“It is lonely to be poor”
HEART: Over the past two decades there has evolved a group of dedicated, compassionate women called HEART—-or Helping Ease Abuse Related Trauma
—who have made it their mission to make certain that the needs of our patients, these women and children, are met. They raise funds through a membership in their organization ($1000 per year) that fund clothes, food, transportation….even housing, utilities and they fix cars. They make it possible for the victims of the most horrendous assaults and neglect to have a chance to recover. They provide VIP staff with the means to respond after we ask each child, family or woman “How can we help you? With the essential —non-essentials—so critical in the path to safety and recovery.
The story of Nancy was the beginning of HEART—-I made a vow to myself that I would, if I had a chance, build a clinic with a shower and always have access to clean comfortable clothes including what now includes hundreds of pairs of underwear, socks, sweats and coats in winter. Nancy never benefited from this organization, but she did know that she was loved and cared for by us to the best of our ability.
HEART now has 200 plus members and holds the line against hunger and homelessness for our patients here in East Los Angeles.
Watch children around the world! They can make play out of whatever is given them. Nancy, was given very little. She was raised in a Central Los Angeles gang zone. Her father had run with the gang since he was 13 and her mother proclaimed her allegiance to the same gang with her tattooed hand and face. Her face was marred by a crude tear appearing to run from the corner of her left eye and the dots and letters identifying more closely her particular gang allegiance nested in the webbing between her thumb and index finger.
At seven Nancy learned to get up with the sun. Her parents still unconscious in their room, she quietly put on yesterday’s clothes, stepped over whatever leftover bottles or bodies sleeping in the front room and walked to school. After school she would walk the ten blocks to her grandmother’s house. This grandmother had also run with the gangs and bore the marks on her face and hands and the wear and tear of teenage pregnancies, drug use and poverty made her looked decades older that her 41 years.
But the grandchildren were a good thing. They distracted her, and were a source of what small measure of affection there was left. She had mellowed and looked forward to Nancy’s daily visits. She was a funny, bright child and was a welcome break in her day.
By five o’clock Nancy headed home along the abandoned railroad tracks that ran behind her house. It was her game, this shortcut across the blocks that separated her house from her grandmother. She played hopscotch along the railroad ties—balancing with her arms outstretched—on the tracks. Today was the first of many hot smoggy days of the Los Angeles summer and was the first really hot day with temperatures soaring over 100.
Nancy was balancing on the old Southern Pacific tracks singing a song from school. She did not notice the white Toyota that crossed the tracks ahead of her, and then stopped.
He dragged her behind a stack of long forgotten wooden pallets. She screamed but the surrounding houses were too used to screams to hear hers.
It was Newton division, LAPD, that brought Nancy and her Mom to the hospital.
“Why are they always so thin?” My internal voice asked. A skinny little girl, half hidden behind her mother. But under the dirt that turned her face and arms gray, was a beautiful child. She was not just dirty, the gravel and dust of where she was raped had been ground into her body. Her only clothing was a too big, faded dress that hung below her knees. Clean tracks streaked her face where the dust had been washed away by her tears. Her feet were bare.
My first thought was to get this done quickly and get her a bath. We did not have a shower yet and I thought of my swimming pool at home and wanted to take her there to see if she could wash away the dirt, the blood. Perhaps to see her smile! The best I could do was to send our secretary to the store to buy her underwear, perhaps a clean pair of shorts and a tee shirt. She owned no underwear.
Her mother was furious with —us? Why, but she stood across the room—arms crossed lips tight over clenched teeth.
“ Here mom,” indicating that I wanted her to stand close to Nancy while I examined her—“Stand here and hold her hand.”—But she only backed herself further away into the corner of the examination room. I was clearly the enemy.
“She needs to take these antibiotics and to have a bath three times a day.”
“We don’t have a bathtub”,” she answered. So it was agreed Nancy would go to stay with her grandmother until she was healed.
“Can you take her to McDonald’s on your way back to the station?” I asked the patrol officers, “And bring her back in one week.”
Clean clothes helped, and new flowered underwear made me feel that at least these injuries would be covered. Her grandmother seemed more attached to her, and Nancy held her hand when they left with LAPD.
One week to the day, the patrol officers brought her back. I knew she was there when I turned to find her standing close to me at my desk in the clinic. She was wearing the clothes we gave her, now in desperate need of washing, but her week’s supply of clean underwear was holding up.
“If you wait until clinic is over, I will give you a ride home.” I offered.
Faced with a long ride on multiple buses Mom agreed.
The clinic staff had bought her new clothes for court, a flowered dress, white blouse, clean socks and new shoes. Someone brought in a navy blue sweater from their daughters closet, and our nurse added paper, crayons and a school bag so she would have something to do while she waited to testify.
I drove them home. Down Central and right on 31st Street. In the midday the streets seemed safe. The hookers and pimps, drug dealers and gang members were just getting up. As I turned the corner onto 31st street, I could see what this community looked like 70 years ago, when new immigrants to Southern California built their neat homes near to the Red Car train line that would carry them to their jobs in downtown Los Angeles. Now the neighborhood stores and houses were obscured by graffiti and bars closed off the first floor windows of every house on the block giving them a closed, shuttered appearance as if everyone on this street was on their own. No neighborhood watch here.
A little six-year-old girl with her blue and white dress, navy sweater and clutching her Pooh book bag took the stand six months later. She sat quietly in the court hallway, sandwiched between the police detective and the victim’s advocate from the district attorney’s office. She never wavered in her testimony. A six year old whose testimony ended the trail, unable to break her, the defendant pled guilty.
His statement, “I was careful not to hurt her” belied the evidence
“I am here to say that he destroyed her.” I testified.
Nancy has disappeared into Los Angeles. My last memory of her is her visit to our clinic in January six months after the assault. She came and stood as close to me as possible—as if she was trying to find a way to get into my space, stay and be safe
Her mother pulled her away, but not before we hugged. Our calls to her went unanswered for ten years. Her mother asked us not to bother them and refused us any updates on her progress. Her rapist is on parole.
But I think of her often, wonder if she remembers that someone cared about her, at least once in her life. I hope that she has finished High School. Maybe she has moved away from the graffiti and bars of South Central. I would like to think that it is a possibility..
Nancy pushed us to create HEART—she pushed me to realize my dream of a shower and new clean clothes for every child, boy or girl, and everyone who was asking for help. She focused my attention on creating a center where healing was our primary goal and where children found safety, encouragement and hope.