helicopters thrummed overhead. The next thing they knew, Heavynle and Gloria were sitting in the back seat of a squad car.

“They asked us all kinds of questions, over and over and over again,” she said. “Our names, our parents’ names, our birthdays.”

Heavynle had initially planned to attend San Francisco State University, to be closer to her parents.

“I’m a momma’s girl,” she said.

Is she upset with her father?

“A lot of people ask me that,” she said. “I don’t know. … I don’t know.”


For One Resident, Survivor’s Guilt Taking Emotional Toll After Tea Fire

For One Resident, Survivor’s Guilt Taking Emotional Toll After Tea Fire

Josie Levy Martin, a Holocaust survivor, struggles again with being one of ‘the lucky ones’ after her and her husband’s home was miraculously spared by the blaze.

Josie Levy Martin stands in the doorway of her home that, mysteriously, was spared by the Tea Fire despite the destruction of the cul-de-sac’s six neighboring homes. Martin, a Holocaust survivor, is haunted by a renewed sense of guilt. (Rob Kuznia / Noozhawk photo)
Josie Levy Martin stands in the doorway of her home that, mysteriously, was spared by the Tea Fire despite the destruction of the cul-de-sac’s six neighboring homes. Martin, a Holocaust survivor, is haunted by a renewed sense of guilt. (Rob Kuznia / Noozhawk photo)

For nearly 24 hours after the Tea Fire ravaged the populous foothills, Josie Levy Martin and her husband, Ed, were among hundreds of families wandering around Santa Barbara, wondering if they were homeless.

Eventually, the Martins learned the unbelievable news: The fire devastated their side of the block on Mount Calvary Road, but had stopped, mysteriously, at their home. Despite the destruction of the cul-de-sac’s six neighboring homes, their yellow-ochre Spanish hacienda was unscathed — not even a singe.

For both, it was a major relief. But for Josie in particular, the joy was short-lived. It didn’t take long for a sense of guilt to settle in — one that, for her, was all too familiar.

Like many people whose homes were spared, Josie began to suffer from a bout of what therapists call “survivor’s guilt.” The term originated from the feelings experienced by many survivors of the Holocaust, but can apply to people wracked with guilt over their escape from any number of traumatic experiences: combat, car accidents, layoffs, natural disasters.

In an eerie juxtaposition, there’s nothing left of the home next door to the Martins. (Rob Kuznia / Noozhawk photo)
In an eerie juxtaposition, there’s nothing left of the home next door to the Martins. (Rob Kuznia / Noozhawk photo)

Josie can attest to the validity to the term’s historical origin: her renewed sense of guilt is familiar precisely because she is a Holocaust survivor.

“It’s so random,” she said of the fires, adding that no amount of precaution — watering the roof, clearing the brush — could have spared her home. “It happens because the wind blows one way or another. So much of the Holocaust is like that as well. The amount of luck that enters into these things I think is 75 percent of it. So the survivor’s guilt is very powerful.”

Roberta Ainciart, a retired marriage and family therapist who has been providing free counseling services to Tea Fire victims through the Red Cross, said many residents are suffering from survivor’s guilt.

“Sometimes, that is just as difficult as losing your home,” she said. “You’re in this totally devastated area, and it looks like a war zone, and your neighbors have lost everything, and here you’ve got your home.”

Ainciart said she gives people stricken with survivor’s guilt the same advice as those whose homes are no more: Stay in touch with friends and family; eat right and try to get plenty of sleep; don’t be afraid to talk about the trauma; and, above all, understand that the feelings are normal.

“There are good days and bad days, good memories and bad memories; it’s all to be expected,” she said.

As for Josie, she has experienced the trauma of living in an actual war zone.

In 1944, she was a 6-year-old child living with her parents in France when the Germans invaded. Realizing the gravity of the threat, her parents found a nun at a Catholic school who agreed to take her in. Josie was given a new, non-Jewish-sounding last name — L’Or — and was instructed never to reveal her true identity.

It’s a good thing she didn’t: Her teacher turned out to be a Nazi collaborator. Josie lived at the school for nine months before her parents, who had gone into hiding themselves, returned for her.

Josie, who in 2002 published a memoir on the experience called Never Tell Your Name, said the guilt she experienced from surviving the Holocaust didn’t set in until later in life.

As a teenager living in Los Angeles, her mother would remind her that so many of their relatives had had it worse. One of her aunts had lost her two children, husband and father in the concentration camps; the son of a cousin escaped “from the very mouth of the crematorium of Auschwitz.”

“I was the one in 10 Jewish European children who survived, the ‘lucky ones,’ as my mother intoned,” she writes in the book. But “too often I felt estranged, unworthy, guilty without knowing why or about what.”

This week, as her neighbors began sifting through the ashes of their homes, she again felt like the lucky one. It’s a distinction that can be embarrassing.

When her less-fortunate neighbors drive past, she cringes, unsure whether to wave. Over the weekend, when she and her husband saw their neighbors lay eyes on the smoldering devastation for the first time, the Martins shouted from a distance: “If there’s anything we can do!”

But there was nothing they could do.

For his part, Ed has processed the event differently.

To be sure, when the Martins learned from a police officer that their home was spared, Ed reflected on the bittersweet nature of the news. While they were feeling relief, others so nearby would be under duress.

The overwhelming sensation for him has been closer to thankfulness than guilt. “I continue to be really, really appreciative of the fact that I have a house to eat dinner in,” he said.

Ed attributed their different reactions largely to their radically different upbringings.

Josie lived for a year without parents in an environment of terror, and Ed grew up in a family “where there was never a question about safety and the future.”

His father was a local fundamentalist preacher who instilled in him the maxim: “I know the Lord will make a way for me.” And although Ed said his childhood family’s religious convictions are no longer a part of his own conscious belief system, he said they seem to have contributed to his inherent sense of optimism, and confidence in the future.

“If we were all the same, think what a miserable thing that would be,” he said.

Conversely, Josie, who has worked as a teacher and a school psychologist, said she — like many wartime survivors — spends a lot of time waiting for the other shoe to drop.

