The October 2005 Edition of Street Spirit

A publication of the American Friends Service Committee


National AFSC AFSC Economic Justice BOSS Website



In this issue:

The Aristocracy and the Disaster

In Katrina's Wake, Oakland Batters Homeless

A Perfect Storm of Racism

Katrina: Ongoing Human Disaster

FCNL Speaks Out on Katrina

Kerry's Kids: Health Care for Poor Children

Fresh Start Gives Kindness Awards

The Dying Gift of Sharon Ostman

A 500-Year-Old War on the Poor

37 Million Live in Poverty in US

Julia Vinograd: Poet Laureate of Berkeley Streets

Innovative Plans for Homeless Housing

Disabled Woman on a Long Road Back Home

Photographer's Eye for the Dignity of People

Poor Leonard On Prejudice

The Flower Lady

October Poetry of the Streets


September 2005

August 2005

July 2005

June 2005

May 2005

April 2005

March 2005

February 2005

Street Spirit is published by American Friends Service Committee.

All works are copyrighted by the authors.

The views expressed in Street Spirit are those of the individual authors alone, and not necessarily that of the American Friends Service Committee.

Fresh Start's 'Kind-Hearted Awards' Honor the Kindness of Unsung Heroes

by Ellen Danchik

Actor/activist Edward Asner and singer/activist Ronnie Gilbert give the Kitty Maffei Advocacy Award to Oren Sellstrom, Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights.

"She makes life a bit easier for those of us with disabilities with her compassionate and genuine heart. She makes the world a brighter and better place one passenger at a time."
-- from Renee Bowen's essay nominating Karen Troche, a Walnut Creek bus driver

As I entered Walnut Creek's Fresh Start program to attend the Kitty Maffei Kind-Hearted Person Award ceremony, a woman came up and gave me a big hug. After telling her I was there to report on the event for Street Spirit, I immediately guessed that the friendly person with the kind greeting must be the namesake of this award luncheon, Kitty Maffei herself.

Kitty was the first volunteer at Fresh Start, a community center with support services for homeless people in Walnut Creek. According to Susan Prather, the founder of Fresh Start, Kitty hugs everyone who comes to the homeless center. Kitty tells people that she loves them, and "makes life better for people, one person at a time, because she cares."

In Fresh Start's first few years, Kitty supplied lunch for everyone two days a week; and did laundry for homeless people at her own home. Because of her love and kindness, Fresh Start launched the Kitty Maffei Kind-Hearted Person Award to honor those unsung heroes who do acts of caring that make life better for others.

The Kitty Maffei award luncheon was held on September 13 at Fresh Start, located in St. Paul's Episcopal Church. Prather, a longtime homeless activist in Contra Costa County, founded the Fresh Park program on a park bench behind the gazebo in a Walnut Creek park seven years ago. Since those simple beginnings, Fresh Start has found a home in a welcoming church, and St. Paul's Assistant Pastor Philip Brochard described how important his work with Fresh Start has become to him in that time.

The Fresh Start awards were presented by Ronnie Gilbert, the legendary folksinger who first achieved fame in progressive circles with the Weavers and then with her much-heralded concert tours with Holly Near; and Ed Asner, the Emmy-winning star of "Lou Grant" and "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and past president of the Screen Actors Guild.

Both Asner and Gilbert have impeccable activist credentials, of course, but it was heartening to see such well-known artists and activists giving their time and energy to the less visible cause of homelessness.

Ronnie Gilbert began by offering her reflections about Fresh Start. "The thing that is so extraordinary is that the homeless people are usually a group apart from humanity -- and that doesn't happen here. The homeless people are people here, individual people. It's like a model for the whole country. I don't know how many people in this country know about Fresh Start, know about Susan Prather, but I sure as hell am going to do what I can to tell about it."

