Americans We Love
Ten heroic citizens of Monterey County.
Thursday, July 3, 2003
Call it being a good citizen. Call it going above and beyond the call of duty. Call it giving something to the community. Call it displaying courage and nobility. When someone does this kind of thing, we call them heroes.
This Independence Day, as we celebrate the birth of our nation and honor America''s founders, the Weekly would like to bring the focus closer to home and pay tribute to some local people we admire.
The ten people profiled in the following pages were selected by the Weekly''s editorial staff as exemplifying the qualities of citizenship that do us all proud. As you will see, unlike the heroes of myth, these people do not appear to be descended from gods; they are ordinary folks who simply decided to do something good, and then worked very hard to make sure it happened.
Gathered here, in addition to their various good works, it is clear that they perform another important function: They show us that all it takes to be a hero is a little grit and a lot of heart. For this and everything else they do, we salute them.
Because she listens to kids and makes them feel empowered.
Arlesha Freeman is a mother of four and a grandmother to six. She''s also a surrogate mother of sorts to hundreds of kids on the Peninsula, who come to her for her ability to look them in the eye and listen.
As she talks, and listens, she gives off an ineffable aura of comfort.
Freeman, a 30-year Seaside resident, has two jobs working with youth. The first is through the Monterey Peninsula Unified School District (MPUSD), where she works as a conflict mediation specialist to train students to help their peers resolve differences.
"It''s very empowering to the students, " she says. "They make an agreement to solve conflicts without the use of name calling or physical means."
Freeman''s second job is unpaid. Through the Hospice of the Central Coast program "Griefbusters," Freeman meets with kids still in a state of shock from losing a parent or friend, and helps them feel like they can survive the loss.
Freeman encourages them to tackle their grief at the rate that they are comfortable with.
"I help create a memory book for each of the students," she explains. "They place a picture of their loved ones in it, then I help them fill it in with memories by asking questions like: ''What was your mom''s favorite food?'' And we build a conversation around the questions. It helps them to express their memories."
Freeman also encourages students to use whatever coping mechanisms are helpful to them, including writing in a journal what they miss most about the person who has died.
"It gives them a chance to reflect on the relationship and by verbalizing it helps them to empty out the grief," she says. "We work on what to do when they are feeling sad--whether it''s talking to a friend or looking at pictures of happy times, and we let them know that grieving and crying is a normal process."
Freeman also lets teachers know that the student is grieving, and makes them aware that the child may be irritable or withdrawn. She says that for the most part, kids just want to be heard and have their feelings respected.
"It''s amazing to me how little meaningful conversation youth have with adults," she says. "I mean eye-to-eye, where they feel actually heard. I ask them, ''what is it that you want the most?'' and they say, ''If I could just sit down with my parents and have them hear me.'' They aren''t looking for a bunch of things."
The hours each week she spends listening to young people give Freeman the opportunity to share her soothing presence.
"I love working with young adults--I relate to them very well," she says. "I feel I have a God-given gift to do that and connect with them. It means a lot to me when I can lend a helping hand or a kind word, and they are able to think, maybe I can make it."
Because he makes school cool.
School is out for summer, but you can still find Don Livermore there. The beloved librarian at Los Arboles Middle School in Marina, Livermore likes to say he "gives the Energizer Bunny a run for his money." Livermore never stops, whether it''s getting something for the kids or, well, doing something for the kids.
It''s a Thursday morning in June and he''s got a laundry list of things to do at the library and beyond, but he still has six potted trees to sell--hibiscus and redbuds now sitting in front of the library building.
For about six years now, he and his eighth graders have tended to the potted trees at the Laguna Seca Grand Prix during the race weekend, and in return have been allowed to take them back to Marina and sell them off at $25 a pop to raise money. There were 50 trees out front not too long ago, but the unadvertised tree sale is so locally popular, he''s got just six left. In typically high-energy fashion, he''s gone from picking up the trees after the races to picking out the trees at the nursery before the races.
"I know a lot about trees now," he says, sitting at one of the study tables acquired for the library through a dizzying array of grants, donations and fundraisers.
Livermore grew up in Tracy, a descendant of the Livermores, of the Livermore Valley, of Livermore. He says it comes in handy when he needs a dinner reservation in Livermore. Since he was 24, Livermore has worked in Monterey Bay area schools and taught nearly all the grades. He''s now 56.
