Guest Opinion: Do you need help? | December 6, 2013 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - December 6, 2013

Guest Opinion: Do you need help?

by Jesse Cool

This holiday season many of us will give gifts, money and food to organizations that are helping people who are less fortunate than ourselves. These days, such wonderful generosity is relatively easy thanks to infrastructure and technologies that make giving effortless.

But there's another type of generosity that too often is overlooked. This type of generosity is harder. It's riskier. It's emotionally demanding. And it takes time.

There are times when we need to not look away, but to open our eyes, our hearts, to people in need in our own community — in the midst of busyness or fear, realizing that everyone is not scamming the system. What follows is a story about a situation that changed my life forever.

For me, it started with four little words, "Do you need help?"

I was in my car heading east on Page Mill Road, just past 280, when I saw a woman and three children sitting by the side of the road. It was so out of place that I immediately made a U-turn.

Before me was a young woman, head bowed, and three young children, age 7, 5 and 4. Admittedly, I hesitated but then rolled down the window and asked, "Do you need help?" The eldest boy immediately stepped forward and replied, "Yes, we need help." His mother, Sofia (not her real name), slowly looked up at me. She explained that her mother (the children's grandma) had beaten her and thrown them out of the car. Sofia continued, saying that they became lost while trying to walk to her brother's workplace a few miles away.

When I found them, they were still hoping that the abusive grandma might return or someone would offer help. They had been waiting like this for more than two hours.

This family was in clear view, in a dangerous place with many cars and cyclists passing by (someone actually honked with irritation when I stopped).

Why is it that in two hours not one person stopped to help a woman with three small children abandoned in a dangerous place? Worse, no one even asked why they were crouched down on the side of Page Mill Road.

We all piled in my already packed Mini, deciding just this once that two kids in one seat belt was OK. They let me know they had not eaten and so we went to a nearby Chipotle. Waiting in line for food, Sofia's story of physical and mental abuse, foster homes, hopelessness and despair unfolded. She is smart, a hard worker and a loving mother who does not want to be impoverished.

Sofia is not on welfare or any government assistance. She is an artist and showed me a journal full of amazing drawings, wanting me to know that she has something she does well and she expressed ambitions for her life. She wanted me to realize that she was worthwhile. She also never asked me for anything.

When Sofia told me of losing two jobs because both her mom and husband regularly beat her, I told her of my own past as a single mom on welfare. Though I was never in a situation like Sofia's, people did help me when I needed it. We agreed that we were going to find help for her and her kids. She was not looking for handouts, but was in desperate need of assistance. I've been there, as I believe many of us have in one form or another.

I work with JobTrain and placed an emergency call to them. Within minutes, we were given contacts for organizations such as CORA, Shelter Network and other hotlines, to find protection. We talked about her first getting safe and then finding a way for her to get more education and someday go to a school such as JobTrain.

Sofia shared that she has driven by local colleges, always wishing to herself that someday she could attend. She desperately wanted to be independent and provide for her children. First and foremost, though, she needed help getting out of the oppressed situation she has been in for years.

My story is not just about a family in need but about something that should not happen in a place like Palo Alto: No one offered to help.

It is a tale about the fact that in a highly visible place, in a very wealthy community, hundreds of people neglected to stop. For more than two hours no one bothered to help a young woman and three children who were clearly in need.

This is a personal experience, a story told with the hope of encouraging everyone in our community to not be a drive-by, be afraid or be too hurried to assist the less fortunate.

And yes, when it even seems right, ask, "Do you need help?"

Jesse Cool has been dedicated to sustainable agriculture and cuisine since the mid-1970s as a writer, restaurateur and consultant for eco-conscious food service.


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