Befriending the Outcasts

by | May 12, 2024 | My Wild and Precious Life

Bind up the brokenhearted and proclaim liberty to the captives. Isaiah 61:1

 In January of 1989 I took Matt and his good friend, Brandon Roach, to go skiing at Bear Valley. That’s where we all skied when we had our vacation home in the charming little mountain town of Murphys nestled in the hills of Mark Twain’s gold country. Matt loved it there and I thought a ski trip to his favorite mountain with his good friend would bring a bit of normalcy and enjoyment to his life, turned upside down since I left his father. We stayed at the historic Murphys Hotel.

The first evening we ate in the beautiful hotel dining room with walls filled with old photos from the gold rush days. After dinner, the boys wanted to play games in our room upstairs. So I went downstairs for a nightcap and to listen to the live music. Before long a nice looking man, Donald Baptista, asked me to dance. We enjoyed each other’s company and danced all evening. The boys and I stayed in Murphys and skied at Bear Valley for several days.

We returned to our home in Fresno after our excursion and Donald and I began to date. He was a general contractor in a large subdivision outside of Murphys called Forest Meadows, and had built many beautiful homes there. Coincidently, Forest Meadows is the same subdivision where Larry and I had our vacation home. Most of the time, Donald would drive the two hours from Murphys to Fresno and he would stay in a hotel for a few days at a time. Sometimes I would make the drive to Murphys to see him.

I relished spending time with Donald and I loved being back in Murphys. Our relationship developed quickly and in August of 1989 we married. Following our wedding ceremony at the enchanting Northwest Church chapel in Fresno, we moved into a house Donald built in Forest Meadows. Matt, who was about 13 at the time, moved in with us. The house was two stories with the master bedroom, kitchen, and living room upstairs. Downstairs was the family room and Matt’s bedroom overlooking the beautiful golf course. He enjoyed having such a nice large area all to himself.

Thinking back honestly, I probably married Donald as a way to get Larry to stop asking me to come back. But Donald actually gave me an unexpected gift. Right from the beginning he asked my opinion about things—the houses he was building, various aspects of his business dealings and the financing for his projects. He even invited me to come with him for a few client meetings.

No one had ever asked my opinion about things like this, so I was quite flattered. Eventually I realized that he honestly wanted to know what I thought about things—he wasn’t just being kind or polite.

Unfortunately, after some time I realized Donald had some disturbing issues. He was addicted to prescription drugs. He was also not as accepting of Matt as I would have liked, even though Matt was very easy going. Donald seemed to enjoy criticizing Matt about insignificant issues (like how much noise he made when he put the toilet seat down).

I began to notice how critical he was of most other people including his ex-wife and his two grown daughters. I don’t have much patience for negative thinkers and it seemed that, unfortunately, I had married one.

All in all, I soon recognized Donald was not the right match for me and we divorced in June of 1993. About a year before the actual divorce, I realized it was not going to be a long-term relationship and I would have to find a job that could support Matt and me.


I decided to look for a job as executive director of a nonprofit in California. I had never written a resume before, but figured I would list the organizations I founded in Kingsburg, Murphys and Fresno and give myself the title of executive director. I also decided that if anyone during the job interview asked if I was paid for this work, I would truthfully say no, but if they didn’t ask, I would not challenge their false assumption.

I began to scan the newspapers for potential opportunities. I quickly found an announcement for a position with CAPC. I didn’t have any idea what the acronym stood for but I sent in my resume.

One day I received an exciting phone call. “Hello, this is Marianne with the Child Abuse Prevention Council in Stockton. We would like to schedule an interview with you for our executive director opening.” I was thrilled and horrified at the same time. Thrilled because it was exactly the type of position I was looking for and it was only a little over an hour’s drive from home. Horrified because of my personal history with child abuse.

Just around this time I was starting to remember the abuse that happened to me in my youth.  “I can’t work there!” I thought to myself. “I’m sure as soon as they see me, they will know I’ve been abused.”

But I told Marianne I would love to schedule an interview. I was hired within a few days in June of 1990 and began my next life adventure.

My friends in Murphys were horrified when they heard I would be working in Stockton, known for its violence and poverty. And, as it turned out, my CAPC office was located in the middle of downtown right in the high crime area. In fact, the salesman for my first cell phone purchase pointed out that an added benefit was it could be used as a weapon since it was so large and heavy. I actually practiced holding it just right to knock someone’s head if I had to.

