Story by Bill Waddell | Illustrated by Beka Duke
Story © 2016 Bill Waddell – All Rights Reserved. | Illustrations © 2016 Beka Duke – All Rights Reserved.
The beach with her family was everything Anna had hoped it would be. Lots of fun playing with cousins and enjoying the sun, sand creations, and catching crabs.
It rained on the fourth day, but by that time everyone could use a break from the sun. Rainy days meant board games or movies. It was the only time all year that the whole family —grandparents, parents, siblings and cousins—did those things together. And it was great fun. Lovie would lose to the younger cousins just so they could win. Kappy sang goofy songs that described what was happening in the game before him but using a familiar tune. The grandchildren all tried to mimic him, and he and Lovie laughed with us when we got stuck and couldn’t make the words just right. After a few trips to the beach, the grandchildren considered it sport to try and beat Kappy to the punch.
On that rainy night, after all of the games had ended, Aunt Jessie, Aunt Grace, Kappy, Anna and Anna’s mom were sitting on the patio of the condo, listening to the waves and the ocean breeze. Anna’s phone buzzed and she saw a new message from Rocío. She had never responded to the one Rocío sent on the trip down to the beach.
Anna quickly responded that she was sorry about not responding but would talk to her on Monday when she got back from the beach. She asked Rocío if she wanted to get together and talk. Rocío replied, “I can’t. I have to watch my little sister and my little brother while my mom and dad are at work. Call me Tuesday morning at 501-383-1105.” Anna’s mother asked her who she was texting with and Anna said, “My friend, Rocío.”
Aunt Grace said, “Rocío Hernandez?”
“Yes,” said Anna.
“I didn’t know you and Rocío were friends. She was one of my best students in second grade,” Aunt Grace continued.
“She wants to talk about our Pledge of Allegiance summer project, the one I told you and Lovie about, Kappy. She told me to call her but the number is not the same as her mom’s cell phone.”
“Anna,” said Aunt Jessie, what’s the number she gave you?”
“That’s the church’s number,” said Aunt Jessie. “Maybe, Rocío doesn’t want you to know, but Rocío and her brother and sister come to the church every Monday through Friday for our Safe Haven. She and her brother and sister are waiting for me each morning when I arrive at the church. I think their mother drops them off on the way to work. I’m happy to see them every morning. Rocío is a good little momma, and Arora and Natán are precious. Have you met her little brother and sister?”
“No,” said Anna. “We only see each other at school. Her family doesn’t come to things at the school like PTA.”
Aunt Jessie and Aunt Grace glanced at each other before Jessie nodded to Grace to go ahead and explain.
Aunt Grace continued, “This may be hard for you to understand, but Rocío and her family have a hard time. They live in a camping trailer – the kind people pull behind a car. It’s the kind that pops up like a tent.”
“They live there all the time?” said Anna.
“How do they cook? How do they wash their clothes? How does Rocío do her homework?” asked Anna.
“It’s probably not easy, and I don’t really know,” said Aunt Jessie, “but we let them wash clothes at the church and we’ve offered to let them live in our mission house, but they are afraid.”
“Rocío and her sister and brother were all born in the United States so they are citizens. Rocío’s mother, Sara, was born in the United States but didn’t have a birth certificate. Because she was born at home and her parents moved around for work, her birth wasn’t registered with the state. A volunteer lawyer helped her get a judge to order the state to give her a birth certificate. Until then, she didn’t exist as far as the state was concerned.”
“So all of you know Rocío – and have helped her family?” asked Anna.
“Yes,” said Kappy, “all doing a little bit.”
“So why won’t they live in the mission house?”
“Like I said, they’re afraid. They’re afraid that if someone knows where they live, the dad will be sent back to El Salvador, since he is not a U.S. citizen,” said Aunt Jessie. “Right now, their camper is parked at the old sawmill on Chicago Mill Road,” added Aunt Grace. “The owner is a member of Aunt Jessie’s church and they are pretty sure no one will bother them there. He drops by from time to time to check on them. The church and the school are their safety net. They know they can always come to us, but they don’t know whether someone may cause problems for them by calling the sheriff. So we offer help and let them accept what they want. We don’t force anything on them.”
“And don’t forget the help from the legal aid lawyers,” added Kappy. “Without Kevin and Harry, Rocío’s family would have a lot of other problems to deal with. Getting the birth certificate and health insurance were all their doing.”
Anna was bewildered by all of this new information. She sat silently, worried about Rocío and her family – worried about things she had never thought about before. It explained a lot though. Rocío made good grades and was one of the neatest girls in the class. “How could she be like that, living in a camper trailer?” she wondered to herself.
Aunt Jessie couldn’t help but notice. “I hope we didn’t tell you too much,” she said, “but Rocío is a very special girl and now that you understand, you can be the best friend she could ever have.”
