Photograph by Matthew Suárez
Lyssa Melonakos helps run the medical clinic and the mentoring program at First Presbyterian Church
“After I graduated from high school, I went to Honduras. I stayed for a year in a little neighborhood where I developed relationships with teenagers, and moms at home taking care of their kids. These villagers were extremely poor. No running water, no electricity.” Lyssa Melonakos, 24, is wearing jeans, Vans, and a maroon T-shirt under a plaid flannel long-sleeve. Her brown hair is stylishly close-cropped. She says she lives in Normal Heights. We meet in a community room in the lower levels of the First Presbyterian Church on Date Street near downtown San Diego. The air inside is faintly redolent of meat loaf or some other meaty repast. Workers arrange chairs in rows while we talk. First Pres feeds upwards of 200 of San Diego’s homeless in an adjoining cafeteria.
“I think, why not? All it takes is for students to want to help.”
Photograph by Matthew Suárez
“But somehow, the Honduran villagers, they scraped together some money and they finagled a cable,” she says, “which they then hotwired to the neighboring village’s power. The government would catch them after a few months and chop the cable, and then the villagers would pool their resources and get another cable. This went on and on.
“My last trip to Honduras was two years ago. My parents were very resistant to the idea at first.” Melonakos grins at the recollection. “At that time, I think it had the most murders per capita in the world.” She traveled with a group called Mission to the World. “They decided to take me on. I did four trips. On my last trip, I’d made enough friends that I had my own places to stay. We did a project where we figured out how to run pipes down the street so that each house had a spigot,” she explains, “and got running water.”
Did the government chop those too?
Abraham Muheize started the San Diego Kings, an American Basketball Association team. “Our slogan is community first.”
Photograph by Matthew Suárez
These days, Melonakos works for the First Presbyterian Ladle Fellowship, a ministry geared toward San Diego’s homeless that includes a free medical clinic, a choir, and a mentoring program. “At this church, we have what is essentially a soup kitchen. It’s been going for 35 years.” She helps run the medical clinic and the mentoring program. “I love the homeless community and what the church does. We don’t just hand out food; we build relationships. During our meals, I’m available to talk to people about whatever they want to talk about. And it’s always interesting. Through our conversations, their needs arise. A lot of what they need is about health care. Some of these people are stuck in ruts, cycling in and out of emergency rooms, not getting primary care. Some of them leave their medications with us. It’s impossible to keep your meds if you’re on the street. So they drop in every three days or so for their heart pills, or whatever.
“I grew up in Escondido. When I was about 14 years old, I was just getting into music. One night during the hot rod show they have called Cruisin’ Grand, I set up my guitar and left my case open on the sidewalk and played. My parents were eating dinner and watching me. And a homeless woman stopped and listened, and then she started talking to me. It became evident that she thought I was homeless too. She was going to take me under her wing and keep me out of the bad places.”
Joshua Renzema went up to one of his teachers, and said “I have Tourette syndrome. Could I tell the class?”
Photograph by Matthew Suárez
Melonakos told the woman that her parents were right across the street. The woman eventually wandered off into the night. “The reality that I could be homeless, this little kid, well, that was her reality. Encounters with homeless people have impacted my life.
“Am I going to stay in this work? Yeah. I’m built for this. But I definitely feel like I’m fighting an uphill battle. It’s brutal when I get somebody who is motivated to get off the street, get clean. The only thing I can tell them is put your name on five different lists [for shelter and services,] and stay alive until they call. It’s hard to see that happen over and again, especially when they’ve got the mentality to make it. It’s hard to tell people to try and hang on.”
“I’m actually running for El Cajon City Council.” Abraham Muheize and I meet outside a Rancho San Diego Starbuck’s. At the next table, older men in sport jackets speak to each other in a language I don’t know, each with a string of prayer beads in his hand. That’s what Muheize says they are. Muheize has one of those kinds of faces you’d swear you’d seen before. Lean but strapping, he moves with the relaxed poise of a trained athlete, which he is. His eyes are of a rare shade, like tiger eye gemstones. He declines the offer of breakfast.
“Fasting,” he says, “from sunset to sunup.”
Tyler Leptich and Jada Claiborne are counselors at Camp Kesem, a camp for children of cancer patients.
Photograph by Matthew Suárez
Ramadan, a month of fasting and prayer for Muslims, is the reason. But then, Muheize admits he’s never fasted during the holy days before this. “My mom was never very strict about that. Although I did do a three-day water-only fast once. By the way,” he says, “I don’t actually expect to win the council seat.”