 “There must be at least one good thing about Stockton,” I thought. “I will find it and focus on it.” That’s how I found the Catfish Café which became my favorite restaurant and place of respite.

Stockton is a 70-mile inland seaport with brackish water and the Catfish Café floated right on the delta. I would often sit on the deck and watch as huge ocean-going ships unloaded their cargo. Once empty, a tiny tugboat would push the ship’s stern and, little by little, the huge ship would be turned around in the narrow channel and headed back out to sea. It was a remarkable sight and a powerful metaphor for life.


At first, I commuted by driving the hour and fifteen minutes from Murphys to Stockton and back every day. After a couple months of this grueling schedule, I made arrangements to rent an apartment in Stockton and spend a couple of nights a week there. Donald accepted this plan, but I felt a bit uncomfortable leaving Matt alone with Donald so much.

I felt there was a good chance I would be leaving Donald since I had increasingly strong instincts that I wouldn’t be able to stay with him. I began to take a few more pieces of clothing and other personal items each time I went to Stockton. I did it gradually so he wouldn’t notice. I knew Donald would not be happy with the idea of me leaving him for good. I bided my time until I felt I had as many things out of our house as I needed.

Now I was ready, but I tried to act normally so he wouldn’t suspect anything.

One night Donald had a little too much to drink, so I drove us home from dinner at our favorite restaurant, Sequoia Woods Resort in Arnold. Donald had never been violent with me in any way, but on the drive home he said, “A lot of guys, if they had a wife like you, would get a gun and shoot her.” You can imagine how stunned I was after that comment. I kept a calm demeanor and put him to bed as soon as we got home.

I was pretty nervous since I realized I really didn’t know him that well or know what he was capable of. But I didn’t want to worry Matt. So as soon as Matt went to bed in his downstairs bedroom next to the family room, I tiptoed into his room and opened his bedroom door just a bit. Then I took my pillow and blanket and went to sleep on the family room couch downstairs. I figured if Donald decided to do something to me I could scream and Matt would wake up. But if nothing happened, at least I would be safe.

The next day I told Donald I would not be coming home any more. He was shocked and pretty upset and refused to let me take the last of my possessions. I was relieved to be driving away from my life with him for the last time. He was determined that I would not receive anything of a financial nature from him.

He gave me a quit claim deed on our house to sign, which I did willingly. I didn’t want anything from him. I just wanted out. I wanted my peaceful life back.

Donald also tried to get the court to force me to pay him alimony. Since he was usually paid under the table, there was no official record of his earnings. Thankfully, the court declined and I was free.


Matt and I enjoyed our time in Stockton. He got his driver’s license and a car and soon he had a job as a bus boy at the local pizza restaurant. He was even paying for his own gas and insurance. I was proud that Matt was becoming such a responsible adult. After about two years, though, that all changed.

Matt came to me one day and said he wanted to go back to Fresno to live with his dad. I didn’t think that was a good idea because I knew he wouldn’t have the kind of individual support there that I was giving him. I also knew, though, that I would not be able to change his mind. To this day, I think this was Larry’s way of getting back at me for leaving him. He knew how much Matt meant to me.

I was so sad the day Matt left me to go to Fresno because, at age 17, he was so close to creating a solid, productive life for himself. Now, I thought he was throwing it all away. This seemed out of the blue and I tried to encourage him to reconsider. I pointed out to Matt that he wouldn’t have anyone to support him in Fresno, he would be just another brother. I felt abandoned and a bit betrayed because I had worked so hard to help him build a solid life for himself.

Years later I learned that instead of living with Larry, Matt was forced to live with his brother Baird because Larry’s wife would not agree for Matt to live with them. Matt told me that that’s when his drug use began. Baird was heavily involved with drugs and quickly Matt began using marijuana. For both boys the drug use escalated to methamphetamine. I suspect this initiated a deterioration of life that has plagued Baird and Matt for years.


I was really enjoying my work at CAPC. As the executive director, I provided moral and administrative support for all of our counselors who worked with the troubled families. I also served as spokesperson in the community, presenting our story at local Rotary clubs, building relationships with potential donors and soliciting support from local businesses.

