|photographer: Daniel Sinoca|
It was the summer of '66 when four children found themselves in the beautifully temperate city of Huntington Beach California. Home to swaying palm trees and sandy beaches, lined with upscale boutiques and fancy homes. A city exploding with fun; afternoons swimming in the ocean; riding the waves; feeling the warmth of the sun as you relax laid out on the warm glittery sand. A place for joy filled walks along the boardwalk; colorful sidewalk vendors; and roller skaters who glide around you as you stroll along. The go to spot for playing volleyball in the sand while music fills the air. No matter where you turned, Huntington Beach waterfront exuded excitement.
But not for these four, no their motel room was not one of the upscale fancy rooms one might rent close to the beach. Instead they found themselves in one of the rent by the month motels in the more run down seedy part of town. At least it was a deluxe kitchenette, with two full size beds that took up the entire main part of the room. A thin wall that ran 3/4 the depth of the room separated the bathroom, kitchen and 2 nautical style sleeping berths from the main room. It was a far cry from glamorous part of Huntington Beach and what felt like a lifetime from the three bedroom ranch home they had shared with their parents.
The children; three boys ages 11, 10 and 8 and the girl age 6 were wards of the state put in the care of their grandmother. The year before, their parents had divorced and their grandmother had convinced the courts that she alone could provide the children a stable home. Somehow she had continued to convince everyone she should have custody, even though they had moved twice before winding up in the motel. Now they found themselves without a real home, living in this hovel with their grandmother, 35 year old aunt, 17 year old uncle and scores of filthy cockroaches. The room was hot and stuffy, with dust and grime so think the roaches left trails through it. So many roaches that with each footstep they would scatter like the ripples in a pond when a rock is dropped in the water. All seven people crammed into that one filthy little room.
Each morning the children's aunt and uncle would go off to work and the grandmother would shoo the children out the door. They didn't need any persuading really, none of them wanted to be inside that little room. They knew that it would mean sitting quietly reading their bibles as their grandmother sat at the tiny table cluttered with papers and dirty dishes, studying her bible or writing some story she would never share with anyone. So out they would go in their tattered, dingy and often dirty play clothes and bare feet.
They were only few miles from the glorious beach, and yet it may as well have been a hundred miles. Instead, all around was run down buildings, vacant lots and busy streets. No playgrounds, just stores, offices and fields. Most of their day was spent with the boys playing catch in the vacant lot across from the hotel or taking turns on an old rough wooden skateboard in the adjacent shopping center parking lot, while the little girl ran after them begging to take a turn. Had this been the extent of their existence it is likely none would have anything but dreadful memories of their summer without a home. But it wasn't, there was one glorious thing that changed how they viewed their situation.
In that very same shopping center, where they rode their skateboard, sat what became the saving grace for all four children. It was a shop, but not just any shop. On the big glass window that covered the entire front of the shop read a sign 'Ben's Hobby Shop'. The first time the children cupped their hands to shield their eyes from the reflection of the sunlight on the glass and peered within that big window a lasting memory of excitement and joy was burned upon their hearts. Through the window you could see a large oval table, with an elaborate model train set elevated in the center of a fabulous slot car race track.
Little cars zipped around the track at lightening speeds as a small train worked it's way through a picturesque town with glittering lights and tiny people, over a bridge and up into snow capped mountains. On one side of the table stood a young man operating the controls that controlled the train while at the head of the table stood four teenagers, each holding the controls for their car. As the four silent children stared at the scene before them pure delight. Racers and spectators alike filled the small shop with the sound of their excitement. Cheers of triumph and groans of defeat spilled out the door as it opened to let newcomers in.
The clean little shop wasn't fancy, as a matter of fact the table took up the majority of the shop. Along the wall opposite the table were shelves with all kinds of kits and supplies for building your very own slot car. At the back of the shop there were more shelves full of model trains and prebuilt slot cars as well as all the supplies to build your own tracks and train tables. It was more than the children had ever dreamed. One day the owner invited the children in to watch the slot car races.
Who knows if the shop owner understood the importance of his actions or the lasting impression he gave the children when he invited the children to come back during the shops slow time and race his cars and control the train free for a half hour every day. He was a kind man, who obviously realized the children could not pay to play. A kind man whose generosity gave those four homeless children hope. He made them feel accepted. He gave them something to look forward to every day and he gave them their fondest memory during a difficult time in their young lives.
Homelessness and the plight of the homeless is a subject that touches me deeply. The above true story is an excerpt from my memoir. I don't talk about it much other than to impress on my children and now on my grandchildren that one should never judge as we have no way of knowing what circumstances may have led to the situation those more unfortunate than we find themselves in, instead we should acknowledge them and help when we can even if all we can do is say hello and share a smile. Being homeless does not mean you are no longer human with needs and dreams like every other human being on this planet.
Homeless people whether young or old don't need our scorn. They need kindness, empathy and where possible our help. They need our acceptance as another human being worthy of love and happiness. So the next time you see homeless person or a ragged child smile and say hi, you never know that little act may be the only kindness they experience that day.