In Need of An Angel
updated 03/16/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST
•originally published 03/16/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST
But not everyone. A startling number of Americans, rich and poor, are tackling these seemingly intractable problems head-on, one case at a time. Consider millionaire philanthropist Eugene Lang, who, troubled by dropout rates, decided six years ago to take one New York City elementary school class under his wing. Next September he hopes to help pay for 20 of the students to go to college. Or take Eleanor Munger, 75, a Houston grandmother with every right to take things easy, who has opened her home to AIDS patients, three at a time, so that they may die with love and dignity. Richard McDonough of Tampa, Fla., had no resource greater than his anger that people were homeless when hotels had empty beds. In five years he has recruited 100 hotels in a nationwide "chain" to help the needy.
On these pages are five other good Samaritans, and in coming weeks PEOPLE will report on more of these little-known Americans who have found their own direct ways to lend a helping hand.
The Scarf Lady of Shaker Heights
The business phone book in Shaker Heights, Ohio lists Harriett Allen Weitzner, 49, as an electrologist, but she has always been an unofficial social worker on the side. For years Weitzner had encouraged her elderly clients who complained of feeling useless and unloved. Then last fall she had a brainstorm: "Nearly all of them knew how to knit or crochet, and their grandchildren had all the gifts they could use. So I thought, 'I could find them as many surrogate grandchildren to knit for as they could possibly want.' "
Weitzner instantly imagined delivering hand-knit scarves to thousands of poor Cleveland kids, an extremely optimistic, if not dreamy forecast. After she sent a letter to senior citizens' organizations asking for knitted donations, her dream came true almost at once. Within four months Weitzner's home held a mountain of 850 scarves that she quickly dispatched to children at schools and at a Cleveland mission. She is still getting scarves almost every day and will distribute her second batch next fall. "They went through the yarn like heroin addicts," says Weitzner of the people in senior citizens' centers where she dropped off the donated supplies. "At some nursing homes so many people sit around uninterested in anything, but this brought them back to life. Men are knitting, too. I have one 90-year-old man who's half blind and knits a scarf every three days."
This isn't the first time that Weitzner, a divorced mother of two graduate school students, has helped children. In 1961, as her first job, she became a second grade teacher in an impoverished area, where her students lacked decent clothing until she scavenged it for them. A few years ago she began dressing as "Nurse Fairy Good heart" in a tutu, tights and wings and clowning around for children in local hospitals. Her latest enterprise has presented her with one challenge that gave her trouble. She has knitted only four scarves. "I'm not very good or fast," she says.
Weitzner, who still needs both more scarves and more yarn, gives her knitters a recommended size (six to eight inches wide and one to two yards long). The suggestion has provided an unexpected lesson in human variety. "I've received bow-tie-shaped scarves, hooded scarves, embroidered scarves and lots in brown and orange, the colors of the Cleveland Browns," she says. And there was a special one that didn't really look much like a scarf at all. "It started out 15 inches wide and got smaller as the knitter dropped stitches, ending up about four inches wide. But it looked beautiful because you know that person tried so hard."
Harriett Allen Weitzner's headquarters is 18150 Sherrington Road, Shaker Heights, Ohio 44122
The Wizard of Ward 5A
In San Francisco General Hospital young men walk slowly up and down the corridors of Ward 5A, pulling intravenous bottles on stands. Others, too ill to walk or even talk much with visitors, lie alone. They cough, stare vacantly into space and sometimes cry quietly. There is little relief from despair in this wing, which is shared by 20 AIDS patients, all of them incurable. But Steve Head, encumbered by an IV tube that helps him fight disease, still has one reason to don his floral shorts, a blue tam and turbo shades for a party.
Last month Head got his latest visit from a rowdy blonde who calls herself Rita Rockett. Because she is seven months pregnant, Rita came without her tap shoes this time. But she did bring her humor. "Steve, you're not wearing your comfortable shoes," she joked, attempting to wedge his wide foot into one of her red spike heels. When Rockett moved on to other patients in the lounge, Head followed in hot pursuit, dragging his IV. "Honey, don't run!" Rita hollered.