It was quite a departure from my previous life, but I loved it all. Our 24-hour crisis nursery provided a safe haven for abused and neglected children from 0-12 years old. Sometimes we had drug-exposed infants who were so tiny that it seemed their bottle was bigger than they were. We also provided in-home support and respite for families with an abusive history as well as classes for parents who were ordered by the court to learn how to be better parents.

On more than one occasion I was called in the middle of the night to rescue children and staff from an angry parent who was trying to remove a child from our nursery. As soon as I arrived, I would have everyone stand back from the windows, draw the blinds, lock the doors and remain calm. Once I assured everyone they would be safe, I would call law enforcement if the parent was out of control or, on a couple of occasions, actively trying to break down the door. It was quite a wild ride at times, but I found it very rewarding.

It was during my tenure at CAPC that I sought out counseling as a way to help me process the sexual abuse I endured from my step-father as a child. Through the counseling sessions, I learned about the possibility of confronting my abuser. It was not recommended in all situations but it seemed to make sense for me.

In preparation for the confrontation of my dad, I wrote a one-page letter to him. I used the “sandwich approach” by beginning the letter with my thanks to him for all he had done for me and my family, then saying that the things he did to me as a child were very hurtful and ending with a reminder of how grateful I was for how he took care of me and my family. I also said I wanted him to pay for my psychotherapy.

I made an appointment with my therapist to discuss my plan for confronting my dad. When she read my letter she cried saying, “This is the most beautiful and loving letter I’ve ever read,” she said. She cautioned me to be prepared for any eventuality. I wasn’t sure exactly what she meant but I tried to be ready for any response he might have to the letter. I had read that most perpetrators deny the abuse, so I was prepared for that response.

I went to visit my parents at my childhood home in Manhattan Beach on Labor Day weekend in 1991 when I was 45 years old. I told my mom that she should go take a walk or do an errand because I needed to speak with my dad alone. She was displeased when I told her the subject matter, but I think she could tell I was determined so she left in a huff.

I walked down the long hallway to the family room where I found my dad sitting in his favorite recliner. After closing the heavy wooden door to the rest of the house and locking the latch I said, “Daddy I have a letter I’d like you to read. You can read it aloud or silently but when you finish I’d like to discuss it.”

I sat down on the chair next to his and tried not to look at him. He read the letter to himself and then took a big sigh. “I always felt bad about that,” he said. “I guess I always felt like I owned you, like you were my property. Do you think the therapy will help?” I said it seemed to be helping and I’d like to stay with counseling. He agreed to pay for it. I got up from the chair, unlocked the door and walked back down the hallway. I felt relieved to have finished the confrontation and proud of myself for having the courage to follow through.

Shortly after that my mother returned. As usual no one mentioned anything about the session. I felt like a huge burden had been lifted from my shoulders. I had successfully completed the confrontation. He had not denied it. And I was going to get more counseling.


Another powerful memory for me was when I spent time inside the state men’s prison called Duel Vocational Institute (DVI) in Tracy, California. At the time all state prisons were required to do something to raise funds for victims of violence. CAPC qualified to receive these funds.

I quickly became acquainted with the Arts in Corrections program where inmates would make paintings, woodwork and sculpture to sell to generate funds for us. I could see the potential for increased donations to CAPC if the inmates felt inspired. I decided to go to DVI to find out more and to encourage higher production.

The first time I went there they issued me a laminated photo ID pass and informed me that if there was ever a lockdown they would not bargain for my safety. For some reason, this warning didn’t really bother me. I was focused on helping the inmates generate more funds for CAPC.

The prison housed 4,000 inmates but only 200 participated in the Arts in Corrections program. I went to this special area of the prison about once each month for nearly five years. I was impressed by the high quality of their art work and they were inspired by my stories of the children they were helping through their efforts. Each year their art generated more funds than the year before.


One day a prison employee who they called “Coach” told me that some of the other inmates had heard about how the arts program was generating donations for abused children. They decided to generate funds by doing a run and lift-a-thon.

The coach invited me into their high-tech studio to make a video that he could use to encourage inmates to join the effort. I happily agreed. Looking into the camera, I told them all about the children they would be helping and thanked them in advance for their caring and support. Just as I was about to leave, the coach asked, “Will you come out to help us count laps for the event?”

