Thursday, September 3, 2015

Me, One of Al’s Gals? No Way!!

St. Coleman School, Pompano Beach, FL
I’ve always held the Joliet Franciscan Sisters (Order of St. Francis, OSF) in deep regard, even when I was in trouble with a good Sister, a frequent event from 3rd grade on. 

They ran, and still oversee, my grade school (St. Coleman’s, Pompano Beach, FL), high school (Cardinal Gibbons, Ft. Lauderdale, FL) and college (now University of St. Francis, Joliet, IL). Impressively, they just celebrated 150 years as a religious community. Their foundress, Mother Alfred Moes, got things started back then in ways she wouldn’t have been able to predict, I’m sure. 

Yes, I had considered joining their ranks, and went through several years of what I’ll call apprenticeship, but eventually I decided I’d be best not staying, so in 1973 we parted ways. I’ve kept in contact, and have several Joliet Franciscans who are my Facebook friends. I’ve participated in a few USF/OSF events. And, I’m humbled to admit, USF has twice honored me for my work with homeless persons. 

Mother Alfred Moes statue
So when I got word that DZ, aka Sister Dolores Zemont, the congregation president, wanted to speak with me this Spring, I had no idea what she’d want. Astoundingly enough, in my mind anyhow, she said they wanted to present me with their esteemed Mother Alfred Moes award. No way! (Event details)

DZ told me that they hadn’t made a mistake in choosing me. They wanted to recognize my decades of efforts working with homeless kids and adults. Sometimes, not often, I’m speechless.

I remember a bit about Mother Alfred. She was quite a gal. In fact, the Sisters are still fondly called “Al’s Gals,” indicating high regard people had for her and her followers. Besides countless accomplishments from her work in Joliet, she was also instrumental in starting what is now known as Mayo Clinic. (Legacy)

I don’t underestimate how my life changed back in the 1980s when I became involved with homelessness. As much sweat and blood as I’ve put into this unforeseen vocation, I’ve received much more from those I’ve met along the way who fall into the category of “homeless.” 

My talents and education have been put to use in ways I never imagined. My penchant for fighting for justice has been put to good use on more occasions than I would have ever imagined. My heart, while it’s been saddened and angered by the horrors of homelessness, has been happier than I could ever explain to those who don't get it. And I've received incalculable amounts of support of all kinds to help me pursue my unconventional HEAR US mission of giving voice and visibility to homeless children and youth. (My latest film, Worn Out Welcome Mat - Kansas, was just released!)

The only thing I can point to that I share in common with Mother Alfred is that we both taught at St. John’s School in Joliet, me way back in 1969-70. Ironically I taught under Sister Thelma, who endured a bruising year as my 8th grade teacher years before. I was shocked she hired me as gym teacher for her school.

I’m not going to argue with DZ. But I’m in search of ways that I can receive this honor in conjunction with all “Diane’s Pals,” my homies big and small who’ve taught me so much about what’s important in life…you’ve given my life more meaning than I could ever imagine.  May I have the strength and focus to continue working to make things at least a little bit right for you.
If you're so inclined and able, I'd encourage you to make a tax-deductible donation to HEAR US Inc. to support my ongoing work with homeless families and youth. You can do a one-time donation or become one of our treasured monthly donors. I run a frugal operation, and all our support is well used! Thanks!

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Beyond My Control--ARGH!

As those who’ve been following me on Facebook know, this past year with my new camper-van has been a tad vexing. With Tillie1, my Gulfstream Yellowstone motorhome that served as my home since Nov. 2005, I had minimal mechanical problems. Tillie2, my sleeker, upscale (MB Sprinter, for Pete’s sake!) van/home has presented a plethora of issues, most vexing the dismazingly ubiquitous CHECK ENGINE light.


Credit must be given to Tim, the Sprinter mechanic at Mercedes Benz in Kansas City. In May, my last stop here, he managed to actually fix this frequently reoccurring issue. We had a pleasant chat about what he did, an unusual occurrence to speak to the person doing the work at MB. 

