They are always with us, the stubborn social failings that haunt our conscience, and they grow worse as winter approaches. Shutins become lonelier, the streets tougher, neglected kids shiver. Most of us shake our heads or send something for Christmas. But some fight back in person, like Fred Doescher (right), who helps old people in peril. This, the third in a PEOPLE series, salutes the Samaritans among us who do not pass by.
Rose O’Donnell, 88, is a stubborn woman who refused to use the cane that was meant to keep her steady during her dizzy spells. Then one day last year, her feistiness nearly proved fatal. Rose fell in the hallway of her Pittsburgh home and couldn’t get up again. An elderly neighbor got the milkman to lift her onto her bed. They didn’t realize how badly she was hurt, and she wouldn’t tell them, so they left. The pain grew worse, and Rose lay alone, helpless and confused, for three days. Finally, she heard a voice from the other room.
“Meals on Wheels!” called Fred Doescher.
Doescher is himself 82, but he spends 70 hours a week seeing to shut-ins like Rose. “Oh, Freddie, I’m so sick,” she confessed, and immediately he called an ambulance. After two weeks in the hospital, Rose came home, still determined to walk on her own.
At an age when many people must rely on the kindness of strangers, Fred Doescher is helping out his friends, of whom he has many. Every week he visits dozens of housebound, elderly people, bringing meals and what he calls old-fashioned neighborliness and reminding them to take their pills. He has summoned life-saving help no fewer than 14 times after finding people alone and either sick or injured. His ministrations last year won him the Jefferson Award, given by the American Institute for Public Service, and they have earned him a nickname: St. Fred.
Doescher finds the attention vaguely disturbing. “It makes people think I can do more than I really can,” he says. “It kind of scares me.”
With his clear, pink skin, crisp shirts and perfectly creased pants, which he irons himself, Doescher has the look of a parson or doctor. In fact, as a boy in Pittsburgh, he dreamed of becoming a physician. But his father died when Fred was 17, and he had to support his ailing mother. He became an ace mechanic for the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad, ran a farm with his aunt and uncle when he was laid off during the Depression, then returned to the railroad, completing 51 years there in 1978. “Machines and people are just the same,” he says. “You treat them right, and they last a long time.”
To treat people right, Fred is willing to stretch the truth when he has to. “If I have to bathe an old woman, I’ll tell her I’m a nurse, just to reassure her,” he says. “After all, I did bathe my mother and aunt when they were sick.” He can also be tough, especially when dealing with what he sees as the worst affliction of the elderly, depression. “I get steamed up,” he says. “I say to people, ‘Just get out of bed! Turn off the TV! Go to the senior center and play Bingo or help out!’ ” He makes rounds for both the South Hills Health System Home Health Agency and Meals on Wheels, and because volunteers are in short supply, he is on call around the clock. If he gets tired, he simply keeps going. He still chews out Rose for not using her new walker, and she says that he was a real terror the time he found her helpless. “Oh boy, did he raise Cain,” she recalls. “I don’t know how that ambulance got here so quick.”
“We take care of our girl,” St. Fred explains.
South Hills Health System Foundation is at 1800 West Street, Homestead, Pa. 15120. A list of Meals on Wheels chapters is available from the National Association of Meal Programs, 204 E Street N.E., Washington, D.C. 20002.
Former gang member Robert Aguayo saves kids from L.A.’s mean streets
The Latino residents of Echo Park, one of the toughest neighborhoods in L.A., accept street gangs as a part of everyday life. A few months ago, a member of an Echo Park gang was stabbed to death. Terrified by that and by the street battles that followed, an Echo Park gang member sought help from the one person he felt sure would provide it: Robert Aguayo.
With “Diamond Street” on his neck, a teardrop under his right eye to show that he served time and other tattoos here and there, Aguayo, 28, looks as forbidding as the young gang members he helps, and with reason. “I was once in the gang that did the killing,” he says. But Aguayo started putting all that behind him 10 years ago, and in 1983 he became determined to show others that they could make it too. The gangs are smaller now than in the 70s, when a single gang had 1,000 members, “but the violence is higher,” Aguayo says. “The gun has become the equalizer. It gives strength without numbers.” He does not try to persuade kids to leave their gangs; he simply tries to redirect their energies. “I tell them, ‘Dress the way you want, talk the way you want.’ I’m gonna judge them on their actions.”