I stumbled a bit not knowing what that would entail, but I didn’t want to say something like, “No just call me when the check is ready,” so I said, “Sure.”

The day arrived for the run and lift-a-thon and my lap counting duties. When I arrived at the prison, a guard met me and began to escort me to the appointed site. We walked along a part of the facility that was unfamiliar to me.

“Have you ever been to the yard?” he asked. When I said no, he patted his gun and said, “Well watch yourself out here. It’s where all the action happens. But don’t worry, I’m committed to protect you with my life.”

As he said this, he opened a very large chain link fence and I gazed out onto a huge expanse of ground. All 4,000 inmates were out there and it felt like every eyeball was on me. I had to walk across the entire field for my lap counting duties. I had never been so scared in all my life! But I knew that I shouldn’t show fear. So I walked without making eye contact with anyone, pretending I was taking a walk in the park. Thankfully it was a chilly day so I was wearing a large coat.

When I was just getting the hang of my lap counting, the guard who had escorted me and vowed to protect me with his life told the coach he was going back. The coach reminded him he was supposed to stay and protect me. “Oh she’ll be fine,” he said. “I have things to do.” And off he went across the field leaving me alone with the thousands of intimidating inmates. I tried my best to act nonchalant.

Soon, a group of six very large inmates came over to my area and asked if they could speak with me. I was pretty nervous but agreed. We walked a little ways away from the track and the spokesman for the group said, “We saw your video, Miss Cynder, and we want to thank you for letting us be part of raising money for the children.”

I was thrilled and near tears as I realized I was probably safer out there in the middle of the prison than I was on the streets by my office in downtown Stockton. When the event was over, I walked across the field with a very different mindset than I had earlier especially when many of the inmates greeted me with, “Thank you Miss Cynder.”


After Matt left Stockton to move to Fresno, I decided to buy a house. My realtor, Floyd Bryan, did an excellent job for me and became a good friend—and later even a boyfriend for two years. My new home was a sweet little duplex located in the north of town in the middle of lots of water fountains and trees. It felt like my own little oasis, and I was thrilled that I was able to buy it on my own.

I planted lots of flowers, bushes and even a small Japanese maple tree with the help of my new friendly gardener, Joe. The back yard had lots of grass, flower beds and a covered patio with a cute table and chairs. I even bought a barbeque and taught myself how to use it (since only Larry and the boys did the barbequing when we lived at the ranch).

While at CAVC I worked closely with our program director, Dee Ptak, who became my very good friend. Dee and I took many fun-filled trips to Washington D.C. to fulfill the requirements of a federal grant we had written and successfully received. Four years in a row we attended the National Council on Child Abuse and Family Violence (NCCAFV) meetings, interacting with hundreds of professionals from around the country. What an opportunity this was for learning, collaboration and relationship building. These experiences allowed me to really progress as a nonprofit executive.

My last and most touching moment at CAPC was when Katie,  a 10-year-old girl being cared for at our crisis nursery, asked if she could walk with me to the “big house” (which is what they called my office area which was just across a short walkway).  

Katie and her younger sister were removed from her mother’s custody because police found them living in their car and her drug-addicted mother was selling sex with her children for drugs. As Katie and I walked along the pathway she tried to muster up a brave spirit. “I have a home, you know,” she said. “And I’ll go there someday. I just don’t know where it is.” I was speechless and, with a heavy heart, I gave her a big hug and assured her she was right.


After I had been at CAPC for five years, I began to yearn for a more positive working environment. I loved my work there, but it was beginning to take a toll on me. Most days I was able to juggle the two disparate functions of my job: 1) supporting and encouraging the staff as they worked with abused children and neglectful and/or violent parents and 2) communicating our message to the community to solicit financial support.

One evening though, I was at home reviewing a video designed to train my staff on recognition and response to signs and symptoms of child abuse. I became overwhelmed with sadness and began to cry. I realized in that moment that I had reached the limit of my ability to be objective in this work. It hit too close to home for me. I don’t know what tipped the scales for me because I had not struggled with the dichotomy in the past. But I knew I needed to work somewhere with a more positive mission.

So when I saw a job announcement for CEO for a regional Girl Scout council based in Santa Barbara in June of 1995, I decided to throw my hat in the ring. I liked the idea of working for Girl Scouts because I’d enjoyed my own time in Girl Scouts when I was a kid. I also liked the idea of living in Santa Barbara because it was closer to my parents’ house in Manhattan Beach.