Somewhere along the way he figured out that kids, simply put, like stuff that''s cool. When he took over the library at Los Arboles, it wasn''t what the kids considered cool. It was a standard library in a standard school. Walk in there today and it''s, well, different. Where there aren''t books (14,000) or computers (40), there''s a huge, huge fish tank in the center of the room (300 gallons). But surrounding it all are glass encased walls of row upon row of plastic figurines (3,000). Superman, Stars Wars, Godzilla, Winnie the Pooh, Sesame Street, Disney, GI Joe and even controversial Homies figurines might not seem too scholastic but it''s effective bait that gets otherwise distractible kids in the library.
This summer he''s going to be laying model train track in a high loop around the room. In a double-whammy he wants to be able to sell sponsorships by selling ad space on each car.
"When I first came here it was pretty ugly," he says. "All of a sudden it became cool. All of a sudden it''s a fun place."
Of course all of the goldfish and choo-choos and plastic toys cost money, and, like many teachers. Livermore pays for it out of his own pocket.
"I spend a lot of money on this, but it''s my thing. I want it to be a cool place," he says.
At lunchtime, when many kids go outside to frolic, Livermore''s library is packed. "It''s the coolest kids to the nerdiest kids," he says.
Apparently his ploy to make school cool is appreciated. When the school district was going to reduce the library spot to a part-timer two years ago and move him back to a classroom, the parents rallied and now kick in to pay his $66,000 salary.
And it''s not all fun and games in the library. Kids do all kinds of project research, learn computer technology and video, and of course, reading. But the work on the library never stops. He works long hours.
"We still have more to do," he says, pointing up to a wall that''s now painted in the school colors. "There''s a huge mural going up here. It''s exciting. I love what I do."
Because she waited until her kids were grown before getting arrested.
MacGregor Eddy sits cross-legged on the floor of Salinas radio station KHDC 90.9 FM, going through a jumbled cardboard box of her old photographs. "I''ve got to put them in some order," she grumbles.
There''s MacGregor as a small child, standing next to her Episcopal minister dad; MacGregor at a Monterey peace vigil in January 1991, protesting the first Gulf War; there''s MacGregor in Nicaragua, helping out with relief efforts after Hurricane Mitch; there''s MacGregor last year in May getting arrested at Vandenberg Air Force Base along with another grandmother, a middle-aged woman from Santa Cruz.
"Look, she''s the one on her knees praying, and I''m over there arguing with the soldiers," she says, pointing at the picture with a wicked gleam in her eye.
Although she makes her living as a home-care nurse, Eddy, 54, has made a second career out of arguing--arguing for democracy, arguing for literacy, but most of all, arguing for peace. A founder of the Salinas Action League, which most recently held weekly Friday vigils outside the Salinas post office to protest US military action in Iraq, Eddy has long been involved in the causes of peace and social justice. She''s been hosting a Spanish-English call-in show on KHDC every Thursday since soon after 9/11--she called the all-volunteer station one day to make an on-air statement against war, and they offered her the weekly slot. (On July 4, it moves to Fridays from 2-3pm.) She puts out a Spanish-English peace newsletter, and worked on a Salinas literacy project--all unpaid.
Currently, Eddy''s pet project is a slide show called "The Human Face of Iraq," a synopsis of the suffering caused Iraqi civilians since 1991, and an overview of US military gadgetry and tactics in the region. She''s presented the show to local schools, churches and clubs, and says she''ll take it anywhere, anytime. "I think Americans have a strong sense of fairness," she says. "People don''t need to be told what to think. Just give them the information and they''ll figure it out."
Eddy cut her political teeth during the Vietnam War, attending her first antiwar demonstration in 1968, when she was 16. But last May at Vandenberg was the first time she got arrested, when she decided to cross the line onto government property.
"It was quite deliberate," she says. "I''d thought about it for a long time. My children are grown; my job is flexible. I''ve been doing this for 37 years, and it''s my turn."
Now the proud possessor of a "ban and bar" citation, which forbids her presence on federal property for three years, Eddy continues her advocacy undeterred. She''s one who really walks the walk.
"It''s time for everyone to raise their level of commitment," she says. "I''m not telling people to get arrested or hurt. But if people aren''t willing to take risks for peace, war will always win."
New Ag Pioneer
Because he''s a businessman, a policy wonk, an educator, a social justice pioneer, an environmentalist and a farmer.
It''s a Thursday morning and Brett Melone''s hard at work--walking through hilly paths at the Triple M Ranch in the Elkhorn Slough watershed, pointing out strawberry fields, blackberries, native grasses, and an overgrown Christmas tree farm. On most days, goats roam the ranch, eating weeds and keeping overgrown brush--a fire hazard--to a minimum. Almost all of the farmland here is either certified organic, or transitioning to organic, a three-year, pesticide-free process.