Anna didn’t say anything but wondered what it would be like to sleep in a pop-up camper tonight instead of their condo. And what was it like when it was cold or rainy? She finally broke her silence with a question, “Why would a school and a church and a lawyer do this for Rocío and her family?”
Aunt Jessie answered first. “It’s who we are as a church. We reach out to those in need and share God’s love. There are a lot of Rocíos, Aroras and Natáns out there, and I’m grateful that my church members want to touch each one of them.”
Aunt Grace chimed in, “Students may think that we teachers are just making them do work, but we care about them and see their potential. We want each of them to succeed and that often means helping them when they are not at school so they can do their best while at school. I used to worry about Rocío and her family every day when she left my class.”
Kappy, happy but moved just to be a part of this conversation with his granddaughter, could only say, “Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity, Anna, including Rocío and her family. I want to make sure that happens for families like Rocío’s.”
Aunt Jessie ended the conversation with an invitation for Anna to join her on Tuesday at Safe Haven. “Can I?” Anna asked her mother. “Yes, Annie,” said her mother, who was also moved by Rocío’s story. Anna jumped in her mother’s lap and hugged her tight before heading off to bed.
On Tuesday, Anna’s mother dropped her off at the church. Aunt Jessie saw her and called her name. Standing next to Aunt Jessie were Rocío, Arora and Natán. She ran to them and hugged Aunt Jessie. Rocío said, “This is my sister, Arora, and my brother, Natán.” “Hi,” said Anna.
Anna noticed other kids from her school. She also noticed a lot of adults who were sitting in chairs organized into loose rows in the corner of the large room.
“I thought Safe Haven was for kids,” said Anna.
“It is,” said Aunt Jessie, “but two days a month volunteer lawyers come here to help people with their legal problems.”
“Well, sometimes people can only afford to live in an inexpensive place that is not clean and safe. Two months ago, there was a woman here with her two children. One of the children had asthma and had to be treated in the hospital. The doctor told her that there was mold or something unhealthy like cockroaches in their apartment that was making his asthma worse. She needed her lease deposit back to be able to rent another apartment, but the landlord refused to give it to her. A volunteer lawyer met with her and then met with the landlord. The landlord refunded the deposit and the family moved. Arturo over there is the little boy with asthma. He’s playing up a storm now.”
“One of them helped my mother,” said Rocío. “We feel safer now.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Anna saw Kappy greeting one of the people in the chairs. “Kappy!” shouted Anna. Kappy smiled and waved, but Anna could see that he was busy right then. Her time would come at lunch.
Aunt Jessie took the hands of Arora and Natán and said, “We’re going to play over here. You two can catch up.”
“Rocío,” said Anna, “I didn’t know about your family. I’m sorry. I should’ve talked to you more. I should’ve been a better friend.”
“My mom wouldn’t let me tell anyone. She’s still scared someone will take my dad and she’ll lose us kids because we live in a trailer.”
Neither of them knew what to say next. After a few moments of silence, Anna said, “So have you finished our fifth grade homework?”
“Almost. I’ve done the Pledge part, but I still need to do the palindrome part. Have you?”
“I’ve done the palindromes, but I haven’t started the other one. Since Aunt Jessie has your brother and sister, let’s look for palindromes here.”
On the walls of the room were Spanish and English words side by side. “There,” pointed Anna.”That word ‘oso’, is a palindrome.”
Rocío excitedly said, “Yeah, ‘oso’ means ‘bear.’ There’s another one, ‘efe’, ‘F’ in Spanish.”
“And what’s that word ‘somos’ mean?”
“‘We are.’ This is easier than I thought,” said Rocío. “Do you think the fifth grade teachers will count Spanish words?”
“I don’t know,” said Anna, “but let’s find more than fifty, just in case.”
At lunch, Kappy sat with Anna, Rocío, Arora and Natán. “So are you and Rocío having fun?” he asked.
“Yes, yes, YES! I love Rocío! I want to come back tomorrow!”
“We’ll have to talk to your mother about that, but I’m sure you and Rocío will get together again soon.”
“Kappy,” said Anna, “why was Mr. Johnson, Asa’s daddy, helping you and the other lawyers today? He’s not a lawyer, is he?”
“No, he’s not, but there are a lot of business people who care about helping families like Rocío’s. Scott is one of them. Some of those people we were helping today work for his shoe company. Others buy shoes at his outlet store. So by helping them, he helps his own employees and the people who buy the shoes his company makes. But it’s much more than that to him. He tells me every month when he volunteers that he just can’t ignore the people he meets.
He looks forward to greeting them here and taking down information about their problems. He’s much better at all of that than I am. Many times, he’s got their problems worked out before they come to see the lawyers. Carlye’s dad feels the same way. He works at the bank, and he encourages his employees to work with us a half day every other month to answer questions about loans and credit cards and things like that.”