But I didn’t necessarily have a great impression of Santa Barbara. Perhaps I had driven through there once on a foggy day. “I think Santa Barbara is sort of a dreary place,” I thought to myself. “But I’m sure I can find one thing to like about it and focus on that, like I did in Stockton.” It wasn’t too long before I discovered what a beautiful place Santa Barbara is.

Before leaving Stockton and CAPC, I wanted to bid farewell to several people, including the inmates at DVI. We had built a very trusting relationship with each other and I didn’t want them to feel abandoned. I also wanted to make sure that they kept working hard to raise needed funds for CAPC. So one afternoon I drove the 20 miles to the prison. When I went inside they said the same thing they said every time I went there, “Remember that if there is a lock down we won’t bargain for your safety.”

I acknowledged their comment and proceeded to walk inside with the heavy gate clinking solidly behind me. I went directly to the arts room but instead of the usual 200 guys, there were only about half that number. When I asked the reason, they said some of the people had been caught in a lockdown. “After I say my farewell to the guys in the art room I will need to go to that lockdown place, I told the instructor.” He looked perplexed but said he would check with Anna, the warden.

As I began to tell the guys who were in the room that I would be moving away. Without a word, several of them went to corners of the room to gather some of their creations from secret hiding places. One guy got a cardboard box with some newspapers. One by one the inmates gave me one of their treasures, sometimes writing their name on the bottom so I wouldn’t forget them. They carefully wrapped each one and placed it inside the box.

One of these pieces sits on the mantle in my home today. It’s a beautiful wooden bowl and on the bottom the inmate, whose nick name was Hippy, carved the message: “Always keep smiling and stay happy and don’t forget me. Love, Hippy.”

Then someone brought some folding chairs and placed them around in the center of the room, forming a circle. After we all were seated, they began telling me, one by one, what they appreciated about me and what they will miss after I’m gone. Some of them cried (which is never done in prison for fear of reprisal).

Several of them said, “You are the only person in my life who saw me as just a regular person rather than a criminal.” The messages were so powerful. I felt honored to know them and humbled that they would share their feelings so deeply with me.

By now the warden gave permission for a guard to escort me to the areas of the prison that were locked down. I had never been in these spaces before and I was a little nervous but I dutifully followed along, knowing I couldn’t leave without telling all of them goodbye.

The first area was a double decker level of cells. “Taqua,” a tall thin Black guy with a gold front tooth was the self-appointed town crier. He ran up and down the aisles exclaiming, “Miss Cynder is here, Miss Cynder is here. She wants to see you!”

When they want to show respect, they button their prison-issued blue shirts all the way to the top. When 22 of the inmates from this cell block came down the stairs to see me, they all had their shirts buttoned to the top and their hair slicked back with water. They looked like a bunch of little boys ready for mom to give them a treat.

I explained that I had to leave and I would miss them. I thanked them for all the work they did to raise funds for the children. I reminded them that, even though we were all close, they made and sold their art for the children, not for me. I encouraged them to do even more after I left. They all agreed and took turns telling me how much they would miss me.

Next it was time to go to another lockdown area. This time there was only one inmate. His name was Larry. His shirt was buttoned to the top too. He said, “Thank you for this very special moment in time.” Later I thought how unusual it must have been for these guys to have a visitor when many of their friends and family had long forgotten them. And this visitor asked for them by name.

After one more lockdown area, it was time to go. As I walked outside into the cool night air, I felt thankful for the time I had spent with these guys and glad I could have been an encouragement to them in their time of distress.


A month after applying for the job with Girl Scouts, they invited me for an interview. Janice Kroekel, the board president, invited me to have dinner with her after my interview. We agreed to meet at the Harbor Restaurant on Stern’s Wharf. When I pulled into the valet area, I quickly noticed there was some sort of altercation taking place a few yards from the restaurant’s front door.

A man was standing next to his frightened wife who was holding their toddler’s hand. The father was holding a stroller with a crying baby. I could tell the man was agitated and near a breaking point. As he yelled at his wife he picked up the stroller handles and smashed it down on the ground for emphasis, making the baby cry even louder.