Annoyed as I was to see the CE light pop up again this past Saturday, I was glad I was able to get into MBKC before I headed to North Carolina, my next destination. It’s become a regular stop for me; I’m more familiar with the MB parking lot than many of their customers are! Quiet place to sleep…but that’s another story.

Chris, the Sprinter Service Manager, squeezed me into the schedule. He brought me back to the service area and showed me the damage caused by the rats or mice that decided to chew on the wires. I had been parked at my friend Julia’s for the past 2 weeks, a place where I often spend time when I’m in KS. As I pulled out yesterday, she noticed the dead giveaway that I had unwanted visitors, discarded cocoa shells—from her landscaping next to T2’s parking spot—under the hood area.

I’m sure it could have been worse. But really, can’t vehicle manufacturers figure out a way to prevent varmints from gnawing on vehicles’ wiring and other parts? 

My only take-away from this unexpected delay can be summed up in one of my favorite quotes—I am where I should be, doing what I should be doing, otherwise I’d be somewhere else doing something else. (anon)

This delay allowed me to do an impromptu screening of my latest film, Worn Out Welcome Mat—Kansas, a look at doubled up homelessness, with staff at Kansas City KS School District 500. McKinney-Vento liaison Kerry Wrenick deftly assembled a small group in a conference room. I hooked up my computer and watched them watch this heartbreaking 20-min. video. (LINK to be posted when I get a strong signal for the upload)

I’m sitting in this well-appointed waiting room, big screen TV blaring the stuff I’m trying to ignore, as I work on my HEAR US homelessness work. Irony? Yup. But if my being here can cause at least 1 person with financial wherewithal to become aware of —and maybe do something to help— homelessness as experienced by families and youth, I’ll hire a team of gnawing rats! 

Monday, July 13, 2015

I Can Have Fun Doing What I Do!

People always ask me how I can stand the hardships of my work. They're not talking about my life in Tillie2, my little motorhome, although on these hot summer days I'd welcome their cooling compassion!

My work is that of sole staff person for HEAR US Inc., my brainchild of 10 years ago when I figured I could be the one to give voice and visibility to homeless children and youth. I've been on the road since then, having traded my nice little townhome for a house on wheels. I envisioned, somewhat crazily, the project of filming interviews of kids in homeless situations and posting them so others could see.

Amazingly, my dream wasn't far off. After 220,000+ miles of mostly backroads in 48 of the contiguous United States, I've met with success, as much as that can be measured. Lots of people like what I do, love it, even. I get tremendous feedback. Families and youth experiencing homelessness are thrilled with the opportunity I present for them to be seen and heard.

Last month, I was invited to hang out at the most awesome summer camp I've ever seen: Camp IBA (Imagine. Believe. Achieve.), an effort of the Wichita, KS School District 259's McKinney-Vento Homeless Students program.

This 9-week camp runs from 9-4, giving parents who are ousted from shelters during the day a safe place for their kids while the parents look for work, housing, etc. The camp is run by professionals and has "real" teachers. It's a bevy of activities that would make affluent families drool. The kids get to swim, dance, drum, learn math, play games, visit cool places, and hang around with topnotch professionals.

The campers accepted me, and even ignored me as I tromped around their school-camp with my cameras. And I got a pile of cool pics and video. More on that later...

The municipal pool is conveniently located right across from their school/camp. They had scheduled sessions where segments of the campers donned their swimming suits, grabbed their towels, hopped into their flip-flops and headed to the pool.

Getting to watch these kids have unbridled fun does my heart good. Watching this short video I made will do your heart good.

It's worth remembering that, given the opportunity, kids experiencing homelessness can thrive. At least for 7 hours a day. At camp. What fun.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Vulnerability Makes Me Angry!