She treats everyone in Ward 5A like family. "All I want to do is entertain my guys," says Rockett, 30, who works as a corporate travel agent. For three years, now, she has made visits every other Sunday to trade kinky jokes with patients and sometimes tap-dance for them. With the help of a few volunteers, she also serves up the perfect antidote to the usual hospital cuisine: One recent menu included roast chicken, pasta-and-carrot salad, lemon cheesecake and chocolate almond torte.
Nine years ago Rita Rockett knew some of the people she visits in Ward 5A under different circumstances. When she moved to San Francisco, her life was in turmoil. Just divorced, she was getting over a trauma so upsetting that she still won't discuss it: the death of her 3-year-old daughter. A gay friend named Larry came to her rescue. They talked every day on the phone, even took vacations together, and he introduced her to his three best friends—Dennis, Bill and Steve. "They were like big brothers," says Rockett, who often spent Sunday afternoons drinking and dancing on pool tables with the foursome at their favorite bar. In honor of this pastime, Rita jokingly changed her name from Burger to one that linked her with the Rockettes.
Then, four years ago, Dennis developed AIDS. Devastated but determined not to show how upset she was, Rockett planned an Easter brunch for him at the hospital. He died shortly before Easter, but she went on with the party, tap-dancing through the ward in a bunny outfit.
The day after Dennis died, Larry told her that he, too, had AIDS. He died eight months later. "There's no way to replace someone who's meant that much to you," says Rockett. "He was the stability in my life."
Bill and Steve died within two years.
Before Larry's death Rita promised her friend that she would continue her hospital lunches. "I wanted something to hold on to," she remembers. "Getting involved helps me resolve the loss." For Ward 5A her slapstick is a rare, hopeful gift. "This morning was the roughest for me," says Henry Everitt Jr. "She picked me up right away." Says nurse Alise Martinez: "She creates a sense among the patients that they're not alone, that they're not lepers."
If she can raise the money, Rockett wants to open a residence where the visiting families of AIDS patients can stay at no cost. She knows that little things—such as saving up for a steam tray to keep her lunches hot—are important, too. "People like myself can give inspiration," she says. "You don't have to be an organization. You can be a regular person. If there's something you can do—even something small like baking bread—do it."
Rockett never worries about catching AIDS in the ward. "I'm more danger to them if I have a cold than they are to me," she says. Sometimes, as she attends funeral after funeral, she gets depressed and discouraged. But the lunches won't stop as long as people like Francisco Rojas need her. Seeing Rita a few weeks ago, Rojas, 31, started to cry. "Ay caramba!" Rita roared, looking him in the eye. "You're going to make my makeup run and, honey, you don't want to do that." Rojas quit crying, then hesitantly reached out to touch her stomach and feel the baby move inside her, a reminder of something precious and wonderful: life.
Rita Rockett works at San Francisco General Hospital, Ward 5A, 1001 Potrero Avenue, San Francisco 94110
Georgia's Good Neighbors
When David Jones met Tim Patrick seven years ago, Tim, 10, was huddled in a ball in a corner of Georgia's Central State Hospital. The staff there said that Tim, who was severely mentally retarded, was uncontrollable. "I did not see that," says Jones. "I volunteered to become his friend and make sure his rights were guarded."
That decision changed both their lives, and it happened because of Georgia Advocacy, a group that finds counselors and friends for the mentally handicapped, unwed mothers and others who need help coping with their daily lives. Though most Advocacy volunteers stick to visits, paying bills, food shopping and home repairs, Jones, a 34-year-old bachelor who works as a laboratory technician, got permission from a juvenile court to become Patrick's legal guardian and raise the boy in his own home. He expresses no doubts about his choice. "Tim never had anybody who stayed in his life," says Jones, whose parents serve as grandparents to young Tim on weekends. "I didn't think he should be in an institution. He was living in a ward with 30 other children, and he needed me."
Alice Smith, 56, a retired medical clerk, made similarly profound changes in the life of Irene Cissel, 63. Mildly retarded, as are her two children, Cissel faced a family disaster when she developed health problems that required hospitalization: Her children Alphonso, 32, and Rebecca, 28, who are unable to live alone even for a short time, were about to be sent to a mental institution. Smith volunteered at the Macon branch of Georgia Advocacy to take care of them. "The relationship just blossomed from there," she says. "Being a committed Christian, even though I had little to offer, I had to offer it." When Irene Cissel was discharged from the hospital, Smith helped the family move out of their dreary project to a nicer apartment, and she stops by regularly to check on them and help buy food. "She sees that I don't do the wrong thing," says Irene Cissel, with a toothless grin. "She helps me get out a lot."