I knew from my time at CAPC that agitated abusers can get so caught up in their strong emotions that they think no one notices them. I felt helpless because I was there for a job interview. I didn’t want to cause a scene and the man hadn’t done anything violent yet. But I also didn’t want to abandon the wife and children to potential harm.

So, I turned to the valet as I gave him my key and said, “If that man over there does something bad like hit his wife or one of the kids, you will call 911, right?”

He looked up, noticed the little family and quickly agreed. I knew that sometimes people just need for someone else to give them permission to act. Then as I walked into the restaurant, I gave the same message to the hostess who greeted me. She looked out the glass doors, saw the family and nodded in agreement. After an enjoyable dinner with Janice we walked outside to an empty sidewalk. I prayed for that sweet little family.

For the first several weeks I stayed in a nearby hotel and began to look for an apartment. “There’s an empty apartment next to where my husband and I live,” Janice said. “Come by today after work and see it.” I loved it and moved in right away.

At first I was a bit apprehensive about living next door to my board president but I soon realized it was a perfect arrangement. We all had fun together—sharing wine on each other’s deck and visiting back and forth. Her husband, Paul, even did some occasional repairs for me. I lived there for two delightful years.

My work at Girl Scouts of Tres Condados, which served the three counties of San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura, proved to be inspiring, fun and demanding. With over 10,000 girl members, 4,000 adult volunteers and a staff of 30 (that grew to 50 during summer camp), I was pretty busy. We had an office in each of the three counties, a 36-acre day camp property in Ventura County with several large buildings (Camp Arnaz Program Center) and an 18-acre summer camp named Camp Tecuya in the mountains near Frazier Park, complete with several cabins and a swimming pool.

I enjoyed spending time with the girls and their various activities, showing my appreciation to the volunteers and encouraging and training the staff. One memory that stands out for me at Camp Tecuya involves a very large mountain lion. The National Forest Service ranger said I was lucky to be here after that encounter.

I drove up to Tecuya toward the end of summer to help close up our summer camp where we typically served 200 girls. After spending the night in one of the cabins, I got up early the next morning, earlier than the rest of the staff. I decided to go for a hike in the hills behind our camp which was at 5,000 feet elevation. I grabbed my plastic water bottle and off I went. After climbing about five miles I decided to sit on a large rock and enjoy some water from my bottle. Just as I was about to sit down, I spotted a very large mountain lion just a few yards in front of me. There was nothing between us except a very small bush.

I’ve been well-trained in outdoor survival so I knew what I should do—make noise, wave my arms over my head and act big. I couldn’t make myself do any of it. I was frozen with fear. I couldn’t move as I watched him for signs indicating whether he saw me or not. His body was on a diagonal from me and he seemed to be gazing out over the hill.

Next I did what you should never do—I turned around and ran with my heart nearly pounding out of my chest. As I was running I decided I should keep an eye on the trail so I didn’t fall and look over my shoulder frequently to make sure the lion wasn’t chasing me. Soon I realized that if the lion wanted to get me he wouldn’t follow the trail, he would go straight after me. So I just put my head down and continued running.

When I got to the bottom of the hill, the staff were awake and one of the National Forest Rangers was there to greet me. When I told him about seeing the mountain lion he said, “Boy are you lucky!” When I looked puzzled he explained, “We knew there was a lion up there because we’ve seen his footprints, but none of us has actually seen him, so you are lucky you saw him. Oh, and you are also lucky he didn’t come after you.”  I felt relieved and then a bit ashamed as several of my staff chastised me for going on the hike alone rather than taking a buddy, which is the Girl Scout way. I agreed it probably wasn’t a smart thing to do, but I secretly knew I would probably do it again.


The next year I drove the two hours up the mountain to help open camp for the summer season. Every year we hauled a trailer full of eight canoes down the mountain to Lake Ming so the girls could use them during the summer. Camp counselors would make the hour drive to the lake with carloads of girls because there was no body of water at or near our camp. Since I was the only one who knew how to pull a trailer, I agreed to drive the trailer full of canoes to the lake.

The newly hired camp caretaker and his assistant loaded the canoes onto the trailer and hooked the trailer to our big diesel truck. My first mistake was not double checking the hitch hookup. I didn’t do this for fear that the new caretaker might think I didn’t trust him. So off I went along with my program director, Linda Reed, riding shotgun. My second mistake was leaving a little later than I should have to make the hour plus drive.