She said her husband sometimes chided her for packing up a grab-and-go bag after wildfires destroyed many homes in Malibu last year.

“I have moments where I’d like to live in the flats in L.A., in a high rise,” she said. “I was feeling pretty good until this happened.”


Victims of Santa Barbara wildfire sift through the rubble

Victims of Santa Barbara wildfire sift through the rubble

Westmont professor Russell Smelley is among 14 faculty families whose homes were destroyed in the Tea Fire. Despite the loss, he has drawn strength from daily fellowship with members of his Warriors cross-country team. (Rob Kuznia / Noozhawk photo)
Westmont professor Russell Smelley is among 14 faculty families whose homes were destroyed in the Tea Fire. Despite the loss, he has drawn strength from daily fellowship with members of his Warriors cross-country team. (Rob Kuznia / Noozhawk photo)

When Russell Smelley, a Westmont College kinesiology professor and the school’s cross country and track coach, saw the Tea Fire racing down the mountain toward his neighborhood of faculty housing Thursday, he and his wife, Allison, went straight for their daughter Alyssa’s room.

Alyssa had died of a brain tumor 2½ years before, at age 15, and her belongings in the bedroom were precious.

(Related story: Severely burned couple fights for life)

“This was the house where she lived and died, so we have memories of her in that room that are significant,” Smelley said Monday.

Still, Smelley didn’t think the fire would reach the house, since he’d long since removed all the flammable brush nearby.

But a few hours later, while driving through the smoke-filled neighborhood in a golf cart as a member of Westmont’s Disaster Emergency Response Team, he saw with his own eyes that he was wrong. His home was in flames.

“I looked at it and said, ‘That’s a tad disappointing,’” he recalled. “It’s one of those things, you know it can happen, so it’s disappointing. ‘Oh, shucks.’ It wasn’t until later that it didn’t feel so good.”

The Smelleys were among 14 faculty families who lost their workforce homes on the leafy campus of the private Christian college, and among 210 families who were burned into homelessness in the Montecito and Santa Barbara foothills.

On Monday, as firefighters beat the once-ferocious Tea Fire into submission, many of these residents — Smelley included — returned to their charred living quarters, where they sifted through the ashes of what had once been their living rooms, bedrooms, kitchens and garages.

The Tea Fire was a weirdly discriminating inferno, sometimes reducing an entire house to powder, while leaving its next-door neighbors virtually unscathed. Some have attributed the hopscotch pattern in part to how the wind-whipped fire at times spread not so much as a moving wall, but rather through the air, in the form of flaming palm-tree fronds, which resembled enormous floating embers the size of basketballs.

In any case, the capricious selection occurred in the neighborhood of Smelley’s home, which was surrounded by standing houses with minimal or no damage.

Smelley said he and his wife spent about 15 minutes collecting valuables.

“We were reasonably calm, but hurried,” he said.

In addition to grabbing items in their daughter’s room — pictures from the wall, some blankets — they took a few other keepsakes, such as a few DVDs, a computer and some letters written by an ancestor of Smelley’s who served as a cobbler in the Confederate Army during the Civil War.

Of course, countless possessions were destroyed. Over the weekend, Smelley procured some tools for sifting through the rubble. A popular presence on campus, he respectfully declined offers to help look through the ashes. The idea wasn’t so much for he and his wife to recover possessions as to contemplate the memories of what was lost.

“We want to be able to sift it and remember it, and cry over it, if need be,” he said.

On Monday afternoon, Smelley was the recipient of some striking generosity. At one point, a neighbor, who asked that his name not be published, came by to tell him that he had a surprise for his 13-year-old son, Travis: a new drum set, to replace the one that perished in the fire. Then, the neighbor handed Smelley a shoebox containing some of the ceramics that Smelley’s children had created in elementary school. The neighbor had gone into the house and taken them off the wall — while the roof was burning.

Clearly touched, Smelley shook the man’s hand, then gave him a hug.

Smelley was especially grateful on behalf of his son, who at age 13 has lost his sister and now his home, and almost lost his mother to breast cancer last year. (Smelley said the cancer is in remission and his wife has been given a clean bill of health.)

After the neighbor left, a flock of cross-country athletes stopped by to console Smelley. It wasn’t the first time they’d done so: He thanked them for visiting him the night before, and recalled how nice it was to just sit with all of them.

“There was nothing to say, just sit,” he explained.

Smelley assured the students that he was going to be OK, marveling at the generosity of the community, and adding that after all his family has been through, the loss of the house “doesn’t feel devastating. Just sad.”

On the Riviera a few miles away, Doug Crawford was also coming to grips with the loss of his home, in the 1100 block of Las Alturas Road.

“Our house is 12 inches high,” said Crawford, spokesman for the Navy League of Santa Barbara, which his wife, Karen, serves as president. “There was no structure left whatsoever — nothing.”

Crawford said he was amazed at the cooperation of neighbors, who knocked on one another’s doors to make sure everyone would get out safely.

He attributed the smooth evacuation to a neighborhood drill performed in May.

Crawford said he couldn’t believe how fast the fire traveled.

Around 6 p.m. — shortly after the fire started — a friend called to ask him how he was doing.

“We went outside, there was no fire,” he said. “By 7 o’clock it was like we were inside a furnace.”

Crawford said the time he and his wife spent grabbing valuables was harried and surreal.

“You end up taking some crazy stuff,” he said. “I wondered if I was going to have to defend my property — I got my rifle and some ammunition.”

He added, wryly, “The good news is there was no need to defend my property.”

During the evacuation, Crawford said the fire began to feel dangerously close, with large embers falling from the bright-orange sky and the sound of trees popping in the flames.

“My lungs burned for 24 hours afterward,” he said. “That’s how bad the smoke was.”

Crawford said he has been moved by the generosity of the community.

He and his wife were among the victims invited to attend a local briefing by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“The mayor and City Council members were there; they all hugged us and embraced us,” he said. “They promised the rebuilding transition process would be accelerated for us, and the bureaucracy would be minimized.”

What’s more, on Monday morning, one of the members of his church, El Montecito Presbyterian, handed him and his wife the keys to a three-bedroom condo.

