Sept. 8, 2015

Defining moments

By Bill Cirone

A friend of mine, who knows I’m an avid baseball fan, sent me an email last week. His note contained a link to a short film entitled “Love is Stronger,” produced by ESPN. It featured a young college ballplayer named Chris Singleton. Chris’ mom was senselessly gunned down in the Charleston, SC church shooting earlier this summer.

As media outlets have widely reported, the shooting was motivated by bigotry and hatred. The 21-year-old who is accused of this hate crime has reportedly said he sought to provoke a race war with his murderous acts.

Clearly, he didn’t know Chris Singleton.

I challenge anyone to watch this 18-minute clip and not get choked up. Chris’ poise, magnanimity, and maturity are inspirational.

Less than 24 hours after his mother was killed, Chris and his younger sister attended a vigil at the local high school where his mother was the track coach. “We already forgive [the shooter] for what he’s done. And there’s nothing but love from our side of the family.”

An incredulous reporter parroted back his words to him, in the form of a question, apparently uncertain she understood what this grieving young man had just said. “Yes, ma’am,” was his simple reply.

A number of Chris’ friends and coaches concede their doubt as to whether they could have said as much were they in his shoes. Count me among them. Truly, truly remarkable.

While Chris’ story is unique and undeniably moving, the truth is that stories possessed of transformative power are all around us, even right here in Santa Barbara County.

I have the pleasure of speaking with educators and administrators on a daily basis. We know that teachers can inspire students to do great things. Indeed, most if not all of us can talk about a teacher or coach who had a formative influence on our lives as school children.

But often I try to “flip the script,” and I will ask educators to share a story about how a student inspired them in meaningful ways. And I have never stumped a teacher with that question.

During a break at a recent leadership retreat, I asked just such a question of the County Education Office’s Transitional Youth Services (TYS) manager, Ms. Bonnie Beedles. Her program does unheralded but vitally important work with students throughout Santa Barbara County. They provide supplemental educational services to homeless youth and students in foster care, as well as form partnerships in support of schools, social service agencies, and nonprofit organizations.

A little known and unfortunate fact is that approximately 8,000 of the nearly 68,000 students in Santa Barbara County are considered homeless, as defined by the 1987 McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. And, on average, about 240 of our school-aged children are in foster care.

Bonnie told me about two of them.

They were third and fifth grade sisters, whom I will call Brittany and Ashley. School officials knew the girls had been previously taken into foster care, so when they began missing a lot of school, the registrar called TYS asking for assistance in locating them. After some coordinating with local social service agencies, Bonnie’s staff located the girls, living in the front half of an uninsulated, unheated garage for $600 a month. The girls were battling chronic respiratory issues as well as sleep deprivation and malnourishment. Mom had recently lost her job and was having considerable difficulty balancing a job search and tending to her frequently sick daughters.

The TYS worker helped address the family’s most immediate needs by using donated money to purchase a space heater and mattresses. She then helped connect the family with Transition House so they had a stable living situation while saving up for appropriate housing.

Before long, the girls’ health began to improve, and so, too, did their attendance and concentration on their studies. Mom was able to focus on her job hunt, and eventually secured employment. “Educating our community’s most vulnerable children,” Bonnie concluded, “often means that we must first help remove the barriers to accessing their education.”

Towards the beginning of the short ESPN film, Chris Singleton makes a simple yet profound pronouncement. “We’ve overcome bad things,” he says. “But when you overcome bad things, they turn into good things.” Bad things are indeed all around us; a brief survey of the week’s headlines will remind us of that. But while those bad things surely affect us, they don’t have to define us. As Chris Singleton and Brittany and Ashley remind us, we are also equipped with the power to overcome. Those should be our defining moments.