As it turns out, he did not. But in a later email, Muheize says he plans to run again. The 30-year-old, El Cajon-born-and-raised resident says he is something of a self-made philanthropist. “It started for me about four years ago, after I got back from college. I was kind of depressed that I didn’t make it to the NFL.” At El Cajon Valley High School, Muheize had “a 3.4 grade average and over 5000 passing and rushing yards as a quarterback, and not one single scholarship came my way.”
Things went in a different direction once he was off the playing field. Muheize says it was a local developer named Daryl Priest who first introduced him to the concept of charitable giving. Priest mentored the young football star.
Christo Anghel spends upwards of three hours each month volunteering at Ronald McDonald House.
Photograph by Matthew Suárez
“I wanted that money I would have earned playing football to give back to El Cajon.” Muheize lists such community goals as free clinics, college scholarships, and most of all, “to erase the stigma from El Cajon Valley High School.”
“Yes,” he emails later by way of explanation. “El Cajon has this stigma of being this poor school without much support. So my goal is to change that by getting more alumni and community support for El Cajon Valley High. I’d like to one day hear about people actually wanting to send their kids to ECVHS.”
Muheize identified a problem on campus that he chose to remedy. “Only 20 percent of the students were buying ASB cards.” He says that an Associate Student Body card is a fundraiser for school programs that provide extra-curricular activities for student card holders. “I wanted to change the way students looked at having an ASB card. If they got one for free, they’d learn the value of having one for the school year.” To that end, Muheize raised $9500. He did it by starting a men’s basketball league, home-courted at El Cajon Valley High.
“I raised that money within four months.” That smile again. “And I gave it all to the school. But it wasn’t enough to cover every single kid, so we changed the plan. Every incoming freshman gets a free ASB card, and the upperclassmen pay only 7 dollars instead of 20. And the school is actually making money on the sale of ASB cards now. The program is self-sustaining. It’s actually making a difference on campus. And that’s why I founded the men’s basketball league.”
Eventually, Muheize was able to attract big-name ballers, such as Los Angeles Charger Keenan Allen and ex-Charger Malcom Floyd to join his league. Two years in, the men’s basketball league plan had worked so well Muheize that decided to start a pro basketball team. “I said, how in the hell am I gonna fund this thing?” Enter a local attorney named King Aminpour.
“I snuck into his office,” Muheize laughs, “and he gave me five minutes. That turned into 45 minutes. King said, ‘I don’t much care for basketball, but I believe in giving back to the community.’” The San Diego Kings, an American Basketball Association team, was born. “Our slogan is community first.”
So, are the Kings any good?
“Third place out of 120-plus teams in our first year.” Muheize now sits on the board of Priest’s El Cajon Valley High School Foundation. In 2016, he started his own Alumni United when he began fundraising for his basketball league.
“The mission,” he says, “is to educate and inspire youth with athletes and motivational speakers.” Muheize has plans to start a San Diego school tour. “I’d have two groups that would go to schools for 90 minutes each, four schools a day. I’ll be able to bring in more athletes and civic leaders. We’d shoot some hoops together, maybe, and then inspire and educate kids about why bullying is not okay, to stay off drugs, to be kind and not cruel. If we can get to our youth, get into their heads, then we can help make change.”
“She was a high school student from Eastlake. She came to our prom night. I was there. I was working the chocolate fountain table.” Jennifer Luna is 26. She lives in Chula Vista. “She didn’t look sick,” Luna recalls, “just really skinny. Had her hair really short, kind of a boy’s cut. It was really short. I’m guessing from the chemo.”
Luna’s own dark hair is pulled back tight. It’s late in the day. She has just come from work, which she explains is for the insurance department of a major local hospital. Her demeanor is placid, even weary, but her emotions look to be on the verge of crumbling.
“She had on a glittery blue dress. Or maybe it was gray. I remember glittery. She was pretty that night. One of her friends helped her get ready. She came with her boyfriend. I remember she was dancing and having so much fun, and then, it wasn’t long after prom, I want to say only a couple of days later, she died.”
And that’s when Luna’s steadfastness breaks. She begins crying softly.
Friends of Scott is a San Diego-based non-profit that was founded by the high school-age friends of Scott Delgadillo after he lost his life to childhood cancer. The organization’s mission is to help child victims of cancer and their families. And one of the functions the group organizes and produces each year is a gala prom night for high school-aged cancer victims. How Luna got involved is through one of her officemates: Carmen Delgadillo, co-founder of Friends of Scott and mother of Scott Delgadillo. The annual prom, says Luna, is “Carmen’s son’s legacy.” Friends of Scott was started 15 years ago.