“We just live in an awesome community,” he said. “It feels like jumping off a cliff, with the shock and awe of the fire, and then seeing the aftermath. What you realize when you go off that cliff is there is like a hang glider of love and support from the community.”

Other Freelance

Santa Barbara High Grad Faced Own Mortality

This article was published on the website of Santa Barbara Newsroom, an experimental project launched by a group of journalists.

Jerry Perez can remember the moment he decided to turn his life around and graduate from high school.

It was three years ago, and he was lying in what he thought might be his death bed, trying to console his sobbing mother.

Jerry Perez promised his mother he'd graduate. Photo by Rob Kuznia/SBN
Jerry Perez promised his mother he'd graduate. Photo by Rob Kuznia/SBN

The victim of a life-threatening kidney disease that had plagued him from birth with kidney stones, temporary paralysis and stunted growth, Jerry’s health troubles may have contributed to behavior issues that landed him in situations nearly as dangerous as the disease.

“My mom told me ‘All I want is for you to get a diploma in your hand,’ ” he said. “That’s when I promised her that I would get one.”

On June 14, he will fulfill that promise: Jerry will accept his piece of paper along with hundreds of other graduating seniors in cap and gown at Santa Barbara High School.

His path to a diploma has been a bumpy one, filled with the obstacles of not only disease, but also gang violence, divorce and the alcoholism of his father, who recently wound up homeless.

In one year’s time, owing largely to on-campus extracurriculars such as the low-riders bicycle club and the now-defunct Junior ROTC, Jerry went from nearly being expelled to being a student of the month, not to mention a favorite of many teachers and administrators.

Academic counselor Marcy Porter and Jerry got to be pals. Photo by Rob Kuznia
Academic counselor Marcy Porter and Jerry got to be pals. Photo by Rob Kuznia

Jerry still has a tough road ahead of him. Next year he plans to simultaneously take courses at City College and take care of his recovering father after he is released from the detox shelter. But his achievement of earning a diploma is significant. The youngest of three siblings, Jerry will be the first in his family to graduate high school. He hopes to one day become a Medical Emergency Technician.

“He’ll do fine in the world, because he’s got street smarts,” said Marcy Porter, an academic counselor at Santa Barbara High. “He’s also got a lot of personality.”


Jerry has come a long way from where he was that day three years ago at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital. His kidney disease – known as Renal Tubular Acidosis – was getting the better of him.

He’d been at the hospital about a week since waking up one day and realizing that he couldn’t move. It was one of those bouts of paralysis that results from dangerously low levels of potassium, and this episode was especially severe. He rode to the hospital in an ambulance.

At the time, however, his problems weren’t limited to poor health.

An undersized kid who, at the age of 8, had been told by doctors that he wouldn’t live past 12, Jerry developed a nihilistic anger that he tried to satiate with violence.

“There was nothing more to live for,” he said, while sitting on the couch in the subsidized apartment he shares with his mother on the Eastside. “Back then I didn’t care about nothing.”

Starting in junior high school, Jerry, who now, at age 17, stands at 5 feet 2 inches, became involved with gangs, and refused to back down from anyone who challenged him. Often, rivals made fun of his height.

Jerry Perez credits Junior ROTC for helping turn his life around. Courtesy photo
Jerry Perez credits Junior ROTC for helping turn his life around. Courtesy photo

Once, he walked into a throng of hostile boys on State Street. After some words were exchanged, one of the boys whacked Jerry on the upper back with a small baseball bat, knocking him to the pavement. Afraid of getting hit again, Jerry stayed face down on the ground until he was sure they were gone.

Another time, as Jerry walked past the fountain at the Paseo Nuevo shopping center on State Street, a kid he had never seen before referred to him as a “wetback midget.”

Jerry shoved the kid into the fountain, accidentally slamming the kid’s head onto a hard surface. A bystander called 911. As Jerry fled, he heard the ambulance approaching.

By the time Jerry was in the eighth grade, he’d been in so many fights – and had taken so many blows to the head – that he started suffering severe headaches.

To this day, the back of Jerry's neck bears the scar from a brain surgery he says was caused by fighting. Photo by Edgar Oliveira
To this day, the back of Jerry's neck bears the scar from a brain surgery he says was caused by fighting. Photo by Edgar Oliveira

“It really hurt when I laughed,” he said. “Like someone was pushing my head together.”

His mother, Lorena Garcia, now 40, took him to see a doctor at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

Academic counselor Marcy Porter and Jerry got to be pals.
Academic counselor Marcy Porter and Jerry got to be pals. Photo by Rob Kuznia
It turned out to be a good idea. The doctor said tubes needed to be surgically implanted from his head to his spine to drain surplus liquids, which Jerry believes were caused by the fighting. (Jerry said the doctor didn’t speculate on the cause.) To this day, the back of his neck bears the scar from that surgery.

“The doctor told me, ‘You get hit in the head one more time and you’re done,’ “ he said. He is scheduled to have another checkup after graduation.


Although Jerry eventually promised to change his delinquent ways partly out of concern for his own safety, his main worry was his mother. He knew he was her last hope to see one of her children graduate on time.

An immigrant from Mexico who speaks no English, Garcia has long held three low-wage jobs, as a newspaper delivery woman, house cleaner and janitor.

Jerry and his mother were thrilled when he won the Cadet of the Year award. Photo by Edgar Oliveira/SBN
Jerry and his mother were thrilled when he won the Cadet of the Year award. Photo by Edgar Oliveira/SBN

Meanwhile, her family life has suffered. Her oldest son, now 24, dropped out of school and got heavily into gangs and drugs. Her daughter, now 19, also dropped out of school. Her husband was an alcoholic, and she divorced him about 10 years ago. She has since remarried.

But even after Jerry made the promise to his mother, he had a few slip-ups. On one such occasion, when he went to the principal’s office for yet another fight, he struck up a conversation with the secretary, Marcy Porter. (She has since taken a job at the school as a counselor.)

Due to his frequent trips to the office, the two had developed a rapport.