We turn to an uphill farm, and Melone points out the different row crops. "This farm''s about one and a half acres," he says. "Green beans, squash, corn--and doesn''t use pesticides."
Melone, 34, is a Monterey Institute of International Studies graduate who studied international environmental policy before spending a year in Chile, working as an apprentice on an organic farm.
He''s also the executive director of ALBA, the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association, a nonprofit that trains and educates small- and limited-resource farmers, primarily Mexican migrants who work in the fields and want to learn how to manage their own farms.
Melone''s responsible for providing technical assistance to 35 farmers on a daily basis, managing ALBA''s two properties in Salinas and the Elkhorn Slough, and fundraising.
In Salinas, ALBA''s farmworker-to-farmworker training program teaches bookkeeping, English, tractor maintenance, marketing, conservation practices and organic production skills. At the completion of the six-month training, each farmer assumes responsibility for a small farm.
"We''re not just teaching people how to farm and market their crops, but we''re also teaching them about the infrastructure they need to manage their business," he says.
At Triple M Ranch--130 acres of sensitive riparian grasslands and 65 acres of crops--ALBA started a similar program that educates existing farmers about economic viability and sustainable ag production.
"People here have farmed in this area, so they may try a new crop, or a new technique," Melone says.
Triple M Ranch farmers--currently eight families--learn about issues specific to North Monterey County farming including watershed management, sloping and grading, resource conservation and environmental protection.
"Here''s a good example," Melone says, pointing to a strawberry field running along a hillside. "See how the rows are aligned with the curvature of this hillside? It''s so that water does not drain in a way that will erode the soil. If we can reduce erosion, there will be less discharge into the creek"--Carneros Creek, the main source of water for the slough.
"The existence of this area depends on agriculture," Melone says. "But we don''t only focus on sustainable agriculture, we also focus on resource conservation. Not only can they be successful farmers, but can they take care of the land."
Because he came out of retirement to help clean up the streets of East Salinas.
Art Garcia flips through a photo album filled with pictures of car carcasses stacked up on cinder blocks along East Salinas streets. Others fill backyards and garages. Garcia says he found 10 abandoned vehicles at one address.
Ten cars? At one home?
"That''s nothing," Garcia says. "One property had 50."
To prove his point, he flips to a page with two photos labeled "Mustang Dealership." There''s a "before" shot--old, rusty Mustangs behind a house--and an "after" shot--cars gone.
Garcia, 59, works part-time as a code enforcement officer in Census Tract 7, an East Salinas area that''s home to some of the poorest, most densely populated, and most violent neighborhoods in Monterey County. Garcia''s position is funded by US Dept. of Justice initiative called Weed and Seed. "My task is to weed--take out what''s not good for the community--and seed by education," he says.
Garcia always remains cheerful and upbeat, but from an outsider''s perspective, he''s got an endless, mildly depressing job. He pulls abandoned cars off the streets and shuts down illegal repair shops. But there are hundreds of both, and as soon as Garcia tows a vehicle, or closes a shop operating out of someone''s garage, new ones appear.
"It''s like being a cop," he says. "Arrest them and book them and they''re out by the end of your shift. I know I''m not the answer. I know I''m not doing a big thing, but when you do a lot of little things, and add them together, it may turn out to be a big thing."
Almost 40 years ago, Art Garcia got his start as a street cop in East Salinas. While other officers moved indoors to cushy desk jobs, Garcia preferred to pound the pavement. When he wasn''t putting the bad guys away, he tried to do a couple "little things" each day to clean up the neighborhood.
"I started realizing there were a lot of abandoned vehicles, so I started taking care of one or two a day, beyond my regular duties," he says. "The other officers started making fun of me, calling me ''the AV man''"--that''s cop talk for Abandoned Vehicle officer.
"The quality of life is improved when you take an abandoned car out of the area because the area looks prettier."
Garcia turned in his uniform in ''98, "and low and behold, they called me back."
That same year, the city received the Weed and Seed grant, and hired Garcia to work as a code enforcement officer. The neighbors know him, and on occasion one will yell out the window, "Keep up the good work, Art," as they drive by.
Garcia could be traveling or playing tennis or any of the other things retirees do. "I''m not missing out," he says. "I don''t think anyone who''s active for 30 years can just quit, and as police officer, we have so much knowledge, so much ability to help in other capacities."
And then, he says, almost as an afterthought: "I''m playing tennis today, at 5pm, after work."