Some places offer thanks as they go down for the count.
Others just walk away or board up their businesses.
I've seen plenty in my travels.
After Mom's death 2 years ago, my sibs and I sorted out all the details that linger, including her modest investments. One (which will remain unnamed until I get even angrier), I'll call it "Portfolio Rip Off," was way sleazier than I could bear.

Learning about how Mom got into it shed much light on the way greed thrives in this country. Her lawyer recommended it to her/my sis as a great way to tap into the higher returns for safe investments that everyone dreams about. Why get 2% when you can get 10%?

Since it was a legit professional and longtime family friend who recommended it, a man who was good friends with the guy involved in setting up the fund, it made sense. It's a private, invitation only fund, with limited information, a process based on "trust." So, plunk, a sizable chunk of change went into this fund.

I, upon inheriting my share of this fund, was curious. I learned it was built on investments that bought up bad debt--causing even more pain to those who've been financially ravaged.
 "a leading purchaser of charged-off consumer debt. We help creditors liquidate delinquent charged-off receivables and assist consumers in resolving their financial challenges..." [GAG!]
I have little knowledge of this arena, or desire to get more knowledgeable or more involved. But it made me gag. So I rectified the locked-in reality by donating my share of the proceeds to causes I believe in.

Having recently received notice that the fund has some decisions to make, I asked a knowledgable, trustworthy friend  to check into it for me. What he found was even more despicable. And, to no surprise, the fund founders and managers are making a pretty penny, even after distributing proceeds to the likes of the 20 hapless investors.
I want out. Not so fast. And this is where it gets so confusing I can't explain it. I can't get out. Nor will I, apparently, be getting my share of the money Mom, in good faith, invested. 
I'm not sure where this is going, but I'd bet my lunch money I'll not be happy as it unfolds.

Yeah, I'm thinking of those poor souls whose life savings were wrapped up in that great business idea that got squashed like a bug when the investors of this world decided to tank the economy. I've worked for 3 decades trying to help people get some semblance of life back after they've lost everything to these slick and sleazy robber barons.

And to think our elected officials take money from these slimy money-changers. Once you buy into, or take money from these funds, you become tainted by it. Let the record show, for what it's worth, that these "investment opportunity creators" are more than willing to dupe innocent people in the process of grabbing all they can. And politicians typically drop into the same sewer pit with their moneyed donors.

Spewing about this episode of nefarious financial behavior does nothing to satisfy my unsatisfiable  need to expose the sleaze-buckets who've put a whole lot of hurt on people way more vulnerable than me. And yes, these money monsters could further crush me like a bug on the windshield.

But knowing they're doing what they're doing sure fuels my fire to continue my fight for those "consumers ...resolving their financial challenges."
And for those sharing these sentiments who have the wherewithal to contribute to HEAR US, my nonprofit that works to help homeless families and youth, here's our 10th anniversary plea for support. You can donate $10+ a month or make a one-time donation, even anonymously (and if you have a similar sleazy money fund, feel free to send it my way!)
Anyone who defends the rights of entrepreneurs to create ways to earn money like this better not cross my path. My ability to projectile vomit has been honed. I'm just waiting for the right opportunity.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Coward or Courageous?

Last night I was comfortably ensconced in the Garden City, KS WalMart parking lot, Tillie (my van/home) parked on a nice flat spot, my shoes off, feet up, watching a movie I had downloaded earlier when I received a disconcerting text message from my Kansas friend:
"R u safe? Storms heading your way within an hour! Storm system coming from the west of you. Tornado warnings in Lakin..." 
I grabbed my iPad and checked weather radar, finding that she was not exaggerating the dire circumstances. Living in a "turtle" can be an advantage in times like this. I peeled off Tillie the Turtle's "nightshades" and jumped into the driver's seat, and skedaddled south, out of the path of the storm.

Lightning flashes lit up the sky when I peeked in my rearview mirrors. I could also see the ominous thunderclouds barreling down on Garden City. Feeling like a chicken, I ran. Better a live chicken than a dead one I reasoned. 