“She’s like, ‘You seem like the kind of guy who wants to be in charge,’ “ he said.


Porter told him about a class – Junior ROTC – in which students wore military uniforms and could make their way up the chain of command.

To this day, the back of his neck bears the scar from a brain surgery Jerry says was caused by fighting.
To this day, the back of Jerry’s neck bears the scar from a brain surgery he says was caused by fighting. Photo by Edgar Oliveira
The part about the uniforms made him uneasy, but Jerry decided to give it a shot. He enrolled in the class.

At first, he wasn’t nuts about the ROTC, and continued to get into trouble. But over time he excelled; his grades improved, and so did his attendance.

He rose to the rank of lieutenant, meaning he led a squad of cadets during drills. Unfortunately for Jerry, the program was cut after his junior year because of low enrollment. But he said he’ll never forget that last day of ROTC.

During that class, the teacher, Sgt. Steven Potts – who, like the class’s other teacher, was a contracted-out military man — forbade Jerry to perform his daily duties, such as doing roll-call, handing out reading materials and leading drills.

Later, the class held its annual awards ceremony. Expecting that he would receive at least one award, Jerry told his mother to come. She did. By the time the event was nearly done, however, Jerry still didn’t have anything.

“They didn’t call him and they didn’t call him,” said Garcia, speaking in Spanish. “He was nervous, biting his fingernails.”

Then, the instructor approached a table with a trophy covered in cloth. The two-foot–tall statue of a soldier was set aside for the Cadet of the Year. As the instructor unveiled it, the room fell silent: “It goes to Jerry Perez!”

His mother wept. Then the instructor started giving out more awards to Jerry.

“At the very end,” she remembers, “they began calling, ‘Jerry Perez, Jerry Perez, Jerry Perez’ – over and over again, ‘Jerry Perez!’ ”

His success with Junior ROTC bred further success. Jerry’s GPA jumped from around 1.3 after his freshmen year to his current 3.3. He became a student of the month.

This year, Jerry was awarded a $2,400 scholarship from Santa Barbara Scholarship Foundation. (He had to turn it down because his medical condition won’t allow him to sign up for the requisite 12 credits at City College.)

When the school board eliminated the Junior ROTC program, Jerry joined a low-rider bicycle club, of which he became secretary.

In addition, Jerry also started working as an office assistant at Captain Don’s Whale Watching Tours, where his struggling father has also been an employee.


Now Jerry is about to embark on what could be his most daunting challenge to date.

Recently, he was at school when he received a call on his cell phone from his boss, Don Hedden – also known as Captain Don. He called to tell Jerry that his father needed help, and should probably go to detox.

Jerry plans to live with his father when he gets out of detox. Photo by Edgar Oliveira
Jerry plans to live with his father when he gets out of detox. Photo by Edgar Oliveira

Jerry learned that his father, Jose Perez, 38, seemed to be having hallucinations. He had used his cell phone to call the police from the restroom of a bar to report that a strange man had been following him all day long, and was hiding in the next stall.

Officers arrived and checked the stall, but found no such man. When the officers left, Jose Perez swore that he saw the man following him again.

Jerry decided he needed to help his father. At the time, Jose Perez had been homeless for about six months, and was sleeping under the stars at East Beach.

A few weeks ago, in an effort to help coax his father into detox, Jerry spent some nights on the beach with him. They slept in sleeping bags inside a motorboat on loan from Captain Don.

Jose Perez agreed to check into a 14-day program at Casa Esperanza. Now, Jerry, who already has his hands full making plans for his graduation party, is looking for an apartment for them to share.

“I’m going to have a really busy life,” he said, “a lot of responsibility. It came really early to me.”

For his part, Jose Perez has made a promise to Jerry to turn his life around. It’s not unlike the promise Jerry made to his mother three years ago.

“I feel so happy by him,” Jose said. “I hope as soon as I get out of here I stay away from the alcohol. … I want to start a new life.”

But Jose Perez’s situation is tenuous: he said he still sees the man on occasion.

Jerry, meanwhile, said he has learned to set goals, and achieve them.

“It’s a goal that we have to reach,” he said of his father’s sobriety. “Now I have something to live for.”  ***

Featured Santa Barbara News Press

Golden Gate bridge jumper now spreads message of hope

John Kevin Hines survived his leap off the Golden Gate Bridge in 2000.

The moment he leapt off the Golden Gate Bridge, John Kevin Hines regretted the decision.

John Kevin Hines survived his leap off the Golden Gate Bridge in 2000. STEVE MALONE/NEWS-PRESS
John Kevin Hines survived his leap off the Golden Gate Bridge in 2000. STEVE MALONE/NEWS-PRESS

So, during his four seconds of free fall on Sept. 25, 2000, with the wind roaring in his ears, the 19-year-old San Francisco City College student threw back his head.

When he knifed into the bay below, Mr. Hines felt an explosion in his gut — like shrapnel, his ribs had splintered into his organs. His limbs moved like jellyfish in the frigid shock of the saltwater. Witnesses swear they saw a sea lion keep him afloat during some of the 22 minutes it took for rescue crews to get to him.

Somehow, that day he became the 26th person to survive a suicidal plunge off the 220-foot-high span since it opened in 1937; at least 1,300 others have perished.

Now an unabashed lover of life, Mr. Hines, 25, has made a mission of reaching out to other suicidal people and their loved ones, and he’s speaking in Santa Barbara next week. His message is that suicidal people don’t truly want to die — they want someone to care, and can sometimes be saved by being asked the simple question, “Is everything OK?”

It’s a question none of the several people who walked past him that day on the bridge bothered to ask.

“I really mean it, I’m just glad for every second of every day after Sept. 25, 2000,” said Mr. Hines, who now works as an activities director at School of the Arts high school in San Francisco. “Hell, it was fun recouping in the hospital.”

At 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, he will be among a panel of speakers at a free forum on suicide prevention at San Marcos High School, which lost a student of its own to suicide last year. In July 2005, Andrew Popp became the 42nd person to jump off the Cold Spring Canyon Bridge on Highway 154.

Another person has since died jumping off the 420-foot-high bridge.

