Monday, April 23 , 2018, 5:17 am | Fog/Mist 55º


Ken Williams: Heroes Come In Many Shapes and Sizes

Dr. Lynne Jahnke, Jan Fadden and Spenser Wyatt are making a difference for Santa Barbara's homeless

What drives people to serve the homeless of our community? What motivates a hero?

Ken Williams and his dog, Sampson.
Ken Williams and his dog, Sampson. (Williams family photo)

Dr. Lynne Jahnke, “Dr. J” to the streets, approached me three years ago. She was going to take a sabbatical from practicing medicine at a cancer clinic but not from medicine. She wanted to work the streets. I don’t remember this but she has told me that I at first brushed her off — hard to imagine me being distant and guarded. Not really. I’m particular about who I work with. A lot of people over the years have asked to work with me but the fit just wasn’t there.

I need to work with people who are not only compassionate but also smart. Also, I need them to be well-grounded, someone I can implicitly trust. The last thing I need to worry about is my partner doing something stupid when a situation develops on the streets. One also needs to have fast reflexes, appropriate responses and leave their egos at the door. Neither do I have time for personal issues that need addressing. I guess I ask for a lot. All of the good qualities that one needs to work the streets are at the core of Dr. J.

And Jahnke is also one great doctor. Time after time I stand back in awe as she uses her brain as well as her hands to treat people and/or diagnosis a problem. I have also seen her hold her own with other doctors and medical people who refused to treat the homeless with the proper respect. And a thousand times she has bent the medical system to serve the poor and disenfranchised.

I remember being somewhat surprised and then impressed at how easily she fit into the culture of the streets and how well received she was. Trust is hard currency on the streets and one that must be earned. Dr. J.’s earnest and professional manner was welcomed right away by those in need, but she still needed to prove herself. Once the door was open, however, her willingness to treat all people with respect quickly earned her a ton of admiration from those she treated. Many found it refreshing that a professional such as herself came to serve them without hidden agendas — a rare community.

Jan Fadden is a parish nurse who works at Casa Esperanza in its medical program, and she is also a spiritual friend to the streets and has been for years. Her understanding of the need for those pushed out of their homes to have their spiritual dimensions addressed, as well as their physical needs, is not something that is taught but instead comes from the heart. Time after time she can be on the verge of being swallowed up by the insatiable needs of the sick and injured either on the streets or in the shelter only to slow down to talk to someone in need one to one — to see the person before her and not a category. She’s not good at treating people as products on an assembly line. I’m sure this quality came through loud and strong when she worked with women stricken with AIDS in Cambodia. She is funny, bright and a deeply caring woman.

Street people have to go without a lot of things. They also have to suffer the sting of some who find fault with their existence, who treat them with prejudice and fear. In our community they are also blessed with two remarkable women whose grace and strength cannot be bought with a wheelbarrow full of money. Santa Barbara is fortunate to have several angels looking out for our fellow neighbors who have been condemned to the streets while suffering from sickness, injuries and/or old age. These two women stand tall in this circle of heroes. Not only do they do our community proud but also their actions bring honor to Santa Barbara.

A Hero at Thirteen

When people are forced to live on our nation’s streets without homes we should remember that there are two sides to this story. The first is the very real personal stories of those who find the streets their home. And then, there is the story of how we as a community respond.

It’s hard to be a hero at 13. Too often, teens are surrounded by materialism and morals delivered via trash television programs. Imagine what any 13-year-old boy would ask for if given the chance: A new video game or perhaps a new gaming platform? Maybe an HD television? Or a new computer or blistering-fast cell phone. Or maybe something as simply as money. I can imagine a thousand things that a teenager would ask for that would leave me indifferent. But then along comes a boy who is on the threshold of manhood with a heart of gold, a soul that would do God proud.

Spenser Wyatt choose made the deliberate choice to share one of his most important days of his life with strangers, the homeless of Santa Barbara. Instead of asking anything for himself, he asked that those who choose to give to honor his bar mitzvah instead give to Project Healthy Neighbors to help buy medical supplies, survivor items, socks, gloves and meal vouchers that are used as incentives.

Once in a while the kind gesture of a stranger illuminates us all with such grace that one finds hope and love in the most desperate and heartbreaking situation. Thank you, Spenser, on behalf of the homeless and thank you for lifting my spirits, for a reason to believe.

— Ken Williams has been a social worker for the homeless for the past 30 years. He is the author of China White and Shattered Dreams, A Story of the Streets.

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