Having just the day before visited the jaw dropping display of the EF5 tornado that wiped nearby Greensburg off the map in 2007, I wanted nothing to do with being in the path of one. I experienced lots of guilt pangs thinking of the few people I knew in GC, and those I'm connected to by virtue of my humanity. Would the city be erased? Would people be killed? What would happen to my lot-lizard mates in the WM parking lot? 

With each flash I saw bits of the eerily moon-like landscape. The bowling-alley-straight pavement was helpful as strong gusts of winds blasted me and the few others escaping southward. Carnival-like lighting decorated the oblivious cattle-carrying semis heading northward.  

This area was desolate; flickers of light from silos and oil storage tanks the only signs of life. Oh yeah, and a neon blue cross on a building reminding me of the Christian warning of death’s power over us sinners. Not now, Jesus, not now, as I barreled hell-bent toward the unknown.

I knew Liberal was the next big city, 65 miles due south, so that was my plan. I’d find the ubiquitous Camp WM and park there. Then I’d return to GC for my meeting in the morning, if the tornado didn’t ravage this flower-oriented community.

When I saw a bedraggled truck stop in Sublette, a blip halfway between GC and Liberal, I stopped. The storm was, by all indications, 30 miles north, heading east. I checked with my KS friend who was tracking it on her computer and on TV, and she confirmed I was in the clear.

I pulled into the empty dirt lot next to this dingy truck stop haven, replaced Tillie’s night shades, and texted my friend that I was settling in for the night.

The advantage of being able to flee what could be a deadly situation was very clear in my mind. How many people experiencing domestic violence or other forms of life-threatening conditions can do that? I have resources—
My truck-neighbors and the mud hole awaiting me.
sufficient fuel, a reliable vehicle, credit cards and a bit of cash, my home wrapped around me, and the wherewithal to listen to the warning that came my way.

When a rumbling semi nestled next to me, his noisy engine running throughout the night, I vacillated between annoyance and appreciation. My weather app indicated Sublette would be in for hail, wind and rain later in the evening. My semi-buddy would at least block the wind.

Happily, I’m writing this the next morning, and not driving through the aftermath of Mother Nature’s ire. We didn't even get rain, a good thing because the dirt lot would have engulfed me 'n Tillie.

Life can change in a minute. Even with resources, one is not protected. When you’re given a chance to have another day, grab it. I’ll do what I can to make this one count!
I'm in Kansas filming a documentary, Worn Out Welcome Mat--KS on the invisible and misunderstood issue of homeless families and youth doubled up with nowhere to go. More info about my organization HEAR US Inc.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

In the Shelter of Each Other the People Live…

As a nomad for the past 10 years, I’ve been more than aware of how my HEAR US mission —giving voice and visibility to homeless families and youth—is dependent on so many others. The Irish proverb, “In the shelter of each other the people live” encapsulates my reliance on so many people for my work to serve homeless families/youth.

Sunday, at the Church of the Bretheran in Topeka, I spoke about how we are all responsible for the wellbeing of our brothers and sisters. In light of mean-spirited policies and practices aimed at making lives of poor people even more miserable, we now, more than ever, need to care for those struggling against the tsunami of poverty and homelessness.

I don’t mean to imply caring for poor and homeless persons should solely be on people of faith. Nope! It’s a 3-legged stool. Government, local communities, and religious organizations combined are needed to reconstruct the shredded safety net essential for record numbers of families and youth without homes.