Unlike the Golden Gate, no one has survived a leap off the majestic Cold Spring monument, which was built in 1963 and crosses thorny brush and jagged rock. On average, one person dies every year jumping from the structure. The quarter-mile span is considered one of the highest concentrated spots for deaths — suicides or otherwise — in a five-county swath from Santa Barbara to Santa Cruz, according to Caltrans officials.

Wednesday’s forum is hosted by the Glendon Association, a nonprofit group that provides educational services on topics such as suicide, violence, strained relationships and child abuse. The forum’s purpose has always been to reach out to anyone concerned about the issue of suicide.

But the 12th annual talk seems particularly timely because, in the minds of many local professionals, a spate of jumps and attempts last year was the last straw.

In the spring, a coalition that included sheriff’s deputies, highway officials, the Glendon Association and 3rd District County Supervisor Brooks Firestone started appealing to the general public for taking action to prevent suicides from the bridge. Most notable was the idea to erect a barrier fence at least 6 feet tall.

The group, with its detailed presentations and multiple experts on hand at two town-hall forums, appeared steeled for a public debate. After all, the battle over whether to alter the Golden Gate Bridge has raged for quite some time, with opponents of suicide barriers saying where there’s a will, there’s a way for suicidal people, and that trying to save them is not worth the price of altering an architectural wonder.

It’s a notion that Glendon research and education director Lisa Firestone — who is not related to Mr. Firestone — has been ready to combat, armed with a career’s worth of statistics.

But so far, the local group, called the Cold Spring Arch Bridge Suicide Prevention Committee, hasn’t heard so much as a half-hearted counterargument. Even leaders of local historical preservation groups admit that something needs to be done.

“It was a little surprising,” said Caltrans spokesman Colin Jones, “but I think to the community’s credit they looked at the safety aspects first.”

As a result, Caltrans last week quietly moved forward with the project; officials say the barrier will be up in about two years.

Meanwhile, Dr. Firestone, a clinical psychologist, often notes that when barriers go up, suicide rates not only diminish on the bridges, but go down in the surrounding community. Likewise, in England, when they started using a less lethal brand of gas in the ovens, the grisly practice of committing suicide by sticking one’s head in the oven dramatically decreased, she said.

“When you restrict the means for suicide, the rates go down,” Dr. Firestone said. “It also sends the message to the community that we care and don’t want people doing this.”

Mr. Hines agrees. He has met No. 27 and No. 28 — the two other people who survived a drop from the Golden Gate after him. Both felt that same pang of regret as soon as they let go of the railing, he said. To him, it’s evidence that suicide attempts are spontaneous acts not often repeated after failure.

To accentuate the point, he goes back to the day he tried to end his life. During his bus ride to the reddish-orange-colored symbol of San Francisco, Mr. Hines wept, hoping somebody would ask him what was wrong. When he arrived, he paced along the pedestrian sidewalk, still “bawling like a little baby,” hoping someone would intervene. Cars drove by. Tourists walked past. Two police officers on bicycles, whose job it was to keep an eye out for jumpers, pedaled past him.

Then, “a beautiful woman comes up to me,” he said. “Blond, curly hair. Big glasses. European accent. She said, ‘Will you take my picture?’ ”

He did, saying to himself, “Nobody cares.”

As the woman walked away, Mr. Hines backed up to get a running start. He took a leap over the low railing, the bridge so high above the harsh waters of San Francisco Bay that helicopters regularly fly beneath it with ease.

When he jumped, he heard a gasp from someone on the bridge. As the seconds ticked by, the only sound was the wind in his ears.


If you or someone you know is suicidal, call the Family Service Agency 211 Helpline or the Santa Barbara Mental Health Access Team at 888-868-1649

Santa Barbara News Press

‘Why aren’t you in school?’

To find out why homeless kids are missing classes, county education liaison Ernie Rodriguez takes on the role of social worker, surrogate parent, therapist and, sometimes, detective

Ernie Rodriguez knocks on the door of an old RV parked near Old Town Goleta. He’s checking up on a fourth-grade girl who, by the county’s definition, is homeless, and who didn’t show up to La Patera Elementary School on this day.

Mr. Rodriguez’s job is making sure homeless kids attend school. It’s a tricky proposition, and the 35-year-old Santa Barbara native often finds himself in the role of social worker, surrogate parent, therapist and, sometimes, detective.

His rounds take him to homeless shelters, run-down motels and squalid apartments shared by multiple families, but this day he steps into the RV parked in a quiet residential neighborhood. The inside is tidy, but full of supplies such as canned food, toiletries and a spare tire.

Elizabeth is a fourth-grader who, by the county's definition, is homeless. On the heels of three evictions, she and her mother, Marina, live in an RV. Photos: MIKE ELIASON
Elizabeth is a fourth-grader who, by the county's definition, is homeless. On the heels of three evictions, she and her mother, Marina, live in an RV. Photos: MIKE ELIASON

It turns out the girl, Elizabeth, is sick with a head cold. The family has been evicted from three apartments in the past year, and must move the RV every three days.

On this particular afternoon, the mother, Marina, an undocumented immigrant, needs to run some errands, but because the RV doesn’t run very well her only option is a bicycle. Her husband, a gardener, is at work. Mr. Rodriguez offers to give Elizabeth a lift a few miles away to the house of a trusted friend, who can watch her. As Marina pedals down the street, a neighbor jogs out to the street to intercept her.

“When are you going to move that RV?” he asks.

“Tomorrow,” she says, before turning the corner.

For Mr. Rodriguez, it’s just another day on the job.

David is a seventh-grader whose homeless father, Lee Haralson, is dying at a hospice. David, who also sleeps at the hospice, often stays up late at night playing videogames and is tired for school the next day. 'It's harder for me to learn when I got my dad on my mind,' he says. The pair also used to live in an RV.
David is a seventh-grader whose homeless father, Lee Haralson, is dying at a hospice. David, who also sleeps at the hospice, often stays up late at night playing videogames and is tired for school the next day. 'It's harder for me to learn when I got my dad on my mind,' he says. The pair also used to live in an RV.