By the time we got to the top of the Grapevine it was already getting dark. All of a sudden I saw sparks from my rear-view mirror. I knew something was wrong and tried to assess the situation while driving in the dark next to big rigs that seemed to pack several lanes.

I saw the trailer swerve and knew it had come lose from the hitch. Linda was jumping up and down in her seat shouting for me to pull over immediately. I tried to tune her out because I knew I had to pull over very slowly to avoid a jackknife situation or a collision with one of the big trucks. I gradually pulled off to the side of the road and stopped only when I knew we were completely off of the freeway.

Now here we were in the dark, on the top of the Grapevine with big rig trucks whizzing by and a heavy trailer hanging from the hitch by the chain. We dug around in the truck’s side storage area and found the tire jack, carefully positioning it under the trailer’s edge as close to the hitch as possible. We started to pump the jack, keeping an eye on the trailer to make sure it didn’t topple over.

Finally, we got the trailer in place near the hitch and shoved it hard. Once we heard the loud clunk sound we knew it was in position. We locked it and reattached the chain, making sure it was all secure. I got in the driver’s seat and ever so carefully drove back onto the highway. We pulled off the road as soon as we got to a service station, about five miles ahead. The bright station lights welcomed us and I breathed a little easier.

We explained the situation to the manager and he agreed we could leave the trailer with him overnight so he could check it out. Next we called camp and asked one of the staff to come pick us up. The next day someone drove us back to the truck so I could drive the canoes down to the lake. I learned a lesson that day—always double check the trailer hook-up—especially if I am driving.


Our beautiful property, Camp Arnaz Program Center, is located in Ventura’s lush Ojai valley nestled among tall oak trees. The girls and volunteers use it for day camping, training and events. Leaders take their troops there to work on various outdoor badges and prepare for larger outdoor gatherings during the year. I learned a lot about property management, water systems, easements and negotiations during my 12 years as CEO of Girl Scouts of Tres Condados.

Even though the camp property was fairly isolated, there were several families who lived in homes just behind our property. When it rained every year the creek by their homes flooded, sometimes making it hard to cross. Some of the neighbors asked if they could drive across our property when the creek flooded so they could avoid the flowing water. At first we agreed and, in fact, many of the neighbors had been driving across our property during the rainy season for several years. But over time, some families moved away and others moved in, so some of the individual homeowners changed.

One day a group of volunteers asked to meet with me. They explained that they had been camping at Arnaz and teaching their girls how to camp in the rain. They said several cars belonging to the neighbors were speeding across our property, putting the girls in danger. They demanded that I do something about it.

I recognized it was potentially a dangerous situation, so I contacted our attorney, Greg Faulkner at Mullen & Henzel Law Firm. At his recommendation, we circulated a letter to all the neighbors informing them they would no longer be allowed to drive across our property, citing the danger to our girls and volunteers. Next we posted signs at the entrance and exit and installed a large chain and padlock on our back gate which leads to their area.

Needless to say, the neighbors were not happy with this new development. After filing a million dollar lawsuit against our Girl Scout council, the court ordered we all enter into mediation. What a fascinating process. I learned so much as I watched the mediator take turns listening to each group, make suggestions and then sometimes reach agreement. Eventually the county built a bridge spanning the creek so the neighbors could safely reach their homes during the rainy season—but this happened after I left the organization.



One day I became aware that our very old well was becoming problematic. The engineer we hired said the best solution was for us to connect our property to the city water system. Since I was CEO it was my role to lead this fascinating process which at one point became a bit contentious. Once again, Greg Faulkner came to our aid. After lots of paperwork and many inspections, the Casitas Municipal Water District agreed to let us connect to their system.

But as we were preparing to move forward with the project, the engineer informed me that in order to install the proper lines we would have to cross private property. Now I was on the other side of the private property issue.

A man named Buzz Bonsall owned the few feet of land we needed to cross to install the water line and he was known to be difficult to deal with. Undaunted, I arranged a meeting with Bonsall, Greg, and the engineer. In preparation for the meeting Greg and I crawled all over rocks, across creek beds and under very low culverts to identify the exact location of the easement we would be requesting from Bonsall. He was pretty stubborn at first, but I kept reminding him about the girls who depended upon the water connection.

