The Choices That Shape Us

Posted on Feb 23, 2017 in Letters from the Director

Picture4When I was eight-years-old, I got in trouble for shoplifting. Well, actually, I didn’t. Dave Toler, Johnny Stelter and I went to Harnischfeger’s Market and shoved a bunch of candy, football trading cards and other assorted treats into our pants. We talked about what we were going to do as if it were an elaborate plan no one else had ever thought of. Idiots! Well, I got out, but as my friends were leaving, the “Old Man” who ran the store grabbed Dave by the arm.

When my friends finally left Harnischfeger’s, they had the obligatory tough guy routine: “It was no big deal, he doesn’t scare me, etc.” But, the Old Man had called their parents.

Walking home together, we decided to go to Toler’s first. One of his older sisters had taken the call, pretending to be his Mom. Toler had a big family, and his single Mom wasn’t home from work yet. Toler’s sibling teased us for being stupid enough to get caught. No one said anything about the morality of what we’d done.

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After an hour of false bravado and acting like we’d just robbed a Brink’s truck, Stelter and I headed to his house. Johnny Stelter lived next to me, on the top floor of a duplex. He was my best friend at the time. My babysitter, Gladys Brezinski, lived below. I went to Gladys’s, and Johnny went upstairs to his house.

I heard the beating Johnny got from his mom. She took a belt to him. I heard her yelling how embarrassed she was to have him as a son. She said if his father had still been alive (Johnny’s father had died in Vietnam), he would be ashamed of him. I heard her sobbing and screaming that being poor is no reason to be a criminal or a “delinquent animal.” She said maybe he was born bad and stupid. While hitting him with a belt, she kept saying how much she loved him and that he was making her do this. She also said it wasn’t just him and “that Toler boy” who had robbed the store. She demanded he tell her who the other kid was. Johnny never told.

As I listened, I just sat there with Gladys, eating the sandwich she’d made for me. I could tell she knew, I never took any responsibility for what happened. No one told my parents. Toler’s mom eventually found out, but she never did anything about it, because she had bigger problems to deal with.

Why am I sharing this story? I think in stories, there’s a tendency to make stories like this a turning point. But real life is both more complicated and simpler. On the complicated side, Dave, Johnny, and I continued to be friends until my family moved to a better neighborhood. We continued to do stupid stuff, but we also did kind, brave and sweet stuff-like when we stood up for Gladys’ daughter against neighborhood bullies, or when we found a runaway dog for the old lady who lived a few houses down. These events started me thinking about right and wrong, about loyalty to friends and taking responsibility for my actions, and about how horrible we can be to the ones we love. I also started thinking about what it means when people say “mind your own business.” Terrible things can happen to people while others decide it’s not their problem. Life is complicated like that.

But it’s also simple. We are not born bad or good! The world is not fair or equal for everyone! Never has been, never will be. We need to accept that fact to get along in the world, but we also need to be careful not to use it to ignore injustice or the little voice in our heads telling us what we should do. Hard work is vital for most of us to succeed, but it doesn’t guarantee success by itself. We also need to acknowledge over others and helped us to succeed. “Not getting involved” does not mean you aren’t being affected, and it shouldn’t be worn like a badge of honor.

Years later, when the internet became available, I decided to find out what happened to Johnny and Dave. They’ve both spent most of their adult lives in prison. Of course, this isn’t a direct result of the three of us shoplifting from Harnischfeger’s, but I do see connections to the environment those boys and I were in and the paths they took. They are responsible for their actions. I’m not blaming their parents: one so overwhelmed, she was apathetic when she found out; and one sow overwhelmed, she became abusive when she found out. They loved their kids and were doing their best. I’m not blaming the neighbors who, we could make a case, should have intervened in these situations. And I’m not saying society, service agencies or governmental institutions, like Child Protective Services, are to blame for the way Dave and Johnny’s lives turned out. There is no easy target to blame.

I’m just saying they were my friends. They weren’t perfect angels and neither was I. In some ways, they were better than me and in other ways worse. They didn’t have to spend their lives in jail. It wasn’t predestined, and it wasn’t as simple as a bad choice they made one day that led to everything else. I guess all I’m saying is, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” Yes, I’ve worked hard in my life. Yes, I’ve tried to make good decisions and help other people when I can; but yes, I have also been lucky in so many ways that I could never recount them all.

I often think about Johnny, Dave, and many others when I’m at the Shelter. I know I could be in their positions, or worse. I think about how our guests’ futures can be different from their pasts. People are not disposable, and as long as they are alive, there’s hope for a better tomorrow. The work we do at the Torres Shelter is complicated. Not because we don’t know the types of assistance people need, but because that help is often hard to get and because each of us is complicated: good, bad, brave, stupid, kinds, loyal, etc.

Another factor that complicates our work is the necessity of incessant fundraising. Not to brad, but we are fantastically responsible with money. We stretch dollars as far as they can go, getting real value for our guests and the donors who give. Last fiscal year, we spent around $1000 on each person for the costs of their stay with us-and average of about two months. It works out to about $25 per day/per person. The return on that investment was that 366 people (on average, a success story every day) moved into a better living situation when they left us!

Good thinks and bad things often don’t happen all at once. Like Dave and Johnny’s lives, they are often incremental. Please consider joining our efforts in the same incremental way. By signing up to make a monthly gift, you will be a source of consistency for the work we do. You will be someone who gets involved, stands up for others, and agrees that people are not disposable. From $10 a month to a $1000, any and all monthly gifts are appreciated. Your gift helps us be there for those who are working to improve their luck and make better choices, so they can have a better tomorrow.

Any yes, my Mom will read this and learn that I shoplifted when I was eight-years-old. She’ll be disappointed in me, but she’ll still love me—So many blessings I’ve been given I could never count them all.