He is a “school liaison” for the Santa Barbara County Education Office homeless education department, which serves about 1,050 children countywide. By necessity, he knows many families intimately in his bid to keep kids in the classroom. He’s been doing this for seven years, and colleagues say he’s good. But he’s not certain he will have a job next year.

After a 20-year run, the agency is facing the possibility of losing between 30 percent and 60 percent of its $300,000 annual budget. The county’s homeless program relies largely on a $180,000 federal grant that lasts three years. In mid-June, officials will learn how much money – if any – they’ll receive for the next round.

In addition to bankrolling Mr. Rodriguez’s $63,000 salary, the program covers an after-school program for homeless children at shelters such as Transition House in downtown Santa Barbara.

But for Mr. Rodriguez – who grew up wanting to be a police detective – the day-to-day, case-by-case struggles are more than enough to keep his mind off budgetary concerns. A day spent on the job with Mr. Rodriguez recently illustrated his many challenges.

To find out why homeless kids are missing classes, county education liaison Ernie Rodriguez takes on the role of social worker, surrogate parent, therapist and, sometimes, detective.
To find out why homeless kids are missing classes, county education liaison Ernie Rodriguez takes on the role of social worker, surrogate parent, therapist and, sometimes, detective.


In addition to dealing with the girl in the RV, Mr. Rodriguez visited a filthy, two-bedroom apartment housing 13 people to visit a boy who is missing too many high school classes.

The teenager is a sophomore at a local alternative high school for students unsuccessful in traditional settings. The tiny place near downtown is so stuffed with people that the kitchen’s pantry has been converted into a bedroom.

The teen’s father is currently not living in the home. His mother doesn’t know how to read or write in English or Spanish. Still, somehow, she recently landed a job as a hotel maid. The family is so poor Mr. Rodriguez sometimes brings them food – nonperishable items such as peanut butter, rice, juice, chips, tomatoes and beans.

Mr. Rodriguez pulled his Honda Accord into the driveway of the dilapidated complex, strewn with beer bottles, toys and mounting garbage near the Dumpster. “West side” was scrawled onto the side of the building.

Mr. Rodriguez knocked on the door.

After a couple of minutes, it opened – in slow motion. A face with a shy smile appeared: It was the kid.

Mr. Rodriguez greeted him heartily by name. “Why aren’t you in school?”

“I’m sick,” the student answered, in Spanish. “Come in.”

It didn’t take long for Mr. Rodriguez to discern that the teenager – a former student at Santa Barbara High School – wasn’t sick; he was baby-sitting his 2-year-old cousin. Mr. Rodriguez tried to talk to the toddler, who was drinking from a 12-ounce soda bottle that came up to his kneecaps.

“What’s your name?” he asked in Spanish.


“What did you eat for breakfast today?”

The little boy covered his face with a sock he was holding.

“Did you eat eggs?”

The boy nodded.


The boy nodded.


The boy nodded.

Mr. Rodriguez and the teen laughed. Clearly the 2-year-old didn’t eat all – or even any – of those things.

“Do you guys need food?” Mr. Rodriguez asked.

The student was noncommittal. Mr. Rodriguez knew that the mother was too proud to get free food at the local homeless shelter – Casa Esperanza – so he told the teen where it was, and when he could go there.

“Four o’clock?” repeated the student, in English. “Sounds good.”

The visit underscored the depth of the problem: Getting a kid to go to school is a tall order when a family can’t even afford food, let alone a baby sitter.

Still, that didn’t stop Mr. Rodriguez from trying other avenues to coax the boy to school. Several weeks earlier he had offered a new bicycle, which Mr. Rodriguez purchased out of pocket. All that Mr. Rodriguez had asked in return was that the boy do three things: Use it to go to school, demonstrate initiative by purchasing a lock, and show maturity by agreeing to treat his mother better.

It had been three weeks since Mr. Rodriguez first extended the offer, and he wasn’t happy with the student.

“I want that lock,” Mr. Rodriguez said, affecting a stern tone. “And be sure to respect your mother.”

Asked why he hadn’t held up his end of the deal by purchasing a $12 lock, the teen chuckled.

“No money,” he said.

A couple of days later, Mr. Rodriguez bought the lock and gave the boy the bike.

For Mr. Rodriguez, offering the bicycle was more complicated than it sounds.

Marina needs do some errands, but because the RV doesn't run very well her only viable mode of transportation is a bicycle. Her husband is at work. Ernie Rodriguez offers to give Elizabeth a lift a few miles away so she can be watched by a trusted friend.
Marina needs do some errands, but because the RV doesn't run very well her only viable mode of transportation is a bicycle. Her husband is at work. Ernie Rodriguez offers to give Elizabeth a lift a few miles away so she can be watched by a trusted friend.

It required delving into the family’s interpersonal history. The teen’s parents hail from the mountains of rural Mexico, where, Mr. Rodriguez said, women have less status than men. An only son, the boy was treated by his father like royalty compared to all his sisters. His father bought him CDs, a watch, bicycles, shoes. Now that his father is away, the kid views himself as the man of the house. He’s learned that this means disrespecting his mother: questioning her about where she’s been, talking back, refusing to clean up.

Not wanting to overstep his bounds, Mr. Rodriguez was careful to call the boy’s mother before offering the bicycle. Her only request was that Mr. Rodriguez provide the bike on condition that her son promise to stop mistreating her.

Asked about his attitude toward school, the teen said he is changing for the better.

“I used to be really bad, but now I behave,” he said. “I used to ditch, talk back to teachers. . . . But now I listen to my teachers.”


If the number of children served by Mr. Rodriguez’s department seems high, it’s because the county’s definition of homeless doesn’t just include the stereotypical street-roaming transients who sleep in the bushes. In fact, few children in Santa Barbara County – maybe 15 – live this way, according to the department. The highest number – about 500 over the course of a year – live in shelters such as the Transition House in Santa Barbara, or the Good Samaritan Shelter in Santa Maria. Another 300 live like the teenager: “doubled up,” meaning they shack with multiple families in the same house or apartment. About 130 fall under a similar category: transitional settings, meaning they could be on the move, or living with relatives for a few weeks after an eviction. Roughly 100 live in motels, mostly in Lompoc and Santa Maria.