Anna had more questions to ask, but Natán saw Aunt Jessie leading in a mother sheep and her baby lamb and bolted from the table toward the animals.
“Children,” said Aunt Jessie, “today we have special guests – a mother sheep, called a ‘ewe,’ and her baby called a ‘lamb.’ As everyone crowded around Aunt Jessie, Anna’s questions faded and she was soon anxiously waiting her turn to pet the “ewe” and her baby boy, “Bo.”
The following Thursday, Anna’s mother and Aunt Jessie had arranged for Anna to join Rocío at the Safe Haven for a second time. To make things more convenient, Anna spent Wednesday night with Aunt Jessie and her family. When she arrived at Aunt Jessie’s house, she had a surprise. Rocío was there to spend the night as well.
“Rocío!” shouted Anna as they ran to each other and hugged. Aunt Jessie smiled as she watched them immediately begin to tell the other about what was happening in their lives. Aunt Grace had given Anna a gift for Rocío, and it was the size of a small suitcase. Rocío opened it with excitement and discovered a new backpack and shouted, “Mochila!” But there was more. Inside was a book about dogs, a headband, and a t-shirt that was just like the one Anna’s mother had packed for Anna to wear the next day.
Anna was excited now. “We’ll be twinkies,” she exclaimed, and Rocío smiled.
At supper, Uncle Trenton began his “Question of the Day” game for all of the kids. “Today’s question is ‘If I had to decide right now, I would want my job to be….'”
Anna was relieved. Most of the time, his questions were silly, like “If I had to decide to be an animal, I would be…” or “If I had to change my name, I would choose…” But the last time she was at their house for a meal, it was “If I had to hold hands on the playground with a boy in my school, it would be…” Eewww! So this question was neither silly or yucky, and that was good.
Aunt Jessie’s daughter, Rachel, who would be in the first grade in the fall, said she would be an airplane pilot. Everyone at the table but Rocío knew this was probably because Rachel had recently traveled with Aunt Jessie to Chicago and the female pilot talked to her when Rachel was leaving the plane. Her answer might change tomorrow, but she was quick with her answer today, and Anna thought Rachel was more certain than Anna would be.
Uncle Trenton saw the family dog, Otto, begging for food from four-year-old Julie and said, “Otto, what do you want your job to be?” Otto barked “woof” as Julie dropped a couple of her unwanted green beans, and Uncle Trenton said, “Otto said he wants to be either a ‘wolf’ or a vacuum cleaner; he’s not sure.” Everyone laughed, as they often did when Uncle Trenton was hosting his “Question of the Day” game.
To no one’s surprise, Julie said she wanted to be a “doggie walker,” which the family understood to mean that she wanted to be like the professional dog walker who passed their house three times a day with six dogs of all sizes. Julie cared for Otto, but she always wanted more dogs and had recently asked Aunt Grace if she could borrow her new pup, Tucker, so she could have two dogs to walk at the same time.
It was Anna’s turn next. Before anyone could ask her the question, she piped up, “I’ve always liked to draw and design things, so if I had to choose today, I would be an architect. But how long do you have to go to college to be an architect? That might change my mind.” Aunt Jessie turned to Rocío. “Rocío, you don’t have to play our game if you don’t want to, but we would love to hear what job you would choose if you’re willing to tell us.” Rocío hesitated and then said softly, “I want to do a job where I can help people like my family.”
“That’s not a job,” said Rachel.
“Yes, it is,” said Aunt Jessie. “Helping people is what people do in a lot of different jobs. It is a lot of jobs – and a way of life.”
“Like your job,” said Anna.
“Yes, that’s right,” said Aunt Jessie, “and Aunt Grace’s job as a teacher and Kappy’s job as a lawyer. All jobs involve helping people in one way or another.”
Uncle Trenton asked Rocío, “How would you want to help people if you had to decide today?”
“I want to help people like my family,” said Rocío quietly. Sensing that Rocío’s answer was heartfelt and serious and not in the playful off-the-cuff spirit of Uncle Trenton’s “game,” Aunt Jessie told her in a comforting tone that she liked Rocío ‘s answer and teased Uncle Trenton about what job he would choose.
Uncle Trenton, always the fun one, said, “Justin Bieber,” and everyone laughed.
About the Author
Bill is a lawyer who has made pro bono cases a priority in his practice for more than thirty years. “The original purpose of this story was twofold. I wrote this as a loving tribute to my wife, Patty, and my three daughters, Jessie, Grace and Anna. My second purpose was to provide a resource for children and their adults, whether that be parents, grandparents, or teachers, to begin exploring why ‘justice for all’ is an important cultural value for everyone.”
Story by Bill Waddell | Illustrations by Beka Duke