The Kitty Maffei Advocacy Award was presented to Oren Sellstrom, assistant director of the Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights in San Francisco. Sellstrom was honored for "working tirelessly with great skill and humanity" on behalf of indigent people and "lawyering with a heart." Sellstrom has done a great deal of pro bono legal work to protect the civil rights of homeless persons and families, immigrants, food-stamp recipients and students.

When the Concord police were not allowing people who ate at a local soup kitchen to use the nearby city park, Sellstrom advocated on their behalf and persuaded Concord's city manager and city attorney to stop the discriminatory exclusion. Today, homeless adults and homeless families with children are once again able to enjoy the park.

"I am truly honored to give you this award," Asner said in presenting the Kitty Maffei Advocacy Award to Sellstrom. Then Asner added, movingly, "Thank God you're here to share in this wonderful escape from the madness of society."

Sellstrom said, "It's a particular honor for me to get this award from Fresh Start because I know that this is an organization that I've been privileged to work with side by side through battles, and an organization that refuses to write people off, and insists that everyone gets the honor and dignity they deserve."

Next was the Kitty Maffei Kind-Hearted Person Community Award, a "very special honor" in Prather's words. This award was presented to Karen Troche, a Walnut Creek bus driver whose kindness, warmth and tolerance towards poor and disabled people makes the world brighter for her passengers, in the words of Renee Bowen, who nominated Karen.

Prather said that Bowen's essay about Karen Troche's work is "all heart and that's what we're looking for. This is the heart and soul of what we think Fresh Start is."

Bowen, in her essay, described how many rude, indifferent and inconsiderate bus drivers poor and disabled people must contend with. "Then one day, you happen upon a rare and hidden treasure -- a driver who takes a vested interest in her passengers, knowing most, if not all, her passengers by first name. A driver who shows such warmth and humanity to everyone she encounters and brightens your day with her beautiful smile."

Bowen described how Karen Troche treats people with care and concern, and is especially conscientious in pulling right up to the curb, lowering the lift and using the platform for people who are disabled or have difficulty in climbing the bus steps.

In a beautiful passage, Bowen describes Karen as a blessing. "She makes life a bit easier for those of us with disabilities with her compassionate and genuine heart. She'll bring a smile to your heart and make your spirits soar. She makes the world a brighter and better place one passenger at a time. She is a blessing to those of us having to rely on public transit."

In presenting the President's Volunteer Service Award, Prather, a veteran of many protests for homeless causes, said, "I've had trouble with cops all my life. None of them have queen-size handcuffs, so every time I'm arrested, it hurts. I would like to present a very special award -- and I apologize that it's during this administration. I have the President's Volunteer Service Award presented by the President's Council on Services and Civic Participation to Lt. Loren Cattalico."

Prather said the award was presented in appreciation for Cattalico's commitment to strengthening his community and making a difference through volunteer service. She described the unusual mutual cooperation that has developed between the homeless activist and the policeman.

"Loren and I met seven years ago when I came to town and we have gone toe to toe once in a while," Prather said, "and we have come to a very common-sense way of working with people. If people are creating a problem, we try to work together to solve it before law enforcement really has to jump in. Loren visits Fresh Start and has gone out of his way to find jobs for people; and I tell you, this doesn't happen often, so thank you!"

Fittingly, Kitty Maffei herself received the President's Call to Service Award, a lifetime achievement in volunteer service. Prather said, "Kitty has worked with children, with schools, with individuals, with families, and Fresh Start, and she's done this over a lifetime."

At the conclusion of the ceremony, Prather thanked members of Ironworkers Local 378 for providing and serving the luncheon, and for their work in fighting for a living wage for workers. The union members were present due to Fresh Start's advocacy on behalf of union struggles, and also to support Ed Asner and Ronnie Gilbert's commitment to labor over many years.

The feeling at the event was wonderful. It was a celebration of life, and of a richness that you feel sometimes when a group of people gather together for a higher purpose. This overwhelming feeling was launched by Susan Prather, by her dedication to homeless people. She told me that the people who use Fresh Start are "my heart and soul."

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