The youngest of six brothers, all gang members, Aguayo knows firsthand the dangers of Echo Park. While being counseled as a teenager at El Centro del Pueblo, where he now works, he sneaked a look at his record. “It said I was headed for long-term jail,” he recalls. “That’s true. Whenever you have a kid who’s angry and is bright, you have a problem.” In 1977, while attending junior college, he accidentally shot a member of another gang while coming to the defense of a relative who had been jumped. After serving a one-year sentence and hanging out with his gang for another year, he decided it was time to improve his life. He entered California State University at Los Angeles, where he received a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1986. For the past nine years he has been on the staff of El Centro del Pueblo, where families get counseling and job training. “People get a good education, a good job, then they run off,” he says. “But I couldn’t just take the money and run. I chose to stay here and take care of my people.”
Working out of El Centro’s sparsely furnished offices, where chairs are scarce and desks are scarcer, Aguayo tries constantly to drum up donations of tickets to art and sporting events, just to get his kids out of Echo Park for a day. But what gang members need even more, he says, are steady jobs. “People don’t join gangs to be murderers or thieves, but because they need to belong,” he says. “These people hurt and cry like everybody else.”
The cruel fact, as Aguayo knows, is that gang members hurt and get hurt more than most people. A year ago, Robert “Sparky” Garibay, of the Diamond Street gang, decided to turn his life around after a friend was shot to death. With Aguayo’s help, he cut down on his drug intake, improved his school grades and changed his attitude. “Robert’s a good guy, a real good guy,” Sparky said enthusiastically last month. “Just come talk to him. He’ll give you good advice. He did to me.” Two weeks ago, some kids he knew started throwing stones at his house, and Sparky, in his bathroom, got out a gun and waved it mockingly to scare them off. He slipped and shot himself fatally through the neck.
Now Aguayo is trying to help Sparky in the only way left to him—by raising money for his funeral. “I’ve already been through this with 15 to 20 friends,” he says, very softly. “It’s not fair.”
El Centro del Pueblo is located at 840 Echo Park Avenue, Los Angeles, Calif. 90026.
The Snells of Oklahoma have had 75 children, and they’re ready for more
It is Saturday morning, and Sharon Snell is scurrying around her kitchen, whipping up three dozen poached eggs, three pounds of sausage and four batches of waffle batter. Waiting are 19 ravenous kids, from 2 months to 19 years old. The mothers of five of these youngsters are in jail. The father of another child lost his job and lives on the streets, and one mother is in a shelter for battered women. So for days or perhaps years, Sharon and Clark Snell’s six-bedroom house in north Oklahoma City is their home.
During the past seven years, the Snell family has numbered 75 such children, with as many as 28 on hand at one time. Most of them did not arrive through adoption or foster-care agencies. Sharon and Clark, both 43, simply take in kids, with parental consent when they can get it. “Too often parents get shafted by the foster-care system,” says Sharon, a former pediatric nurse. “Street people will trust us before they’ll trust a bureaucracy.”
The children at the Snells’ clearly like it there. “This is the best place I’ve lived,” says Barbie, 10, who, with her younger brother, was referred to the Snells by a private shelter. “In other places they put a belt across our butts, but everybody here loves me.” Unofficially, even some state employees refer families to the Snells. “Kids who get caught up in the system generally lack the kind of nurturing they find with the Snells,” says one social worker.
Not everyone is sympathetic. Last spring a neighbor, claiming the Snells were lowering property values, petitioned to have them evicted from their home; then, in August, three state officials stormed into the house and took seven screaming kids into custody. The Department of Human Services followed up on rumors by charging the Snells with abuse and neglect, child pornography and child prostitution.
Church and community groups promptly rallied to the family’s aid, and a judge ruled all the charges were unfounded. The children were ordered returned—a moment of undiluted joy for the Snells, who have been taking in kids ever since they were married in 1978. That was when Clark adopted Sharon’s two sons by a previous marriage, and he and Sharon adopted two of his alcoholic sister’s sons and the baby daughter of his 15-year-old niece. While doing volunteer work at Jesus House, a community center where two years earlier he had recovered from alcoholism, Clark met other parents who needed help for their children. The Snells opened their home.
Clark earns about $30,000 a year from his work as an appliance repairman, but he can’t keep up with the bills. At the moment, the Snells owe $100,000. Apprehensive about the strings attached to government assistance, they rely largely on help from their church members, who provide baby-sitting, laundry service, haircuts and food. Such stability as their kids have, however, comes from a less tangible source. “Some of the older ones ask whether we would get rid of them if we went bankrupt,” says Clark. “We tell them, ‘A parent doesn’t throw away his children, and you are our children.’ ”
The Snells need clothing, books, toys and money. Their address is 3615 NW 44 St., Oklahoma City, Okla. 73008.