Not all of the 100 or so volunteers in the Macon-Bibb area have such time-consuming commitments. County administrator Jimmie Samuel, 38, makes just a few short visits a week to help Joanne and Ben Fortner adjust to their release from a handicapped residence. Under his guidance Joanne, who was considered a troublemaker, has improved so much that she is off her medication; Ben pays some bills, with supervision. "I love Jimmie," he says. "I treat him like he's my brother."
Barbara Fischer, head of the Macon-Bibb branch of Georgia Advocacy, insists that the people who volunteer to help "are no more saintly, dedicated, patient or loving than any other group of people." Their reward is palpable and immediate, she says, and David Jones's life with his adopted son, Tim, seems to prove her point. Tim, now 17, can still do little for himself—he can't even button his clothes. Seven years ago his entire vocabulary was "You want eat" and "You stink." He can now say 300 words—among them his name for David: "Dad." He has also developed a compulsive habit of kissing Jones's hand.
Macon/Bibb Advocacy Inc. has its offices at 690 Poplar Street, Macon, Georgia 31201
L.A.'s Super Food Saver
You couldn't quite call it stealing, but last summer Julie Leirich, 34, began to lift food from the L.A. supermarket where she runs a cash register. Seeing crates of damaged but healthful produce thrown out every day just didn't make sense to Leirich when street people were scrounging for scraps in the garbage cans of nearby Santa Monica. So she and a co-worker, Fred Frick, intercepted the throwaway food and began to distribute it. Though the project worked wonderfully, Leirich was apprehensive about taking the groceries without telling her boss. Not sneaky by nature, she finally confessed. "I thought, 'This is it. We're losing our jobs,' " she remembers. "But worse, I feared he would make us stop."
She shouldn't have worried. Not only did Leirich's boss okay her secret recycling, he even added deli meats to her haul. Encouraged, she organized the Loving Cup, a network that has distributed more than 6½ tons of food each month. In just a few weeks Leirich solicited restaurants, markets and delis to contribute leftovers and recruited 40 helpers to make runs for turkey bones, gourmet salads, ice cream and cookies. "People began volunteering as they went through my checkout lane," she says. During one such encounter lawyer Eddie Tabash offered to represent TLC and help the group incorporate. "Julie's genius is self-evident," says Tabash. "Her idea was so obvious that everyone missed it. She inspires private benevolence that is pure and untangled by government programs." Actually not everyone missed the idea. Many cities have similar programs, and Leirich got valuable guidance from Carolyn North, founder of the Daily Bread Project in Berkeley, Calif. in setting up her food giveaway program.
Despite Loving Cup's high degree of organization, Leirich still keeps in close contact with the people she helps. She trudges up and down Santa Monica beach, greeting the now-familiar homeless people, quietly leaving bags of food next to those who don't want to chat. "I like the exchange," she says, "the feelings going across. I get goose bumps." Says Mona La-Vine, who runs a soup line on a bluff over the Pacific: "We call her our food angel. These people get to eat fried chicken every Saturday because she stays two hours after working an eight-hour day and waits for the leftovers." Leirich's volunteers also adore her. "We're really hyped-up about TLC," says real estate agent Barbara Zook.
Leirich has no ambition to become a full-time philanthropist. "I love my job at the checkout stand," she says with a big smile. "A lot of people think it's only picking up groceries, but no. Little worlds pass by me every day. My customers are my friends."
She now has so many volunteers that she has cut down from 20 hours a week on the food distribution loop to 10, but the rewards are still enormous. One of the best came after a regular in her checkout line donated enough leftovers from a Christmas party to feed 100 people; the customer also supplied a decorated Christmas tree that Leirich took to a mission for the poor. There, a little boy held on to her leg and wouldn't let go. "We just stood there, looked into each other's eyes, and I melted," she says. "He thought I was Santa Claus." He got that right.
The Loving Cup is located at 8484 Wilshire Boulevard, Suite 200, Beverly Hills 90211. Similar programs in other cities: Second Harvest, Chicago; Food For Free Committee, Cambridge, Mass.; the Daily Bread Project, Berkeley, Calif.; End Hunger Network, Houston; and Bread for the City, Washington, D.C.