Douglas Cruickshank 2014-12-09 03:56:44
Gwen Strain of San Francisco has an amazing effect on others, especially the downtrodden—a state from which she majestically arose. Gwen Strain is an angel who’s been to hell and back. She hit bottom, then just for good measure dropped down 10 more feet below that. Somehow she then found her bearings, found direction, found meaning, found herself, found Lions and came back–big-time. And the world’s a far better place because of it. Strain, 60, tells me she used to smoke cocaine and sleep in doorways. “Crack wasn’t around yet, or I would have done that,” she says. “I was doing whatever was out there. I’ve had shopping carts and a cardboard box on the street, and I used to have a cup out to ask people for money.” Strain’s life is a little different now. Since 2007, she has been director of Rose Home, which she founded with her own money, a $65,000 inheritance from her mother, Rose, in the Bayview Hunters Point neighborhood of San Francisco. She founded and directs Families in Need, and she runs a food giveaway program that operates three days a week. Her personal turnaround, her dedication to giving to others, came with the realization that relationships are at the core of life. So she joined the Lions the same year she began Rose Home. She’s a proud charter member of the San Francisco Bayview Hunters Point Lions Club. Added into the mix of her projects is the club’s bikes for veterans program in San Francisco. You don’t accomplish all of this by being ordinary. Strain is whip smart, generating streams of ideas. She is gifted with a ready smile and apparently limitless energy. Equal parts kindness and toughness, she can shift, if necessary, from jolliness to a no-nonsense demeanor in a flash. She is an utter force of nature as an organizer. And she is often the best-dressed person in the room. But her greatest quality is probably her unusual honesty, her ability to be straightforward and blunt without being unkind. And she does not spare herself. One day I ask her how she became a Lion. “I was at a community fair,” she recalls. “Lion Sandra Ige from the South San Francisco Host Lions Club called me over. After she finished telling me everything the Lions did for the community, I was sold. She invited me to a meeting that same night. I liked what I heard and joined. The most important part was that Lion Sandra kept her word and met me there.” Then Strain, calling on that trademark honesty, gets to the heart of why Lions means so much to her. “This is hard to say. Before I joined Lions I would only engage with people of color, but the Lions opened my eyes to a whole new and loving world. When I first joined, I visited all the clubs. Each and every club treated me as if I was special. I couldn’t believe it. And once they heard I had the Rose Home they started coming by–dropping off clothes, food, towels, everything needed for homeless people. I received phone calls inviting me to different projects and Lions’ homes. The first home was PDG [Past District Governor] Ken Ibarra’s home.” So how did she do it? How did she get from sleeping in doorways and panhandling for a living to where she is now? What motivated her? Over the course of several weeks, as I talked to Strain and hung out at the Rose Home, most of my questions were answered. But something even more important happened. You might call it “the Gwen Strain Effect.” I forget exactly how it came about, but one day early on I found myself making soup at Rose Home–for 70 people. Once the soup was made, we took it up to the corner, set up a table, and gave away cups of the stuff to any and all comers. It was a big hit, and I’ve been doing it every week since then. I also go there to do other chores–pick up the groceries for giveaway on Wednesday mornings, clean up the side yard. And sometimes I just like to drop by, watch reality TV, and talk with whoever is there–Gilbert or Roderick or Kenny, or during the rare moments she is standing in one place, Gwen. As I’ve spent time at Rose Home, helping here and there, I’ve gotten to know its residents. Kenny is one of them. He is distinctive looking with a shaved head, long, fluffy white beard and an open gaze. And having one arm doesn’t seem to hold him back much. He recently completed an 18-year prison sentence. “I had a three-strikes case,” he tells me. “I had a petty theft, stole a pair of Levis out of Mervyn's, but I also had a history–couple of robberies. That’s what put me there. I'd been a heroin addict all my life, since I was 17 years old.” “When I first got out,” Kenny continues, “I didn't even know until two days before I was getting released that I was getting out. I decided to come here to San Francisco. I'm not from here. I’m from Riverside. I wanted to get away from all that element. I didn’t want to see anybody that I knew.” Like Gwen did long ago, and like many of his housemates are doing now, Kenny made a decision. He had to hit bottom before he made it. As far as Gwen is concerned, that’s all that matters–making the decision. “She took me in with open arms,” he recalls. “I was really surprised, because I’d had a hard time finding a place. And she let me right in. If it hadn't have been for that, I don’t know what would have happened. She's done a lot for me. She's been a rock when I really needed one.” I asked Kenny how he made his decision. “You've got to be ready to make that change. And if you land in a place like this, where someone’s really willing to help you, and she really is. She wants you to get back on your feet. Then you gotta stick with it. I was just so lucky. That I wanted to really change. And she’s taught me a lot about giving back to the community. And that gives you a sense of worth.” The giving back aspect, the importance of serving others, seems to be a key part of the healing and personal rebuilding that takes place at Rose Home. Certainly it’s the very essence of what Strain’s doing, but it also somehow gets instilled in the people who come