It’s humbling to realize how much people have done for HEAR US/me over the years. I started out 10 years ago—driving out of Naperville, IL late afternoon behind the wheel of my new (huge, albeit 27’ long) motorhome— as the roads clogged with commuters returning home. Tillie the Turtle, as I dubbed my rig, served as my dwelling, vehicle and office until last September when I downsized to Tillie2, a more svelte and fuel-efficient vehicle (both privately donated, not HEAR US funds).
Since Nov. 2005, I’ve parked in driveways of friends, faith communities, shelters, convents; in parking lots of the noisy, ubiquitous Walmarts and truck stops; and campgrounds of all sorts. I’ve mooched electricity that powered my revered space heater. I’ve filled my water tank for washing body and dishes. I’ve glommed onto wifi connections of friends and businesses. I’ve begged for donations and solicited paying speaking engagements. I’ve been welcomed into schools and shelters across the land, connected with the experts for their stories of homelessness and survival. I’ve been taught the basics of how to film and edit documentaries. I’ve been bolstered in ways too many to mention from my HEAR US board members. I’ve been showered with generous support from countless friends and strangers. But most of all…
…I’ve been gifted by the trust and friendship of children, youth and parents experiencing homelessness. 
My talk today centered around the heroes and sheroes of my travels. The veteran-dad who persisted at a grueling work schedule to eventually be able to move out of the dilapidated tiny camper he and his 3 teen boys and dog called “home” for too long; the military mom who, with her 4 children escaped domestic violence, doubling up with friends/acquaintances until they landed on their feet; and the mom and her 7-year-old daughter who have bounced around from bad situations to worse, not giving up hope.

Being able to film and share painful stories of homelessness among families and youth has been my mission for the past 10 years. No one else does it. I know our nation suffers from a dreadful lack of knowledge of the extent of family/youth homelessness. I’m honored to be the instrument.

I don’t often sit and reflect, much less write, on how grateful I am. If you’re one of the countless individuals who has helped HEAR US in any way, I can’t thank you enough. 
And if you’re someone who appreciates the unique, essential work of HEAR US, and you have the financial means to do so, I’m asking for your help. We’ve got a 10 Years, 10 Friends campaign going. We want as many people as possible to commit to a small ($10+) monthly, tax-deductible donation, and if possible, getting 10 friends to do the same. This gives HEAR US a solid monthly income stream so I can continue my efforts, needed more now than ever.
As I strive to maintain my compassionate perspective and the hutzpah needed to pursue our Quixotic mission to get our nation to change the way we look at homelessness, I am painfully aware of how I need you to shelter me. 

Friday, March 6, 2015

Dumb Move! Winter Ravages RVs, Even Tillie!

When I accepted the invitation to give a talk in Mokena, IL on Feb. 28, I naively hoped that winter would be in decline, so I said I'd drive up (from Kansas where I'm filming Worn Out Welcome Mat - KS) in Tillie2, my (sorta) roadworthy van/home.

I could have guessed that this weekend would mark the end of one of Chicagoland's coldest Februarys on record, and that Friday night's temps would bottom out at -9.

Even before that, the below-freezing Kansas temps where I had been parked managed to turn the contents of my gray and black tanks into nasty icebergs. I thought I sort of got them dumped during a mini-thaw, making a snoodge of room, but found out otherwise. OK, so fortunately for me, the places I've been parked have bathroom facilities accessible to me, so it's just discomfort.

All I can say is that I'm longing for Spring more than I ever remember. When I return to Kansas from Chilly-Illy next week, I've been promised spectacular temps, above freezing night and day for more than a day or two.

The good news in this winter learning experience: I've figured out the combo of how my two portable heaters can work in sync, without tripping breakers, giving me maximum warmth, as long as I have electricity. Now "maximum warmth" may be a relative term. When temps outside drop below zero, if it's above 50 inside I think it's warm!

One bleak reality I encountered at a dump site I frequent when I'm in the Chicago suburbs was the snow-covered hole, protected by a lock. The nice guy who came out to unlock it said, "We don't have many people using this during the cold winter months." Yeah, I can figure out why.

I've been on the road for a decade. I know what freezing temps do to liquids and solids. I should have known better, plying my tanks with the nontoxic RV antifreeze BEFORE February. But life interfered, now I'm paying the price.

If nothing else, it makes me better understand how people who end up homeless end up making "dumb" mistakes and dearly paying for them. And it gives me that humble reminder of my humanity (like I need it!).