The number of children served – 1,050 – has increased gradually from 840 over the past eight years, though it has dipped slightly since last year. About half the kids reside in Santa Maria, and a third are in Santa Barbara. The balance live in Lompoc.

A graduate of San Marcos High School, Mr. Rodriguez never intended to become a social worker. He attended California State University, Northridge, where, with the idea of becoming a police detective, he earned a degree in sociology. His father had worked as a professional baseball player in Mexico before moving to California in the 1960s to become a custom cabinet maker.

Mr. Rodriguez, who is married with two boys, the eldest a stepson, tried police work for a while but in 1999 he saw an ad in a local newspaper for his current job, and decided to apply. Now his day begins by checking his phone messages, many from local principals asking him to check on certain students whose school attendance has fallen off.

Marina, Elizabeth's mother, is working with the INS to become a documented citizen.
Marina, Elizabeth's mother, is working with the INS to become a documented citizen.

He has many stories.

“One student missed an entire year’s worth of school between kindergarten and fourth grade,” he recounted, while searching for a subsidized apartment complex near Harding Elementary School.

Clean-cut but casual in a button-up shirt, unzipped spring jacket and blue jeans, the easygoing Mr. Rodriguez has a disarming, “good cop” quality.

It is perhaps for this reason that some people actually open the door when he knocks.

Such was the case when he drove to an apartment complex on Victoria Street near San Pascual Street. Harding Elementary’s principal, Sally Kingston, had recently organized a meeting for parents of habitual no-shows, and this particular mother – named Gloria – neglected to attend. Mr. Rodriguez found her unit, and knocked. Two minutes passed. He knocked again. This time, Gloria answered and flashed him a nervous smile of recognition.

Speaking in Spanish, she said she tried to go; she had asked a secretary about the event, but the secretary didn’t know about it. Unlike the high school student, she did not ask Mr. Rodriguez inside. Today, she explained, her youngest daughter was sick. Meanwhile, another daughter, who attends La Cuesta High School, peered around her mother at the visitor. She too, apparently, had skipped school.

“A lot of these people who migrated to the U.S. many years ago – especially with the women, the girls – once they start going to school, (the parents) notice that they are getting smarter than them,” he said. “The parents get scared that the kids think they are getting better than them. They try to keep them down. They say, ‘Why do you go to school? You should go to work.’ ”

Not all of the houses he goes to are rundown or subsidized.

At a later stop in the 800 block of Victoria Street, the bungalow house has a tree swing in the front yard. The yard is neatly manicured.

When Mr. Rodriguez knocked, it took nearly five minutes for a man to answer. He eventually opened the door, reluctantly, and said the first-grade girl Mr. Rodriguez was looking for no longer lived there. Later, when Mr. Rodriguez visited the office of Harding School to explain his findings, the secretaries were puzzled. They had just talked to the girl’s mother less than half an hour earlier, and she had confirmed the address.


Later in the day, Mr. Rodriguez switched gears, morphing from private eye to surrogate parent.

At a local hospice called the Serenity House, he visited a boy, David, and his homeless father, Lee Haralson, who is dying of a brain tumor and has less than three weeks to live, hospice workers say. David – who sleeps in a recliner by his father’s side – has a tendency to stay up all night playing video games at the hospice, and has been falling asleep in class.

“It’s harder for me to learn in class when I got my dad on my mind,” he said while sitting at the edge of his dad’s bed, playing Star Wars. “You all right, Dad?”

His father issued an inaudible moan and slowly lifted his arm. Just three months ago, Mr. Haralson was able-bodied and lucid when he recounted how he took a couple of bullets in Vietnam, had lived in South America until David was old enough for kindergarten, and walked David to Franklin Elementary every day. At the time, he wore at least two homemade rings on every finger. Last week his fingers were so thin the rings slid right off, but he insisted on wearing them.

Mr. Rodriguez went outside the room and asked the director of the hospice to make sure David turned off the video games at 8 p.m. on school nights.

“I don’t mind him playing the Play Station,” he said. “Just not at 1 in the morning.”

As with the teenager, Mr. Rodriguez at one point found himself digging into his own pockets to keep David going to school – to the tune of $200.

The story highlights not only the difficulty of getting homeless kids to school, but also the unpredictability and instability of the homeless population, and how the odds are stacked against their children.

It was almost a year ago, shortly after Mr. Haralson was diagnosed with terminal cancer and preparing to die. His brother, Anthony – himself intermittently homeless – drove over from his home in Colorado with the idea of bringing David all the way back to Michigan, home of the brothers’ father, David’s grandfather.

Mr. Rodriguez helped Franklin Elementary School send David’s file – birth certificate, immunization records and test scores – to enroll in a school in Michigan. But the drive to Michigan hit a snag, and Mr. Rodriguez ended up providing $200 toward David’s plane ticket to his grandfather’s home.

Then, in an unexpected twist around September, Mr. Haralson – already weak from cancer – and a friend drove a broken-down Thunderbird all the way to Michigan to fetch his child. He missed David. This fall, Mr. Rodriguez was surprised to get a phone call from Mr. Haralson, asking how to enroll David into Santa Barbara Junior High School.

Last week, Lee’s brother, Anthony, was back in town, working like mad to fill out the paperwork necessary to gain custody of his nephew, and trying to figure out what to do with the RV in which his brother and nephew had lived. It’s been a race against time: If Anthony doesn’t get the paperwork done before his brother dies, his nephew will become a ward of the state. It’s a fate that even Mr. Rodriguez fears, because he believes David would bolt from a foster home. He also believes Anthony will be a loving parent – the man is already the grandfather of two healthy children.