“The founders are still active,” Luna says. “They’re out of college now, some married, some of them starting families. They still come to the proms. They donate, and they help set it up. This is probably the hardest thing about it,” says Luna. “You’ll see these kids, and then, they’re gone. When I’m alone and I’m thinking about it, it’s really hard. But at the events, like the prom, you put on your strong face and help the kids have a good time.
“It’s the right thing to do, to help people. If I had more money, I’d donate. But I don’t, so I give my time. Is it fair, what happens to these kids? That’s the question everyone asks — why?” Luna takes a minute to compose her thoughts. “Unfortunately in life there’s not always an answer. Life is not always fair.”
She says prom night is a chance for the sick kids to forget all their problems, and that her reward is seeing them happy, even if temporarily. “But I don’t do it to make me feel good. I do it to make them feel good.”
The sounds of piano playing roll out the front door of Santee’s Youth Venture teen center. It’s classical and vaguely familiar, the music, and whoever’s playing it is hitting the keys hard. “Pachelbel’s Canon,” Joshua Renzema answers when I enter.
“I helped the director find this piano,” Renzema, 17, says in a barrage of sentences that are quick and precise, the product of a sharp mind. “I helped him load it in his truck and bring it in here.” It’s an old spinet, the piano. Little widgets of blue tape with the names of the notes are affixed to each of the white keys, but Renzema pays them no mind. He can seriously play.
“But it’s hopelessly out of tune.”
He then tells me in detail how to tune a piano. Which comes as no surprise, because the Santana High School junior tells me that he hopes to become a professional piano technician and tuner one day. He turns 18 in November. Close to six feet tall, he wears a red-and-black-check flannel shirt with jeans. He has neatly trimmed hair, a quick smile, and a starter moustache. He shifts into a fast rag he calls “American Patrol.”
Renzema says that music is his happy place. Playing piano, he says, soothes his nerves whenever his nerves need soothing. He says he was diagnosed with Tourette syndrome while still in kindergarten. He’s been playing piano for maybe 10 years. A pair of white plastic headphones hang around his neck. What’s on Renzema’s calming playlist?
He then recites all of the lyrics from one of his favorites, a death-metal-ish thing sung by one of those dudes with crunchy voices. But we’re not here today to talk about music or piano tuning. We are here to talk about Joshua’s personal mission to raise Tourette syndrome awareness. We adjourn to a corner table where a massive pile of French fries awaits on a cardboard tray. It is a large re-purposed retail space, this after-school teen center, clean enough, with a snack counter, tables, chairs, unmatched sofas, random pool tables, video screens, and a much-used ping-pong table. “All these French fries for two bucks,” he says, “from the Mexican restaurant next door.” He devours them while he talks.
“I used to come here every day after school. I first came here on May 10, 2017. Hey, today, it’s May tenth,” he suddenly realizes. There are maybe a dozen kids here, more boys than girls. “It’s been exactly two years.”
Wild-shot ping-pong balls fly past us and smack into the walls. Renzema’s two-dollar mound of fries gets smaller.
“Santana was super-exciting,” he says of his freshman year. “It was new territory for me. I’m extremely social.” Renzema wanted to make new friends, but he didn’t want the various expressions of his Tourette syndrome to alarm anyone in the process. “I’m noisy, depending on the day,” Renzema explains. As defined by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, Tourette syndrome is a neurological disorder characterized by repetitive, stereotyped, involuntary movements and vocalizations called tics.
“All people with Tourette’s have tics. Motor, vocal, and mental. A mental tic is less visible in public,” he says. “Motor is when you move a lot, and the vocal tic is when you make some noise. When I get excited or nervous or stressed, I tic a lot more,” is how he describes how his Tourette syndrome tics play out in public.
“So I went up to one of my teachers, and I said, ‘I have Tourette syndrome. Could I tell the class?’” Yes, was the short answer. In time, he would ask all of his teachers for permission to introduce himself to his classmates as such, and they all gave consent. There was an immediate upside:
“I got less bullying.”
Suddenly, a random series of tremors ripples across his face and contorts his features. His head jerks off to the side as if under the control of an unseen force. Renzema takes it in stride. Was that a tic? “Not really. Okay, a little bit. But when I’m mentally engaged, I tic less.”
Renzema suggested that his Santana teachers watch a 2008 film about the neurological disorder called Front of the Class. Based on a book by Brad Cohen, Front of the Class: How Tourette Syndrome Made Me the Teacher I Never Had. Renzema loaned the school his own copy.