here to sort out their lives. That’s the Gwen Strain Effect. Kenny left Rose Home recently, got his own place. I was there as he was moving out, and it was an emotional parting. Strain couldn’t even talk with him, then she pulled herself together and they sat down together. They’d grown close during the six months Kenny was in residence, and it was hard for her to see him go. I think it was tough for Kenny too, but his departure was the result of his success at putting his life back together and Strain knew that. “I do plan on coming back,” Kenny tells me, “and helping Gwen out, because she's done a lot for me. I really do plan on coming back.” One of the things Kenny took with him was his bicycle, which came to him through the program Strain established. It will be essential in helping him get to jobs and medical appointments. I asked Strain how she got the bike program started. Several years ago, she said, she was doing a food giveaway for veterans at the Presidio, San Francisco’s decommissioned Army base. “I saw a whole lot of bikes out there, and I said, ‘Whose bikes are those?’ The vets told me, ‘They're garbage. They're all raggly, all tore up.’ “‘You guys need some bikes!’ I told them. And that was how it all began. That was two or three years ago. It stayed in my mind for a while, but then it just popped up and I decided to do something about it. I said to myself, ‘I need to get some bikes for the veterans.’” She literally danced her way into the program, which has now placed 156 bicycles with needy veterans. “I dragged San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr out on the dance floor at some event. He liked to dance the Electric Slide, wanted to get better, so I taught him.” And that’s how a friendship and a partnership began. “I got [Suhr] to join my Lions club. That was back when he was the captain at the station here. I bugged him until he joined.” “So it was a bikes for dancing deal, huh?” “You could say that,” Strain smiles. “And is the Chief’s dancing improving?” “Oh yeah, definitely.” See what I mean? The Gwen Strain Effect. The police department now supplies bikes to the Lions’ project. The bikes have typically been stolen and the owner cannot be found so the police turn them over to Strain. Some of the residents of Rose Home make the necessary repairs, clean up the bikes, then they’re given to veterans in need of reliable transportation who are looking for work and also need to get to counseling and other appointments. Before we left the subject of bikes, I asked Strain to give me a few more details about what Lions actually did to enable the Bikes 4 Vets program. “Well,” she said, taking a deep breath, “if the Lions from District 4 C4 hadn’t purchased the truck [that Rose Home uses], there wouldn’t be a Bikes 4 Vets or Warm Hands and Feet Project. And the Lions also helped fix, pick up and deliver bikes to the veterans. We worked for two weeks fixing the bikes, and three days picking up the bikes. The best part, the part I think they enjoyed most, was passing out the bikes and helmets.” Strain then tallies the specific clubs that helped on Bikes 4 Vets: San Bruno, San Carlos, Bayview Hunters Point, Foster City, San Mateo, Brisbane, Burlingame, Pacific and San Francisco Chinatown. She’s planning to start distributing new bikes soon, but for the time being she’s relying on high quality used bikes to keep the program going and keep the veterans rolling. What keeps Strain rolling fascinates me. How does she keep the Rose Home and all these programs operating and thriving? How does she do it? The fact that she does do it becomes even more amazing as I talk with her more about where she came from, how far she’s come. One day, sitting at the dining room table at Rose Home, we’re having a quiet conversation, just the two of us in the room. “You were pretty far down, weren’t you, Gwen?’ Strain’s quiet for a long moment, looks out the window, then says, “I hit rock bottom. I was sleeping on the sidewalk ... in burnt buildings, abandoned cars. I couldn’t go any farther down. When I woke up on the sidewalk looking at the sky, I said, ‘How did I get here?’ I could see feet walking by.” “Did you have children then?” I asked her. “I had a daughter. She would try to get me to stop. She was 19, 20. She was young.” “I’d say, ‘Come back Wednesday and I'll go home with you. Come back tomorrow, I'll be waiting here for you.’” Strain made several attempts to get back on track before she finally succeeded. She started attending a Bible study class at a shelter and that worked for a while, but then, as she puts it, she “went back out” on the streets–to drugs and living in old cars and abandoned buildings. “So you got better, then you backslid.” “Right, I was out there for two or three days and people from Mission Rock shelter came to find me. I was surprised, they came looking for me. That was unusual for the shelter people. They kept saying, ‘Gwen, come back to the shelter, come back to the shelter, come back to the shelter.’ I said, ‘I ain't going back there.’” Strain finally did get back to a shelter, off the streets, off drugs. “I went to Victory Outreach Church and I stayed there from ‘99 until ‘04,” she tells me. “Took you five years to get back on your feet.” “Yes, five years before I was really stable. I went to the home, the women's home, then I went into re-entry. Then from re-entry the pastor asked me to run a home like this for women. Then the pastor asked me to run a place for men.” “Tell me about the people who come here to Rose Home,” I ask Strain. “Well, some have disabilities; some of them are on SSI. We have some people that come in, they say they want to get off drugs, we try to help them the best we can, but then we can't hold them. I have some that left. One lady just left. She’d been here six months. So the courts are allowing her back to her family now because she’s finished.” “When you say she’s finished, you mean she's clean?” “Yes, she’s clean–off drugs. Some people, the courts demand it, and they have to stay here so long. They have to do whatever their program asks them to do. If they stay here and finish, then they’re free to go. I've had a lot of them that did that. Some might say, ‘I quit.’ ... But then one graduates, one finishes. They come back and show me their brand new car, better than my car.” “They got a job.” “Yes, oh Lord have mercy, that's what this is all about.” “Do you stay in touch with a lot of them?” “They always come back and show off their cars. They do come back and say thank you. Some say, ‘Woman, I couldn't stand you. I couldn't stand you, but thank you.’” Having lived on the streets herself for several winters, Strain has a second sense about people in need and what it is they need most. She is astonishingly practical. It’s clear she’s not much interested in problems. But she’s very interested in solutions. “We call Gwen the angel,” one of her first Lion friends, Ken Ibarra, tells me during a phone conversation. “She has such a big heart and she’s always looking to take care of people.” Ibarra, a City of San Bruno councilman, a Lion since 1992 and a past district governor, has known Strain for several years, worked with her occasionally and seen her in action often. One night back in 2011, he went out to Hunters Point to help with the street corner soup service. “We were all set up. It was the day before Thanksgiving 2011. I said, ‘God, it’s real cold! They could really use some gloves.’ And Gwen interrupted and said, ‘No, they need clean, dry socks.’ So there on the street corner, we coined the phrase Warm Hands and Feet. And I posted it on Facebook and within a week we got enough donations to give everyone in line some new socks and gloves.” It was such a good idea it inspired Lions Clubs International to shoot a video on it for the LCI video magazine, which can still be viewed on the LCI website. I also spoke with Ibarra about the bike program. “The first challenge is space. We've got a lot of bicycles and you need space to store them and space to work on them. Gwen has a lot of resources but I don't think we have any longterm resources, so it's going to be a matter of finding someone that owns some commercial property in San Francisco that could probably donate some space.” “Part of a warehouse?” “Exactly.” “Once you have that, it's just a matter of throwing small fundraisers so that we can purchase parts. There are bicycle-related companies out there that are donating helmets and locks. There are a lot of organizations that we can partner with to acquire the resources that we need.” “Would you like to see the program expanded? Where do you see it going in the next year or two?” “It’s in our hands,” Ibarra says. “We need more members and we need more buy-in from the members, and then possibly other Lions clubs. Gwen may think that the needs of her neighborhood are as much as she can handle by herself or with a few volunteers, but I see the bigger picture. And as long as there’s a need, it doesn't have to just be veterans. It could be anyone needy. It could be youth. It’s something that could be ongoing, that could help underprivileged children and needy families. We need the volunteers.” Before we said goodbye, I ask Ibarra an obvious but crucial question: “Why do Lions support this program and how does it benefit veterans?” In the case of the veterans, Ibarra says, there is a great and continuing need for affordable transportation, so they can rebuild their lives. A dependable means of getting from here to there is an excellent beginning in that effort. “And it's the timing,” he continues. “The timing is perfect, because Lions Clubs International is implementing their veterans program, and we’re chartering a club of 27–the new San Francisco Veterans Club [of which Strain is now a member]-and nearly all of them are veterans. They don't have to pay a thing to join. They’re exempt from the chartering fee. It’s a good, patriotic time to recognize the veterans that probably don't get recognized enough. I think this will likely be the signature project of this new club.” Need I say it again? The Gwen Strain Effect. Typically, Strain gives plenty of credit to the help she gets from Lions, friends and family. “Yes,” she confirms, “my sisters Anita and Gloria might jump in. Sometimes Lions come up–from San Bruno, San Mateo. They come through and they help. And the people living at Rose Home help too. I know the people in my community respect and trust the Lions. One reason is that Lions brought the first scholarship to this community that paid enough to make a difference. And of course they are well known for their eye program.” There’s no end to this story. That’s the best thing about it. It’s happening now, changing lives every week, every day, every hour. People coming and going from Rose Home, repairing their bodies, minds and hearts, and getting back in the game. Strain reminded me of that, of its simple profundity, in her own way on one of the first nights I was working with her and the crew on the groceries and soup giveaway. I’d just given the last cup of soup to Gwen, the pot was scraped clean, when an older man came up and asked for a cup. “”I’m sorry,” I said. “We’re all out.” “Here,” Gwen said, handing her uneaten cup of soup to the hungry man, “he can have mine.” A little later we were packing up, folding the tables, putting the empty soup pots in the van. “Well,” I said jokingly. “Another day, another pot of soup.” Strain looked at me, smiled, looked at the dwindling crowd of people helping themselves to the last of the groceries, food for children and the elderly they might not otherwise be able to afford. “Another day,” she said, “another life.” Watch an inspiring video on Strain at lionmagazine.org. People line up for the free groceries program run by Strain.
Published by International Association of Lions Clubs . View All Articles.
This page can be found at http://digital.lionmagazine.org/article/Strain+for+Effect/1881911/237959/article.html.