It also is a painful reminder to me of how many millions of households, and house-less people, struggle with weather related challenges. Multiply my discomfort and annoyances--incalculable--for those struggling with basic human needs. Guess I quit whining now....

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Check Engine Light: Stupid As Spam

For those of you following my travels on Facebook or through this blog, you might have picked up on some "issues" with my new Tillie2 that I acquired at the end of September 2014. Here's the latest...

Ironically, my previous vehicle, the venerable Tillie the Turtle, a 27' Gulfstream Class C motorhome,  my home/office/vehicle for 9 years (183,000 miles on it), despite the (ahem) sorta chintzy construction, was a pretty reliable vehicle, but gas mileage sucked wind (10 mpg).

Thanks to a small inheritance from my Mom's estate, I was able to (I thought) downsize/upgrade to the Sprinter van. At 24' it is smaller, especially narrower, lacking the abundant storage Tillie had. Diesel mileage exceeds 20 mpg on occasion! It drives like a dream. I've gotten used to the smaller footprint, inside and out. I've got to say my Mercedes-loving Mother is smiling upon me.

Sportsmobile in Austin, TX outfitted the Sprinter, and basically did a fine job, with a few unmentionable caveats that I think are fixed. The insides are cozy but efficient and solidly constructed. I was able to customize, based this time on experience, as opposed to Tillie's purchase when I was totally clueless.

The front end of the vehicle--the engine and dashboard--those are under the Mercedes-Benz warranty. And that's where I've been vexed.

The first sign of issues was back in October when Pat LaMarche and I were on our Babes of Wrath tour to Montana and surrounding states. I had just had T2 for weeks, and had read the manual but had not grasped the finer points. So when the dashboard lights lit up like a Christmas tree, with ominous warnings "Visit Workshop," and symbols that looked like nuclear weapon warnings flashing, well, I was dismayed.

The first time the light show occurred was in the middle of a reservation in South Dakota, far from a MB workshop or any vehicle service station. I kept driving as Pat scanned the owner's manual for clues. Since the vehicle seemed to be operating properly, I tried to not worry. Eventually, the lights went away. I don't know how. But I was happy they were gone.

I visited my first MB dealership for the 10k mile oil change/service thing. They were a tad not helpful, and other than doing the basic service, I didn't get any info about the problems I had encountered. But no lights were on, so I was happy.

But then, like Spam, lights returned. Intermittent. Ominous.  I visited another dealership. Sensor problems. Fixed them. The Check Engine (CE) light again blinked at me. Another dealer. Same routine.

By this time I'm annoyed. In one month I've spent more time in MB waiting rooms than I've spent in doctors offices for the past 40 years. I fired off a civil, but stern letter to the MB CEO. For credibility, I enclosed the mighty fine article the Naperville Magazine ran about me/HEAR US.

Within days I heard from Susan in the Customer Care department, addressing my concerns.  I will say I think she's sincere, and she offered ongoing assistance that makes me feel like I'm not the 2nd class citizen that some of the dealers seemed to convey (or at least I think they did). She volunteered to make a pre-visit call for my next service stop. I agreed. The dealership treated me royally. They addressed the issue properly.

But then (are you picking up on the theme?), the CE light reappeared. I'm en route to KS, so my possibilities were limited as was my time. Susan to the rescue. The dealership got me in and on the way within a reasonable amount of time.

Now I'm CE-light shy. I glance down, almost expecting my favorite little light to shine. I'd like to hide it under a bushel basket, but I worry that it won't be a benign sensor, so I pay begrudgingly attention like I do with my Spam folder, never knowing when the essential message might be lurking among the slime.

I think of Tillie, my gas-guzzling faithful "steed" of so many years. Nah, I'm not going to snatch her back, but it makes me appreciate the relatively trouble-free existence I took for granted (Thanks to Mike's Auto and Truck in DeKalb, IL for years of stellar, fairly-priced and hospitable service!)