What kind of questions do his fellow students ask?
“Does it hurt? Does it get in the way of school work? Do you tic when you sleep? Does it go away? What can you do to calm it down?” People want to know if he can drive. “Yes. I got my license in June.”
I ask him about the one stereotype behavior we generally associate with Tourette syndrome.
“You mean cursing?”
Yes. “People,” I say, “really make fun of that one.”
Cursing is indeed a Tourette-associated tic. “Coprolalia is what it’s called. It’s a tic present in only about ten percent of persons with Tourette syndrome.”
I ask how he knows so much about the syndrome. “I Googled it.” He grins. “I actually only know a few people with Tourette’s. Oh, do you want to know how to spell Tourette syndrome?” he asks me.
No worries. I’ll Google it.
As a result of Josh’s efforts, Front of the Class and Renzema’s post-film question-and-answer sessions are now a routine part of Santana’s school year. He says he speaks to freshmen classes four times each semester. Was his motive self-preservation, education, or both? “A little of each,” he concedes. “Once I got to Santana, I realized how few people knew about Tourette’s. People are scared about things that are different. That’s not the way it should be. Tourette’s isn’t scary,” he says. He asks if I want to play a game of pool.
It turns out Renzema shoots pool the way he plays piano: flashy, self-assured, and with a high degree of accuracy. Even when he misses, he leaves me with no good shots. So he coaches me, tells me how he’d engineer all these bad angles he’s given me. More often than not, his advice is spot-on. I catch him up in points and then, I inadvertently sink the cue ball with what would have been the winning eight-ball shot. Game over.
Renzema offers a parting thought, “I realized I should keep doing this for the sake of education, to show people how much can be done despite the obstacle. I plan on coming back to Santana and continuing giving these talks after I graduate.”
“We saw you crossing the street,” Churro grins, “and we figured it was you, the writer, carrying that notebook.” Dibs nods his agreement. Dibs and Churro are sitting around one of those small birch tables just inside the front door of the Starbucks across from San Diego State University, more or less, a part of town where quarters are overcrowded and parking is governed by luck.
Churro is Jada Claiborne’s camp name. She’s a 20-year-old junior from Corona, says she’s a business marketing major. It’s a hot day; she is dressed accordingly in stylish cutoff jeans and a T-shirt. Dibs, dressed in a loose-fitting T-shirt, jeans, and sneakers, is Tyler Leptich, also 20, born and raised in San Diego. Business management is his major. Both are going to camp this summer at Cedar Glen, in Julian. They are part of an organization called Camp Kesem. Camp Kesem, Dibs explains, is all about the forgotten child. Dibs and Churro are camp counselors.
“This camp is for the group that is often overlooked,” Dibs says, “the children of parents who have cancer. There are plenty of resources and support for kids with cancer and families of kids with cancer, but there are no resources for the children of cancer victims.” Dibs would know. At the age of 11 he lost his father to lung cancer. “I went to camp that year.”
Churro: “In January, I lost an uncle to cancer. I don’t care whether you’re 10 or 20 years old, it’s hard to lose anyone to cancer.”
Dibs: “Camp Kesem was started at Stanford by one of their Hillel organizations.” (Hillel is a Jewish students’ group.) “I want to say 2001.” Camp Kesem is a community throughout the United States that is driven by college students, in support of children through and beyond their parent’s cancer with free year-round services. Camp Kesem’s website says that their main program is a week-long sleepaway summer camp.
Dibs: “The activities for the kids aren’t centered on their parents who have or had cancer. We do zip lining, have talent shows and other fun things that help put away all the stresses at home. You can be whoever you want to be for a week. I’d go back year after year because I was with my new family. There’s no better feeling. In camp, we form circles and we ask each other, ‘Why do you Kesem?’”
Churro: “Kesem, by the way, is a word that means magic in Hebrew.”
Dibs explains that there are 117 Camp Kesem chapters organized on college campuses throughout the country. In order to start up a new chapter, 35 students and 100 possible donors are required, this in addition to an online application and review.
Churro: “I thought it was amazing how the organization is student-run. It’s not college-run. It’s time-consuming. We’ve been working at it since last August.” The SDSU Camp Kesem is scheduled for the week of August 19. Food, transportation, staff, and the facilities are provided free of charge via fundraising for 15 to 25 campers. So far, Churro says their chapter has raised $30,000.
Dibs: “Our goal was $25,000.” A small smile curls his features. “There’s a waiting list of kids who can’t to go to camp.”