Finally, after many meetings he agreed to give us the tiny easement for our water connection. The project was a success and dependable water is guaranteed for the property for many years to come, but it sure was an excellent learning opportunity.


In 1998, three years after I started working at Girl Scouts, my dad passed away from a massive coronary. When my brother, Rick, called to tell me about it I was devastated. Even though my dad had done some pretty bad things to me as a youngster, he was also my rock. He believed in me and valued my intellectual curiosity and determination to succeed. Now he was gone.

I began grief counseling sessions through Hospice of Santa Barbara with Joann Talbot. She helped me process my sorrow as well as the dual role he had played in my life. I will be forever grateful to her for helping me navigate this turbulent time in my life. I wanted to make sure he had a proper funeral service because I have always felt bad when a funeral officiate makes it obvious he didn’t know the deceased. I was determined that wouldn’t happen for my dad—so I decided to do it myself.

I found his personal Bible with several scriptures underlined and chose some of them to include in the service. I tried to invite my brother, Rick, to be part of the service by reading some scripture but he declined. I told the pastor what I would like his sermon to focus on and I played the role of family spokesperson. As I looked out into the audience I saw people from his many years of working for Rockwell and Hughes Helicopter, a few neighbors and some friends and co-workers of mine who had come from Santa Barbara to support me. My mother and grandmother sat in the front row in constant tears.

Leading this service was one of the most difficult things I had ever done. I wanted to make my comments about my dad personal but I didn’t want to cry. It was a tricky task. In fact, the night before the service I called my good friend, David Peck. I told David about what I planned to do and that I was really nervous about it. David asked, “What are you the most concerned about?” I replied that I didn’t want to break down and cry uncontrollably and make everyone uncomfortable.

 “I want you to get a picture of you standing in the pulpit and completing the service,” David said. “Can you picture this?” I said I could. “Now I want you to picture yourself standing at the pulpit and breaking down in tears, crying beyond control,” David said. “I can’t get a picture of that,” I said. “I thought so,” David said. “You’ll be fine.” And I was, but it was hard.

I began driving back home after the funeral service, and just as I came around the bend of the 101 freeway at the Rincon area, I came upon a blazing sunset. The sun was slowly sinking down into the ocean right in front of me. I became transfixed, unable to take my eyes off of the sun. The strangest notion came to me.

I thought that if I drove fast enough and got home before the sun actually set, my dad wouldn’t really be dead. This crazy idea held me tightly in its grip until, finally, the sun ducked behind the horizon. I was overcome with tears. But then I looked up and saw that the setting sun had transferred its brilliant color to the nearby clouds, lighting them up in a wash of color. I thought this could be seen as a sign of how my dad’s life had touched so many people in so many beautiful ways.


A year later, in 1999, my grandmother (my stepdad’s mother) passed away where she lived in Ambridge, Pennsylvania. During the five-hour plane ride to attend her funeral I got a little bored and decided to memorize a poem. I happened to have John O’Donahue’s book, Anam Cara with me so I memorized the poem on the first page, Benacht (which means blessing in Gaelic). It’s a beautiful poem and very long but I had plenty of time so I committed the entire poem to memory.

When I arrived at the funeral, I was greeted by many cousins, aunts and uncles. It was a dark room with folding chairs lined up in classroom style. Even though the funeral was being held at the church she attended for years, I found out that they had a new pastor who had never even met my grandmother. I asked my relatives who was going to stand up to share stories and memories of my grandmother and was told that only the pastor would be speaking.

I knew right then that I would have to be the family spokesperson once again. I couldn’t let my grandmother’s funeral be impersonal. Someone had to speak about her life and how she had blessed so many with her sweet spirit. I asked the pastor if he would be inviting people up to speak about my grandmother. He said he planned on it but that everyone he spoke with had declined. I told him I wanted to do it.

When he asked for people to share memories, I walked up to the pulpit. I had not prepared any remarks but I had plenty of lovely memories of my grandmother; which I shared. As I gazed out into the audience, I realized that every one of these people had known my whole life that she wasn’t my birth grandmother, but no one had ever said anything. I didn’t find out until I was 16 years old.

That I would be the only one to stand up for her struck me as incredibly ironic. I ended my remarks by reciting the poem I had memorized on the plane ride. It gave everyone a gentle, encouraging message to ponder.