So, apparently, does David’s father. Despite the two tumors in his head, he is stubbornly refusing to die, making sure to eat and drink just a little bit, Mr. Rodriguez said. The day he called in the fall, Mr. Rodriguez said, “That was the first thing he said to me; ‘I’m not going anywhere till all this is settled.’ ”

Santa Barbara News Press Shifting Paradigms

Christmas Unwrapped

Christmas Unwrapped: Not everyone can enjoy the day with family and friends

Traditionally, Christmas is known as a day of traveling, eating, unwinding and unwrapping. But not everyone in Santa Barbara is experiencing a traditional Christmas Day.

Today, as thousands indulge in the joys of tearing paper, laughing children, sentimental music and hot cider, others in Santa Barbara will march to the beat of a different drummer boy.

They will wait for emergency calls at a fire station, serve food at a swanky hotel in Montecito, counsel dangerous inmates in the Santa Barbara County Jail or lie dying in a hospice.

A SB County jail inmate holds the Christmas cards from wife and daughter. STEVE MALONE/NEWS-PRESS
A SB County jail inmate holds the Christmas cards from wife and daughter. STEVE MALONE/NEWS-PRESS

Some, like Scott and Bonnie Bosler of Visalia, would have celebrated in the conventional way were it not for a life-altering tragedy.

Their son, 17-year-old Brad Bosler, drowned in June while trying to save a friend. As a result, Brad’s parents and two sisters today will serve meals to the homeless at the Santa Barbara Rescue Mission on East Yanonali Street.

“Our son was a big-hearted guy; he had a real giving heart, a real servant’s heart,” said Scott Bosler, whose son went to Mexico several times to build homes for the indigent. “We just weren’t ready to do what we’ve done traditionally during the Christmas season. . . . We wanted to do something he would have done.”

Brad was rafting in a canal near Porterville when a companion got caught in a whirlpool. Brad, a star athlete who hoped to become a firefighter, jumped in to save him.

“He wanted to be a hero,” Mr. Bosler said of his son’s professional aspirations. “He got to be what he wanted to be.”

Brad likely would have looked up to Jack Franklin, a Santa Barbara firefighter who is working the Christmas shift today.

As often happens on this day at the Carrillo Street station near State Street, Mr. Franklin and his company will eat a prime rib meal with dozens of family members in the garage that normally houses the engines.

“Generally it’s a zoo,” he said. “There are a lot of kids running around, with all their Christmas toys — remote controls on the floor where the engines (normally) park. But you drop everything when you have a call.”

And it happens.

Mr. Franklin, a fire engineer and former paramedic, has eaten holiday dinners in the front seat of a speeding ambulance.

“For the most part, it’s a lot of medical emergencies,” he said. “On holidays we’re (often) taking grandpa to the hospital because he’s having a heart attack. It’s a little bit too much excitement . . . with the whole family there.”

Sometimes, the fire station doesn’t need a chef. One Christmas, a family whose child nearly died of sudden infant death syndrome before being saved by firefighters brought a ham dinner to a small local station manned by three people.

“They brought a meal for like 25,” said Battalion Chief Chris Blair, who also works today. “We had ham sandwiches for weeks.”

As good as that meal may have been, its extravagance surely paled in comparison to the six-course dinner that will be served to hundreds tonight at the Four Seasons Biltmore Resort in Montecito, where a good night’s rest costs anywhere from $600 to $2,500.

The dinner, to be enjoyed in a renowned dining room with sweeping ocean views, will cost $120 a plate. And Rubin Cosio, the hotel’s food and beverage director, has the unenviable task of ensuring that the yuletide feast is worth every penny.

But he said he’s not worried.

“It’s only high-pressure if you don’t plan it correctly,” he said.

The hotel’s staff is making a special effort to see that each guest’s needs are tended to.

For instance, a “very senior manager” of a Fortune 500 company with a penchant for the $900-a-bottle Patr|ó|n Platinum tequila will find one waiting in his room, accompanied by two glasses with ice on the side.

“Some just like it straight up,” Mr. Cosio said. “It’s not anything you would make a margarita with.”

The hotel festivities, which include a $90 buffet, will be heavily attended by the L.A. elite who “just want to get away from their hurried lives” — executives, for instance, from CBS, NBC, Columbia Pictures and Universal Studios.

As the roughly 500 well-heeled folks wine and dine in Montecito, about 850 convicts will simply dine in the Santa Barbara County Jail, on Calle Real near Turnpike Road.

The inmates will eat a turkey dinner, attend services and sing Christmas carols.

Throughout the day, the Rev. Ivan Vorster, a 30-year pastor at the Harvest Christian Fellowship in Santa Barbara, will visit single cells, sitting face to face with some men who are “extremely dangerous.”

The Rev. Vorster isn’t scared, and not just because he will be accompanied by a guard.

“They are generally very respectful,” he said. “There’s a longing for their loved ones, for home. . . . (Talking with them) is declaring that somebody cares.”

One inmate, a young man who said he’s in for stealing, said he will give a sermon of his own.

“I feel like I’ve been called to preach the word,” the man said while hanging out with fellow inmates in the drug-treatment section of the jail, a less restrictive area that civilians can enter. “There are tools in here to better your life. You just have to use them.”

A few miles away, at a hospice on Calle de los Amigos near Hope Ranch, a 56-year-old literary agent from New York City is dying of a rare lung disease.

Al Lowman, whose list of clients includes singer Diana Ross, former Teen People magazine editor Christina Ferrari and folk singer Judy Collins, said he will spend Christmas Day resting at the Serenity House. The small facility accommodates six patients who expect to have less than six months to live.

“Growing up, my heart was not into (Christmas), but it is this year,” said Mr. Lowman, who was recently visited by Ms. Ross, hospice staff members said.

A talkative man, Mr. Lowman is upbeat even though his only son will not be able to visit him this year.

“I love living, and I love dying,” he said.

Mr. Lowman spends much time on the phone, doing business. He just finished editing the manuscript for Ms. Collins’ still-untitled book about creativity.

But he is not bed-ridden. Mr. Lowman sits in a chair, paces about the room and even kneels on the floor to call up on his computer the cover of Ms. Collins’ book — a painting she did herself.

To him, the Serenity House is aptly named.

“I’m having a holiday in the heart,” he said, mouse in hand, looking over his shoulder. “I’ve never been happier.”