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."
High school teacher Jonathan 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.
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.
On May 5, in an instant, Heavynle Ceasar's charming senior 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.
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.
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.
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.
(Santa Barbara News-Press)
The moment he leapt off the Golden Gate Bridge, John Kevin Hines regretted the decision. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
BY THE NUMBERS
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.
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.
THE DYING HOMELESS DAD
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.’ ”
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.