Churro: “I think, ‘Why not?’ All it takes is for students to want to help. Losing my uncle was really hard. No one tells you how to grieve, how to keep on. Me? I had to shift some things around. I dropped jobs and activities in order to re-organize my priorities. His death put things in perspective.”
“I run part of the craft table on the first Tuesday of every month at Ronald McDonald House. It’s right across the street from Rady Children’s Hospital.” Christo Anghel is 14 years old. He attends Nazareth Middle School. He and his parents and sister live in University Heights. “I occasionally do the dishes there too, for those who have eaten at Ronald McDonald House. Two separate activities.” It was his sister who introduced Christo Anghel to Ronald McDonald House. “My sister was in Rady. My mom went out to get food and I went with her, and I saw a lot of people, and they looked really happy.”
He says he asked if he could volunteer. That was in 2015, and he and his family have been volunteering ever since. “If they need an extra hand to do dishes, they’ll call, and if I have the time, we’ll go.” He says he spends upwards of three hours each month volunteering at Ronald McDonald House.
“I base the crafts we design for the children on things I find on the Internet. We base crafts on, like, if there’s a holiday close to when we go. Like if it’s Cinco de Mayo, Valentine’s Day, stuff like that.” The activity is designed to entertain the siblings of children who are in Rady Children’s Hospital for treatment. “It’s from 6 pm to 7:30 pm. I bring supplies for 25 children.”
He says he and his family foot the bill for the supplies. When I ask him for an example of a particular craft they’ve made, he tells me this: “Take two spoons and one of those plastic Easter-egg things. Fill the egg with some grains of rice. Tape the spoons together with colored duct tape with the egg in the concave parts of the spoons. It makes a maraca.
“I like talking to the kids. I’ve made a few friends as well. I enjoy helping them forget about all the stress. And the parents can eat dinner while their kids are being entertained.”
“All five of these homes are Habitat.” Nathan Rieck, from Wisconsin, hands me a white plastic hard hat. It’s early on a weekday morning. Hard hats are mandatory. This is an active construction site. Workers are hammering away above the roofline. Things get dropped. “Habitat” is Rieck’s shorthand for Habit for Humanity. From their web page: “Habitat for Humanity is a nonprofit organization that helps families build and improve places to call home. We believe affordable housing plays a critical role in strong and stable communities.”
Rieck and I meet out on the hardpan in front of a row of cookie-cutter split-levels in various stages of completion on a slice of land in El Cajon shadowed by the Magnolia Street overpass. Twenty-four years old and fresh out of college with an engineering degree, the bearded six-footer expounds on the Habitat for Humanity plan.
“Families have to apply. If accepted, we subsidize them so that their house payments aren’t more than 30 percent of their pay.” He shows me how to adjust the hardhat’s inner rigging so that it fits. “And the buyers have to donate 250 hours per adult,” he says, “doing labor, or helping out in some way until they move in.”
That’s the name of the game on a Habitat for Humanity job. Houses are raised through the joint efforts of pros and volunteers. And as with any construction, the work is subject to professional standards and permits and inspections. Rieck is paid a small stipend, he says, along with a lump-sum finishing bonus in exchange for his labor.
“I kind of landed here by luck. I started by volunteering. It was a great decision. I’m outside, doing good work, working with cool people. I could have been working for a weapons contractor,” he says, “but engineering and I aren’t a fit. Here, you know your work is going to a good place.”
He says he splits the rent on a place in Pacific Beach with his girlfriend.
“I’ve learned a lot so far. No, I’ve never done anything like construction work before. It’s definitely been worth my time.” He smiles while he talks. “There’s a chance I’d take on, like, a full-time job with Habitat, definitely when I retire. I’ll come back. A lot of retired guys with nothing to do with their time volunteer.”
As if on cue, a pair of senior men walk through the construction site, both wearing obligatory hard hats and carrying hand tools. Possibly the most famous of Habitat for Humanity volunteers is a 94-year-old Sunday school teacher and former U.S. President from Plains, Georgia named Jimmy Carter.
Has Nathan ever met Mr. Carter?
“No. But his name comes up a lot. They usually mention him in our safety meetings.” He chuckles kindly, as if there is some kind of back story behind the Carter mention during safety meetings, but I don’t pursue it. Rieck says five members of the El Cajon team are headed out to North Carolina next week, for a 10-homes-in-10-days build.
Is that possible? Ten homes in as many days?
He says yes. “Might even meet Jimmy Carter.”